Down, but not out: "I'm not a real estate bum," Realtors say

Brokers in Clearwater area waterfront property, that thin but rich slice of the real estate pie, were among the elite earners until about a year ago. Six-figure pay days were a matter of course as home prices, powered by speculative purchases, doubled and tripled. But these days the waterfront runs red.

By James Thorner, Times Staff Writer
Published August 26, 2007

Like an operator working a buzzing switchboard, Liz Seither deftly juggles the two phones that never stop ringing in her kitchen.

The 67-year-old Clearwater Realtor's eyes are puffy below unkempt flaming orange hair. She begs your pardon for not looking like one of Pinellas County's top home sellers, but her allergies flared up when her dog's fleas bit her.

Equally irritating are the bank warning letters laid out before her on the kitchen table. Seither invested - unwisely it turns out - in expensive Clearwater waterfront property at the peak of the recent boom. Lenders are after her for millions of dollars in debts.

After juggling 15 calls from debtors, creditors and clients, Seither lays the phones aside and delivers a pep talk to herself.

"I'm not a real estate bum," the president of Executive Preferred Properties announces. "I wear diamonds, Rolexes and necklaces. I'm a classy Realtor."

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Clearwater Realtor Anthony Marottoli's voice betrays a touch of envy when he recalls his 30-something neighbor who made the big score.

He recites the exact dollar amount the guy paid for his Mandalay Beach Club condominium - $475,000 - and how much he sold it for two years later - $1.65-million.

A 64-year-old Connecticut native, Marottoli entered the real estate roulette game a bit late. Despite asking almost $700,000 less than his neighbor, Marottoli hasn't found a buyer for his Mandalay condo. Doubling down, he's on the hook for another pricey condo at the adjacent Sandpearl Resort for $1.38-million.

His real estate business is down to a dribble of employees, from a peak of 20. He's no longer the "listing machine" that juggled 200 properties at once.

"I've been waiting a year and a half, waiting for something to happen. And it's not happening," Marottoli says.

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Brokers in Clearwater area waterfront property, that thin but rich slice of the real estate pie, were among the elite earners until about a year ago. Six-figure pay days were a matter of course as home prices, powered by speculative purchases, doubled and tripled.

But these days the waterfront runs red. Properties linger three times as long on the market as they did two years ago. Brokers like Seither and Marottoli have taken it doubly hard: They didn't just represent buyers and sellers, they dabbled in the investment arena themselves.

The housing slump has left the market oversupplied with million-dollar homes relative to demand. Listings on Clearwater area beaches approach 1,000. Sales in July numbered 30. As new condo towers open, the glut grows.

Says Virgil Sweet, a 24-year Realtor with Rutenburg Realty in Belleair Bluffs: "People don't know you have too many until you have too many."

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It's a no makeup day for Liz Seither at her home on Island Estates, a barrier island washed by Clearwater Harbor. She's still in slippers, but a diamond anklet dangles from her leg. That and the diamond crucifix around her neck bespeak better times when she prided herself as a "Multi-Million $$$ Producer."

She dials a prospect, a movie theater owner from Alabama who's been hunting for beach deals. His voice mail picks up. Seither leaves a message:

"Hey you bottom feeder you. Call Liz. Call Liz. I'm still your best Florida friend!"

She hangs up the phone and deflates. It's not been her lucky year. Banks threaten to repossess six of seven investment properties. She slashed millions off prices, but still no buyers. Of her 40 home listings, no sales are pending.

She rented her private residence to a guy who fell $15,000 behind in rent. The guy arranged to pay Seither. But when she arrived he had vamoosed with her high-end washer, dryer and refrigerator.

One a recent day Seither took her dog for a walk and a neighbor flagged her down.

"Don't worry, Liz, you're the only one making money," the woman reassured her.

Seither hated to disappoint her.

"My heart was beating 100 miles per hour," Seither recalls. "It was hard to tell her I'm suffering like everyone else."

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Anthony Marottoli sits in the lobby of Mandalay Beach Club. White caps curl and crash on Clearwater Beach behind him. He's tanned and dapper in a starched cream-colored button down shirt, slicked back gray hair and loafers without socks.

Families dally in the Mandalay pool, but Marottoli says they're all renters.

The plan seemed so simple. Buy a condo for $500,000 in Mandalay. Hold it a couple years. Flip it for big money. Invest the proceeds in another million-dollar condo. Flip. Profit. Repeat.

A lot of people had the same idea. Of the 153 units at Mandalay fewer than 50 are owner-occupied. "The lights are off at night," Marottoli says.

By the end of the month, he has to come up with $1.38-million for a condo he reserved at Sandpearl Resort. He hopes to work out a deal with developer JMC Communities. He can't afford the unit.

One of his biggest frustrations as a Realtor is the sellers who cling to high asking prices. On the beaches around Clearwater, the average list price for single-family homes is $1.46-million, up over last year's $1.3-million.

"Out on Gulf Boulevard on Belleair Beach there are folks still looking to triple their money. Even in this dead market. See how greed plays?" Marottoli says.

- - -

Seither's agency is a shell of its former self. The 10 agents she once employed are mostly gone. She survives by managing rentals, 150 properties at last count. Rentals: It's a growth market.

At the end of another hectic 12-hour day, she's heading off to dinner. It won't be seafood on the beach, but $7 all-you-can-eat meatloaf next to Kmart.

She laughs a rare laugh before heading off to the feast: "We're economizing these days."

- - -

Behind the wheel of his Cadillac, Marottoli cruises Clearwater Beach. He observes the parade of lots set amid ticky-tacky tourist shops, hotels and restaurants. They're condo projects, the hits and misses of the recent real estate cycle: Indigo, Marquesas, Kiran Grand, Aqualea.

Condos figure in Marottoli's plan to revitalize his realty business. He wants to hold regular auctions and places his faith in fractional ownership, where investors pool money to buy million-dollar properties.

Marottoli pulls up at developer Uday Lele's office. Lele labors to get his Enchantment luxury condo project off the ground and displays a giant model of his horseshoe-shaped wedding cake of a building. Exuding confidence, he denies the existence of a slump when it comes to his project.

For a moment, after basking in Lele's enthusiasm, Marottoli perks up.

"I guess it's not all bad," he says as he takes his Cadillac down the strand, toward the condo he can't afford. "Good to see some life."