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Bad Lands Now Hot Property

Times Staff Writer

For 19 miles, most of it bumpy enough to shake your bones, State Route 2017 runs down to the Rio Grande and the Mexican border.

Drug smugglers and illegal immigrants pass through here. So do the Border Patrol agents that pursue them, and cowboys heading to a nearby ranch. No one else bothers. The land is sandy and bleak, full of gullies and rattlesnakes.

Yet this parched ground is increasing in value faster than any Manhattan duplex or Malibu villa.

In February, a California entrepreneur bought 7,408 acres for $65 an acre. He promptly sold them in small chunks to some people and in big chunks to others. Some of these buyers quickly resold to others, who resold to still others.

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The pieces keep shrinking while the price keeps going up. Buyers are now paying as much as $800 an acre, 12 times the cost six months ago.

At the county clerk’s office in Fort Davis, the county seat, they long ago lost track of how many new landowners Valentine has. They definitely dwarf the hamlet’s population of 217. The best guess is a thousand.

There are thousands of other new owners all over sparsely populated West Texas. Nearly all the sales are for raw, undeveloped land, bought over the Internet or at seminars in distant cities.

Most of the buyers are from California, Florida, New York and other places where the cost of homes has been surging. People on the coasts, who have to spend a fortune for somewhere to live, are spending more for somewhere they can’t.

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After four years of real estate mania, the message has sunk in widely and deeply. Land is good. More land is better. Land will always increase in value. Every moment you don’t buy you’re losing money. No need to see it before buying.

There’s no need to even see a photo. The most aggressive Internet auctioneers post a picture of land as lush as Ireland, and then warn on the photo itself that it has no relation to what’s up for bid.

In a similar vein, they warn that they can’t guarantee anything -- including the condition, accessibility or even the location of the land. How could they? They’ve never seen it either. They live in California too.

Why buyers are unfazed by such caveats is a topic of considerable debate and amusement here in Jeff Davis County. One theory is that the buyers are looking for a greater fool to purchase the land from them before the bubble bursts. Another possibility is that they merely want to be able to brag at their next dinner party that they own a ranch in Texas.

The most worrisome prospect: The buyers think someone’s going to live here, despite the absence of water, electricity, sewers, roads and other amenities.

“You could live there in a tent, if you could find your land,” said Jeff Davis County Clerk Sue Blackley. “But you’d have to helicopter everything in.”

None of the locals seem to think the land is a good investment, no matter how rapidly it has been appreciating. Sure, it was smart 20 years ago to buy desert land near such boomtowns as Phoenix or Tucson. And most of Jeff Davis County is quite pleasant, so much so that it’s being touted as a retirement center.

But the fact that this land is being sold off piecemeal probably guarantees that it will never have electric power or streets. Developers want to work with large tracts they control, not hundreds of small plots whose owners are unlikely to agree on what improvements they will pay for.

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Developers also like to build within sight of growing cities. Valentine, however, is a long way from anywhere. El Paso is 160 miles west, San Antonio 450 miles east. That’s a tough commute, even in Texas.

Services might be installed on an individual basis if the land were so stunning that people wanted to live on it. But the folks here say there’s little chance of that, because the land is so ugly. They, unlike nearly all the Internet buyers, have actually seen it.

It’s certainly forbidding. The mesquite trees are so stunted they’re the size of bushes. There are no landmarks, so the view extends for miles, curling up into the Sierra Vieja Mountains, but the Rio Grande, a big selling point in the Internet ads, is hidden away behind a hill. The sun bleaches everything into an amber hue. There’s no reason to linger.

A Town Past Its Peak

Valentine peaked as a metropolis 70 years ago, when there were three times as many people as today. The ranching community’s heyday as a commercial center was even earlier, in 1890, when it boasted two saloons, a meat market, a hotel and a store.

“Not much to do here now but drink beer,” said Robert Murry, who left a job with the circus six months ago to help his mother open a grocery store on California Street, Valentine’s main drag. It’s the only business in town. A half-dozen gas stations and cafes lie abandoned nearby.

If the town’s fortunes have ebbed, its ability to inspire hype is eternal. Thirty years ago, a California developer bought a large tract, dubbed it Green Valley Acres, and started selling plots. Old-timers here say the company was rebuked by federal regulators for making false promises, including a golf course that didn’t exist. The company went bust.

Other promoters gave it a shot. One of the few traces of the industrial world on the lower reaches of Route 2017 is a rusty sign bearing a real estate broker’s name and number. The sign has blown to the ground, and the number is disconnected.

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The Green Valley land reverted to the county, which gave it to the Valentine Independent School District. The land was for sale for a decade, but no one wanted to pay enough to make it worth the school system’s while. It was leased for grazing for $5,000 a year.

Last year, as real estate speculation became the national pastime, investment groups started offering real money -- $35 an acre, $45, $50. The best deal was proposed by John Beck, a California lawyer and real estate promoter.

Beck offered $65 an acre for a total of $481,520. After expenses, the county got $112,000, about 10% of its annual budget. The rest, $315,000, went to the Valentine school district, which consists of one school with 52 kids.

“It’s like money fell out of the sky,” said school Superintendent Glen Nix. “We’re using it for new equipment and repairing the roof.”

Beck began like many real estate promoters, with a system for buying cheap property through tax sales. He markets his advice through his website and late-night infomercials, where he touts his $40 “Free and Clear Guide.”

But he also sells land directly, through the “Land Banc” on his website. Beck and his wife have peddled about 2,000 parcels this way, according to a note on the site. All sales are cash.

Antonio Sanchez Jr., a Marine Corps master sergeant who lives near Camp Pendleton, first encountered Beck at the promoter’s Las Vegas seminar in March. Sanchez was impressed -- “there are scam artists all over, but the guy seemed sincere” -- and impulsively snapped up 20 acres of the Valentine land for $300 an acre. He hopes to see it for the first time this month.

“At that price, I said what the heck,” said the 39-year-old Sanchez, noting that he’s seen land near Palm Springs trading for $25,000 to $35,000 an acre. He’s hoping a developer buys him out at a profit.

Beck, who works out of his modest Queen Anne-style house in a middle-class neighborhood on the island of Alameda in San Francisco Bay, didn’t return a Times reporter’s phone call. He reluctantly stepped out onto his porch one evening, his dogs barking furiously behind him, to explain he had been away, buying more land for his depleted “Land Banc.” Where, he declined to say. He also declined to be interviewed.

If Beck sells land to retail customers through his seminars and website, he also disposes of it in bulk through private transactions. Right after acquiring the Valentine land, he sold a thousand acres for $80 an acre.

The buyer was Tony Masarweh, a lawyer who works out of his house in Campbell near San Jose. Masarweh used to handle divorce and personal injury cases. “Then I noticed the land business was a lot more fun,” he said. He noticed something else: “There’s money to be made here.”

An affable 38, Masarweh doesn’t know what to call himself. Land salesman? Investor? The term “speculator” doesn’t fit, he said, because “there’s not much risk.” He declined to reveal his income but said it was possible to make “several hundred thousand dollars a year” selling land. His coffee table was piled high with deeds.

Masarweh bought 10 40-acre parcels and 10 20-acre parcels from Beck, with the balance in 10-acre parcels. He sold them all through Internet auctions, opening the bidding at $1 and letting the market set the price. Most went for $90 to $130 an acre.

“Where else can you get land for $100 an acre?” he asked. “Nowhere, that’s where.”

So what if Valentine is a little remote and barren? If you want sewers and water and electricity, you’re going to have to pay more for your land -- a lot more, like $569,000. That, Masarweh said, is what an empty lot across the street from his Silicon Valley home fetched last year.

People know exactly what they’re doing when they buy from him, Masarweh said. He pointed to his EBay rating: 99.9% favorable. The only people who have complained, he said, are those who didn’t get as much as they wanted.

Actually, there’s another group who’s upset: the county appraisers and clerks in West Texas, who are snowed under with paperwork.

On one recent day in the Jeff Davis County clerk’s office, 25 Valentine deeds arrived for processing. Some of them were in the tract the school district sold to Beck, while others stemmed from other speculators’ deals. The number of deeds from elsewhere in the county -- what they call in the office “real deeds” -- totaled only five.

“There are days when I don’t have any real deeds at all,” said deputy county clerk Jennifer Wright, who records the documents by hand in a ledger.

Sometimes the excited buyers call the office, which inspires a certain cynicism.

“One person said they were going to build a whole city out there,” said Blackley, the county clerk. “I said, I hope it has a Super Wal-Mart, because we sure need one.”

What she’s really hoping for is no city, no town, no settlers. “We don’t want all these people from California moving here. They’d turn it into a place like the one they’d left.”

Already, the county clerk’s office is being forced to shed some of its trusting nature. It used to accept personal checks to pay for the deeds, which cost less than $20. Then a few bounced. Now it accepts only certified checks.

‘The Rest Is Junk Land’

Jeff Davis County has a limited amount of cheap land available to speculators. Neighboring Hudspeth County is drier, poorer and less scenic, which means undeveloped raw land is abundant.

“It’s kind of exciting to come across the sale of a house in Hudspeth,” said Sandy Pridgeon, chief appraiser for both counties. “That’s because it’s so rare. All the rest is junk land.”

He dates the boom to the day in 2002 when a fellow named Ian Martin came to Hudspeth. Pridgeon remembers him as about 30 and hailing from California. Martin, who couldn’t be reached for comment, wanted to look at lists of property that the county had seized for nonpayment of taxes and had been unable to sell.

Martin paid the county about $20 an acre for 600 acres spread out in small parcels.

“We thought he was stupid,” Pridgeon said. “In this part of the world, a $12,000 check is a lot of money.”

Within six months, Martin had sold all the land.

Many other speculators have followed in his wake. On Bid4assets.com, a seller offered up last month a “huge” 10-acre Hudspeth ranch, touting it as “a great investment property.”

“There is wide-open space and room to grow whatever your desire,” exclaimed the seller, identified only by the nickname “JackieO.” “Only in Hudspeth, Texas you’ll find the beauty and splendor of high desert living!”

A photo showed flat grassland with a rainbow over it. You had to read deep into the listing to see the caveat, “Pictures are not of the actual property.” Big Bend National Park, 200 miles away, was described as being “close.”

The winning bid, including premium and fees, was $2,350.

Jason Penney, who runs a website about snakes in Hudspeth, got so many questions from his readers about whether they should buy land in the county that he devoted part of his site to the subject.

The soil is lousy for crops, he wrote, unemployment is high and wildlife scarce, except for the snakes. Until a few years ago, one of the biggest businesses in the county was importing New York’s sewage, which was dried on a ranch next to the county seat of Sierra Blanca. On windy days, the sewage would blow into town.

“My wife would kill me in my sleep if I ever suggested moving back,” concluded Penney, who now lives near San Antonio.

He’s one of many who are mystified by the land boom.

“I don’t know what these folks expect for their money,” said Jeff Davis County Judge George Grubb.

Noting that some of the sales are for as little as 5 acres, Grubb said that in rural Texas such a tiny plot isn’t considered enough to turn around in. “We have driveways bigger than that,” he said.

Violet Hernandez just bought a 5-acre parcel. The New Yorker saw an auction on EBay and entered a bid of 2 cents, expecting to be immediately outbid. She was surprised to receive an e-mail congratulating her on being the proud owner of 5 acres in Green Valley.

Her land came from a speculator named Nathaniel Kroeker, who was one of Marasweh’s customers. Kroeker, whose business address is a post office box in San Jose, didn’t respond to a letter requesting an interview.

Hernandez, who agreed to be interviewed only if no personal details about her life were published, didn’t really pay 2 cents. What she was bidding on was the right to negotiate for the land. The terms she worked out with Kroeker were $65 a month for 61 months, or about $800 an acre.

It’s a fair price, Hernandez said, explaining that a parcel of land in her native Puerto Rico would cost a minimum of $20,000.

“I’m middle-aged,” she said. “I need to leave something to my son -- what good is a will if I have nothing? So I wanted to take a little of my pension money out and invest.”

Hernandez will wait for a developer to come along and buy her out, or maybe she’ll pass the land down to her son, and he’ll sell it. She has no definite plan. Everything happened so suddenly, nothing has quite sunk in.

“I’m still waiting for the county clerk to mail me my papers,” Hernandez said. “When I get them, I’m going to be thrilled.”


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