When I heard that President Bush wants to bail out homeowners caught up in the sub-prime mortgage mess, I figured I better move fast if I want to profit from other people's misfortune.
So I high-tailed it over to the Pasadena Hilton, where a seminar was held the other day by a representative of Trump University, Donald Trump's online institution of business education, founded in 2005. "We teach success," the venture's website declares.
An ad in this very newspaper showed a picture of The Donald and quoted him as saying, "Investors nationwide are making millions in foreclosures . . . and so can you!
"I'm going to give you 2 hours of access to one of my amazing instructors AND priceless information . . . all for FREE."
OK, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking there has to be a catch, such as the fact that the ad doesn't mention anywhere that the free two-hour seminar is only a "preview" of the three-day workshops that Trump offers for $1,495.
And you're thinking, "Hey, wait a minute. Isn't this the same Donald Trump whose businesses repeatedly have had to seek bankruptcy protection and whose primary claim to fame these days has been hosting 'The Apprentice' on TV?"
And if he's so smart, what's he doing giving away his real estate secrets instead of using that knowledge to make billions for himself?
Trump wouldn't be at the Pasadena seminar, but I reached the Big Man by phone and put that very question to him.
"I love teaching," he told me. "I love helping people."
I also asked whether he was guaranteeing people will make some serious money buying and selling distressed properties.
"You can never say that," Trump answered. "One of the things a person has to have is instinct. There are people who can't handle the pressure, who don't have the capacity."
One could argue that the kind of people who go to free seminars and then fork over $1,495 for a workshop perhaps aren't the type who naturally enjoy that instinct and capacity, but that's beside the point.
Trump said now's the time to plunge into the foreclosure market, which is booming thanks in no small part to the estimated 2 million people with sub-prime mortgages in danger of losing their homes.
"These are great times," he declared. "There are unbelievable opportunities for making money. There are very few buyers and lots of sellers. It's a great time to be a buyer."
And with that, Trump said he had to get off the phone because "a bunch of important people" had just entered his office and he had to make a deal.
So off I went to Pasadena, where I soon found myself in a hotel meeting room with about three dozen other wannabe real estate moguls. Before us was a banner featuring Trump's typically dour image. "Think big," it instructed.
"Trump is prestige," a participant named Van Patrick, 40, told me as we waited for the event to start. "People follow him, investment-wise."
Hock Chong, 42, echoed this sentiment. "Since he's had such good success, I want to learn his secrets," Chong said.
Our instructor was a Texan named Steve Goff, 40, who told me before things got started that he had bought and sold about 300 houses since getting into real estate 11 years ago. He said he had never bought or sold a house in California.
I asked Goff if he's a millionaire. He said no. He said he had been through bankruptcy, two divorces and had his own home foreclosed upon.
"I love helping people," Goff said of why he now works for Trump University. "I'm very passionate about helping people achieve success."
The seminar turned out to be a two-hour infomercial for the workshop, which is being held this weekend at the Hilton Los Angeles North in Glendale. Goff repeatedly commented that he didn't have enough time to fully explain this or that real estate strategy, but he'd have ample opportunity at the workshop.
The crux of his free advice for seminar participants was this:
* Buy low and sell high.
* Set up a company so your deals won't be in your name.
* Don't use your own money.
This last bit of wisdom was at the heart of the presentation. In essence, Trump is teaching people how to make a low-ball offer for the home of someone in financial trouble and then sell that property to someone else at a higher price before any money changes hands.
"You do not have to own real estate to make money from it," Goff told us. "You just have to control it. You can control it with contracts."
There's nothing revolutionary about this, of course. Real estate speculators have been using such techniques for decades, and countless seminars are offered annually that purport to train novices in how they too can make a killing in the foreclosure market.
All Trump is doing is adding his celebrity status to the mix, benefiting from a perception among some that his personal success and larger-than-life persona translate to greater trustworthiness as a business guru.
"Why would you ever consider learning real estate from someone else?" Goff asked. "Trump is the best."
In fact, real estate experts say the foreclosure market isn't for the inexperienced, and that it's all too easy to lose your shirt on a deal that goes south. They say programs that push neophytes to take such risks represent the same sort of recklessness that got us into the sub-prime mess in the first place.
Goff repeatedly stressed that the goal of investing in distressed properties isn't to turn a fast buck. It's to assist others.
"We're here to help people get out of their situations," he said. "We're not here to take advantage of people."
Goff didn't address how this sentiment squares with the fact that the entire transaction is predicated on taking advantage of someone else. All you're doing is getting a better price for a home than the owner was able to get himself.
More often than not, that's because the seller was undergoing a financial or personal crisis and was focused primarily on saving his skin, not scoring some ready cash.
When the seminar finally ended, only four or five people signed up for the $1,495 workshop. The rest drifted out with perplexed looks on their faces, perhaps wondering why they'd never received the "priceless information" they'd been promised.
Michael Sexton, the president of Trump University, told me by phone that about 500 such seminars are held nationwide each year, followed by about 100 workshops. Each three-day workshop typically is attended by about 50 people, he said.
Do the math: 50 x $1,495 x 100 = $7,475,000.
Sexton said Trump University isn't the biggest player on the business-seminar circuit, but "we're the most profitable."
Before I left the hotel, I met Andres Castillo, 30, who'd attended a Trump workshop in August and was back for a little pep talk from Goff.
Castillo said he learned a lot from the training and was optimistic he'll prosper in the foreclosure market. He said he currently has four deals in the works.
"I have control of four properties," Castillo said. "I'm just looking for buyers."
To date, he hasn't made a dime.
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