Buyer beware....of broken Florida dreams.
One of the first learned doctrines of real estate is buyer beware. It originates from the Latin, caveat emptor. Merriam-Websters defines it as, a principle of commerce: without a warranty the buyer takes risk. My story reveals how I fell victim to an aggressive marketing program, fraught with deception and lies. I signed my name to a binding contract of no recourse, making a huge and costly mistake. This story is a good example when one fails to perform due diligence. My purpose is to reveal my experience factually with the hope that others do not make the same mistake.
On a dreary winter day in New York, I finally relented to the cold and investigated a local real estate company selling the Florida dream. It was advertised as 100% Pure Florida Living complete with palm trees and white sandy beaches in contrast to the bleak snowy weather of dismal New York. I agreed to the to take a tour of the community they were offering and within a week found myself landing in Orlando, Florida on a cloudless and beautiful Saturday morning. I was greeted by the local representatives of New Vista Properties. Our tour guide introduced himself as John Khan. We collected our luggage and immediately left the airport. After boarding a small bus, we were given a small map and advised of our itinerary for the next day and a half. We immediately left the airport we were shown a few sights and attractions of the Orlando area. Then we stopped at a Caribbean style restaurant named the Bahama Breeze for lunch. Afterward we saw a few more areas of Orlando including Universal Studios then proceeded north on the Florida turnpike. We stopped at a gas and convenience store shortly before Ocala, Florida to take a break, use the bathrooms and sampled some fresh orange juice. 15 minutes after departing, we were introduced to Ocala, Florida. We were told this was the closest city and the development of Citrus Springs was considered a bedroom community or suburb of Ocala. Citrus Springs was the community where we would be viewing our properties. We spent approximately an hour in Ocala viewing all types of stores, a mall, restaurants, medical facilities and commercial areas. We were also treated to an area of small horse farms having been told Ocala was the horse capitol of the world. Upon completing our tour of Ocala, we were told our next stop would be Citrus Springs and a quick stop at the model home. Along the way were shown more commercial areas, additional medical facilities and a beautiful new and expensive community of horse farms.
I expressed my concern because the terrain was becoming very rural. But Mr. Khan explained that many parts of Florida were reserved for green-ways, public recreation and state owned property on which there would never be any development. Such was the case as he told us about a canal that was to be constructed across the area of Florida we were in at the moment. It sounded not only reasonable, but rather good to know there would be some undeveloped areas.
We soon crossed a bridge and were informed that the river beneath was the dividing line between Marion and Citrus county. Citrus Springs in located in Citrus county. After driving several more miles we were officially in the community of Citrus Springs. I was still again concerned because it seemed to take forever to finally see some homes and those were sparse. But I recalled Mr. Khan stating that Citrus Springs was in a state of growth and change. He also told us we would be spending most of the next day touring the community, so I kept my uneasiness to myself. We finally arrived at the model home which we were told was along a golf course. Mr. Khan stated that a golf course property was more expensive and that having golf courses in the community made it more valuable and attractive to live in. The model home was like nothing I had ever seen in New York, but somewhat similar in construction of homes typical to the West Indies. It was beautifully decorated, had a bit of a lived in look and cozy. We were treated to drinks, and advised to help ourselves to snacks, candy or frozen confections in the freezer. We were left on our own for a while to explore the house and grounds and encouraged swim or at least to stick our feet in the marvelous in-ground pool complete with a jacuzzi. Later we were instructed to convene in the office, which I came to learn was actually a converted garage. In the office were numerous maps and posters and samples of various knobs, door handles, tile, carpet and shingles for roofing. It was explained these were for customers to choose from when they returned to build their homes.
Mr. Khan invited our attention to one of the maps which showed the basic outline of the community. He quoted numerous statistics regarding the size of Citrus Springs and pointed out some of the more important items including the schools, fire stations and future commercial development. He also explained how the community was divided into sections, blocks and individual lots. He pointed to a section on the map and told us this was the area we would be shown properties for sale. We were reminded once again we would spend most of the next day in the community and see the most important amenities. During this time, Mr. Khan explained that there were many laws regarding interstate land sales that were designed to protect the consumer. He spoke about a former and now bankrupt company named General Development. He said there were serious problems with this now defunct company and some people actually went to prison. At the time I didn't realize what an important bit of information this was.
After this short presentation, Mr. Khan advised us we would visit a nearby state park, then return to Ocala for dinner and then to our hotel. Shortly thereafter we departed for Rainbow Springs State Park. We arrived at the park a short time later and were told we would take a short walk to see what was described as a Florida landmark. Mr. Khan related that this park was originally an amusement park many years ago. We took some photos and a short walk through the park. It had been a long and exhausting day, but this was a very pleasant last stop. It reminded me of home. We returned to Ocala, had dinner and retired to the Hilton Hotel. The accommodations were wonderful. Mr. Khan advised us to be down in the lobby at 7:00 am and bring our luggage because we would not be returning to the hotel. I spent a few minutes chatting with some of the other prospective customers about what we had seen so far and finally went to bed. Everything about this visit seemed positive and exciting.
The next morning we were treated to a wonderful buffet breakfast in the hotel dining room. Our group was seated at two different tables and I happened to be seated at the same table as Mr. Khan. There was much jovial banter and little said about the community or properties we were going to see later. Mr. Khan began relating a story of his years in Guyana. He was involved in teaching, the military and later a political party which he proudly stated was responsible for stealing elections in Guyana for many years. He also said at one time he was involved in smuggling, and as an adviser to the president of Guyana was responsible for dealing with dissidents. He even went as far to say that he was responsible for interring those who disagreed with the party in n**i style concentration camps. I could hardly believe what I was hearing! I acted like I didn't hear him and was careful not to look at him. Although I did make eye contact with another member of our group who returned a discomforting look to me. While Mr. Khan was a polished and eloquent speaker, the man gave me a very uncomfortable feeling. When someone would ask a question during the tour he became obviously irritated, seemed to lose his place and became momentarily confused. His words at that table finally confirmed what I had been feeling about him. This man had what most people would consider a criminal background and he actually seemed proud of it. I was still very excited about my trip and the prospect of owning land in Florida. So I tried to force his comments out of my mind and stay focused on the reason I came here.
After breakfast, we drove directly to the community and began our tour. It was exactly as Mr. Khan described the previous evening. After completing the tour, we went to the parcels of land that were chosen for us. Mr. Khan took each of us individually, actually walking onto the property as he continued his sales pitch. It was easy to imagine seeing my new home sitting here several years from now. It was not a difficult decision. This is what I wanted for myself and my children. I wanted to get us out of New York and the sooner the better. I agreed to the purchase and signed on the dotted line. On the flight home, I struggled with the usual buyers remorse wondering if I made the right decision. I was told I had 7 business days to cancel the contract and that gave me some comfort. I tried to put it out of my mind and focus on the upcoming week of work.
The seven business days passed and I was content that I would continue with the transaction. Over the next week I shared my Florida experience with some of my friends and co-workers. I had taken many photos and received several taken by Mr. Khan during my trip. Some were as excited as I was and some were skeptical too. I suspected some of them may have been jealous. One of my friends was extremely interested and we talked at length of my experience in Florida. After several conversations in the subsequent weeks, my friend was ready to make an appointment with my New York representative. She told me that meanwhile she was going to do some research on Florida real estate. The following week, we had no further conversations about Florida and my friend seemed to be acting strange to and almost avoiding me. Finally I asked her if something was wrong. She said she didn't know how to tell me this but after doing her own investigation, she said that I had been severely overcharged for the property. I was shocked upon hearing this. My immediate response was that there must be some mistake. She asked me to please not get angry with her and then produced several sheets of paper she said she printed off the internet. It was from a local real estate company that had many properties for sale in the same community. After reading through the list of properties, I discovered that I had indeed been ripped off. I paid an average of 8 times the local value of the property. That didnt include the charges for the financing. Being a realistic person, I admitted to her it certainly appeared I had made a terrible mistake and been taken advantage of. That morning after my shift was finished, I spent some time on my office computer only to confirm the same results. I had a very sick and hollow feeling afterward. I called my friend later that day and told her I was not upset with her and that I was genuinely relieved she had not fallen into the same trap.
Armed my friends and my own research, I called the local representative that gave me my Florida presentation and told her I was coming to see her. She said I sounded unhappy and wanted to know why. I said I would explain when I arrived. When we finally sat down together, I simply laid all my information in front of her and asked her to justify to me why I was outrageously overcharged for my property. After studying the papers for several minutes, she said she did not have an answer for me and seemed genuinely embarrassed. She finally concluded that she would take this matter up with her supervisor and contact me as soon as possible. Several days went by and she finally called me and asked if she could visit me at my home or another location. I told I was grateful that she called and I said we could make arrangements to meet anywhere she liked.
When we finally had our meeting she said she wanted to meet out of her office because she didn't want anyone else to hear what she had to say. She said she did some of her own investigating and concluded the properties were greatly overpriced. She also told me that she hadn't shared this information with her employer but couldn't understand or explain the huge difference in what I paid and actual market value. She told me she was completely dumbfounded and profusely apologized for my situation. She said she was powerless to do anything about it and because of this she would resign her position. To my surprise, three weeks later she did. That was a true act of integrity. She said she could not continue in good conscience knowing what happened. I asked her if she could stay in here position a little longer to help me. When I discovered the great disparity in prices, I was determined to expose is injustice in some manner. I was not sure how I would do it, but I had to make this known in a way that would prevent others from being taken advantage of. Over the next several weeks, my representative provided me with all the information I needed. Suddenly, everything began to make sense to me.
After hearing Mr. Khan brag about his criminal proclivities, I should have realized this was warning of things to come. There were too many red flags with Mr. Khan, but I let myself get caught up in my emotions and not rational thought. For example, something occurred when I signed the contract for my property that did raise my suspicions. As Mr. Khan was going through my contract, I recalled how he conspicuously covered only one page of the contract with his hand. I later realized for some reason he did not want me to read it. I made a mental note of the page and when I was on the flight home, I went to the contract to review it. This page contained information about the community and Florida being subject to hurricanes, brush fires and radon gas. It was not as if this prevented anyone from moving to or living in Florida, but Mr. Khan did not want me to see it. One item that said I was to ignore anything not stated in the contract. Another item said we were to be purchasing the property for future use in building a home and not as a business investment. During my presentation in New York and throughout the tour with Mr. Khan it was reiterated that is was an investment. There were a number of outright lies Mr. Khan told me including wages in Florida had caught up with those of New York. A medical position similar to mine in Florida paid on $8.00 to $10.00 an hour compared to $25.00 to $30.00 an hour plus overtime in New York. He also told us that the average income in Florida was $45,000.00. After researching it, the figure was correct but the statistic is median household income. That means total of the household, not individual. Mr. Khan also told us cars were much less expensive in Florida, however I found them to be substantially higher priced than at home in New York. Just another of Mr. Khans lies.
Mr. Khan also elaborated on the fact we would receive a warranty deed for the property. He explained that we would actually own it with New Vista as the first lien holder. He told us that New Vista would have to follow a foreclosure process if for some reason we were not able to pay our mortgage. It is little more than a fancy term, because problems can arise in the future even with a warranty deed and only title insurance can truly protect you. We were also told that title insurance, closing costs, attorney fees and having our land cleared when we returned to build a home were also free. The land clearing was free only if we had our home built by New Vista. During my research, every builder I spoke to said land clearing was free when they built a home for you. Of course I am sure it was always included in the price of the home. However there was nothing free about this transaction. The exorbitant price I paid for the property, covered these free fees, many times over. Even the cost of my trip was well covered. It was simply a well orchestrated campaign filled with big meaningless words and outright lies. In researching New Vistas home prices, I found they were $30,000 to $60,000 higher than anyone else building in Citrus Springs for a comparable home.
There was also another noteworthy incident of Mr. Khans behavior. Many of the people on my tour were Christians. He seemed to realize that made comments to lead us to believe he was Christian too. He even quoted Biblical scripture. When we were at the model home, I overheard him talking to one of the other woman who was Muslim. I heard him say that he was Muslim also, raised in a Muslim family and telling her a story about his mother making the Haj. Mr. Khan was not only quite the con man but a pathological liar as well. In addition, after I had purchased the property I called Mr. Khan several times to get local information and he responded in a cold and indifferent manner. Once I called and he told me any inquiries I had should be directed to the Miami office. I even returned on my own to visit Citrus Springs and asked him if he could show me my property because I could not remember where it was located. He said he was very busy and did not have time. It was obvious he didn't care to help me after the sale was made. As I mentioned before John Khan was a very good speaker, however the man didnt have a sincere bone in his body. He was simply a highly trained actor.
My biggest shock in this entire matter was discovering who I bought my property from and who controls it. The local agent in New York, who gave me my initial presentation and arranged my Florida tour was a company called RNS Home Providers. New Vista Properties in Florida is operated by two former executives of a now bankrupt company named General Development. They are Robert Ehrling and Richard Reizen. While operating General Development in the early 90's, they were both indicted and convicted of defrauding buyers in selling overpriced homes. The convictions were later overturned on appeal. Simply by Googling these two names I found a trove of information, from numerous newspaper articles to the actual court records. I confirmed that these two men were inmates using the Bureau of Prisons Inmate Locator page on the web. Was justice served properly? I dont know. Most people thought O.J. Simpson was guilty as sin too, but he was exonerated.
I also contacted many of New Vistas former customers to ask them about their experience. Everyone I spoke to had a similar story and felt they had been duped and ripped off. I also have a substantial number of signed affidavits regarding experiences with Mr. Khan and New Vista Properties. I don't make these charges blindly.