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Foreclosure king surfs troubled home waters
The South Bay's reigning King of Foreclosures runs around barefoot, doesn't own a cellphone and drives an 8-year-old Toyota Tundra pickup.
And without looking the part, Leo Nordine, an affable Hermosa Beach-based real estate broker, expects to average one escrow closing a day this year -- something that would make most agents salivate.
Nordine, a 45-year-old native son and surfer didn't just catch the current foreclosure tidal wave, he has sold 3,500 bank-owned homes during the last two decades. He credits his uncanny ability to time the real estate market's cycles and position himself to reap its rewards as the key to his extraordinary success. And he does it all from the comfort of his home overlooking the Strand in Hermosa Beach.
Little about Nordine's road to riches is typical. He is a case study in how an intense young man without a formal education can be propelled by his drive and work ethic to the height of success -- even when he doesn't live and breathe his job.
"What's important to me," Nordine says, "is family, surfing and work -- in that order."
Born to European parents who immigrated to the U.S. so their son could be born a citizen, Nordine's childhood was far from the American dream.
His insurance salesman dad, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, left when Nordine was 5. His mom struggled to provide for him and his sister. He recalls the family moving from apartment to apartment, staying one step ahead of the eviction notices. Nordine bought 25-cent T-shirts at Goodwill to wear to school and took two paper routes for the Daily Breeze when he was old enough to have a job.
Nordine recalls how his dad reappeared one day and asked to borrow $200; he obliged, but the loan was never repaid.
"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," Nordine says, noting how he opened a savings account with his very next paycheck.
"Ever since," he says, "it always felt better to me to save than to consume."
Even today he doesn't dress, drive or live rich. In fact, his financial success has come as a total surprise to him. "I never figured myself to be someone who would amount to much," he said, recalling how at age 15 he'd drive his Plymouth Duster to Carlsbad with his longboard on the roof. He'd surf all day, sleep in the car and pick the oranges off people's trees come mealtime. After washing up in the Hadley Orchard Cafe, he'd avail himself of its free samples to supplement the fruit.
Then, at 17, Nordine met the woman who would become his first wife. He took a series of odd jobs to help support her and her child and -- encountering difficulties working for someone else -- was summarily fired from each of them.
When she became pregnant again, he set his sights on real estate. Much to his surprise, he had a natural gift for pricing and timing the market. Within three years, he opened his own business and has run things his way ever since. He began specializing in selling bank-owned properties in 1990 because, he says, that's where the market was headed.
Nordine's business model is E.T. Surf, the Hermosa Beach surf shop he frequented as a kid. He recalls how owner Eddie Talbot "always treated us with dignity, let us hang out like little sponges just soaking up the surfing atmosphere."
Nordine treats his own clients with the same respect. He understands that homeowners may regard him as the devil incarnate, the guy tasked with selling their homes -- sometimes out from under them.
He's fine with it. "Whether I sell their houses or not, they are getting foreclosed," he said. "I negotiate the best deal I can for them . . . cash for keys."
Nordine knows that anybody can fall victim to hard times. And the last thing he wants is for his youngest son, 6-year-old Nate, to think things come easily in life.
To that end, when Nate was just 2, Nordine took him on an outing to Watts. On the subway, Nate saw a homeless man whose disheveled appearance and erratic behavior scared him to the point of tears. When the man exited the train, he paused by the boy, put his hand on his shoulder and said, "I'm sorry I made you cry, son."
"Nate will always remember," Nordine said, "that not everyone is as fortunate as him."
Nordine has made his own fortune not only by selling homes but also by investing shrewdly. In the 1980s, he bought about 20 properties, most of them single-family homes in Torrance. He sold them off in 1990 and '91 when he anticipated a bust was coming. He dived back into the market in the mid-1990s -- this time apartments in Santa Monica -- and sold off most of them in 2005.
Today, he and his second wife own a 22-unit complex and a 12-unit complex in Santa Monica; a single-family home and a four-plex in El Segundo; nine bungalows and a four-plex in Torrance; a five-plex in Redondo Beach; and the house-office in Hermosa Beach.
But being a dad and husband is what it's all about for Nordine. His is the first face his son Nate sees every morning when he wakes and the last one he sees at bedtime.
So what advice does Nordine offer those concerned about the real estate market?
Don't sell unless you absolutely have to. Don't buy until 2010, when prices should be at 2000 levels. And apply every spare nickel to paying off your debt, including mortgages.
Brenoff is a Times staff writer.