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Are online sheriff’s sales really letting more out-of-towners buy Philly properties?

Early data suggest most of the winning bidders of Philadelphia properties are local.

Sheriff's sales will resume in Sept. in a virtual capacity, according to the department's website.
Sheriff's sales will resume in Sept. in a virtual capacity, according to the department's website.Read moreDreamstime / MCT

When sheriff’s sales of foreclosed-upon Philadelphia properties went virtual in April, a man in Napa, Calif., snapped up a 1,150-square-foot lot at 58th and Vine Streets for $18,600. A buyer from Queens, N.Y., bought a four-bedroom, one-bath rowhouse in Swampoodle for $25,000. A woman from Wilmington bought six properties throughout the city, a mix of lots and homes, some for as little as $5,400 and a house for $46,500.

So when City Council members cautioned that moving to online sales meant out-of-town buyers would swoop in and scoop up Philadelphia properties, were they right?

From early returns, not so much.

An examination of property records shows that while there certainly were a number of out-of-state and just-outside Philadelphia purchases, a greater number of city residents put in winning bids for properties sold after their owners failed to keep up with taxes or mortgage payments.

In less than a week, virtual sheriff’s sales will resume after a several-month pause ordered by a Common Pleas judge, who wanted the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office to more clearly outline how people can save their homes from being sold at auction.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia sheriff sales postponed until September by court order

Based on the results from the first month of virtual sales, 51% of property buyers were Philadelphia residents. In March 2020, the last month when sales were conducted in a West Philadelphia conference room, 45% of the winning bidders were Philadelphians, according to deeds publicly filed.

Elif Ulusal, whose Cherry Hill-based PHL Living LLC purchased 19 properties in April, said the new online process presented a lot of hoops to jump through, like deposits and registration. She said part of the reason her company was able to purchase so many lots was because they went over the requirements with a fine-tooth comb. It picked up properties throughout the city — some in Southwest Philly around Mount Moriah and Kingsessing, West Philly around Parkside, and others in North Philly, Nicetown, and Logan.

One of the other criticisms City Council raised earlier this year, during a six-hour hearing, is that a virtual sale, run by Maryland-based company Bid4Assets, would be too difficult for people who don’t have access to a computer or for those who are not technologically savvy.

The company does not charge the Sheriff’s Office for its services but places a buyer’s premium on all properties. Winner of a tax foreclosure would pay Bid4Assets a premium of 10% of the property’s sale price. For mortgage foreclosures, the premium is 1.5%. Everyone must register in advance and have access to their computers throughout the sale.

» READ MORE: As Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office moves to online sales, City Council doubts deepen

All sheriff’s sales were stopped in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resumed virtually in April under a contract the Sheriff’s Office filled without input from City Council.

In response to The Inquirer’s questions, the Sheriff’s Office released the results of the three auctions that Bid4Assets held this spring, involving more than 180 properties. The Inquirer compared details about the buyers with information included in deeds that were filed publicly.

Many buyers — both local and across the country in places like California and Washington — were hesitant to talk about the experience.

Ulusal, a mathematics instructor at Rowan University, said she and her husband started investing in properties over three years ago. They’d never bought a home or apartment before — they were mostly buying lots — but they were able to secure one in April and are using the experience as a test run for flipping houses.

As virtual sales were going on earlier this year, John Kromer, a real estate consultant who ran for sheriff in 2011 and was Philadelphia’s director of housing from 1992 to 2001, said Council members’ concerns about out-of-towners might be overblown.

» READ MORE: Sheriff’s sales once again under scrutiny for alleged illegal contract with online vendor Bid4Assets

“Outside investors, including investors from other countries, are already bidding on properties at sheriff’s sale,” he said. “So, not going virtual is not going to prevent that.”

Many of the people who purchased homes this time around were from Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, or New Jersey, making up 89% of sales. Last March that figure was 71%.

Ulusal said that she knew some people who were not able to participate in the first couple of sales in April due to all the deposits and paperwork required before bidding began. But as the weeks went by, it became harder to win bids as more and more people started understanding the process.

Bid4Assets, the Silverspring, Md., online vendor, has been in business since 1999. It entered the Pennsylvania market last October and has multiple contracts with various counties, including Montgomery, Bucks, and Berks.

Mortgage sales take place once a month, and tax sales are four times a month.

Teresa Lundy, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, said the office is speaking to local partners and community leaders to address concerns many brought up during City Council’s earlier hearing before sales resume. A mortgage sale is scheduled for Sept. 14, the office said.