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Investors Are Looking to Buy Homes by the Thousands

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — At least 20 times a day, Alan Hladik walks into a fixer-upper and tries to figure out if it is worth buying.

As an inspector for Waypoint Real Estate Group, Mr. Hladik takes about 20 minutes to walk through each home, noting worn kitchen cabinets or missing roof tiles. The blistering pace is necessary to keep up with Waypoint’s appetite: the company, which has bought about 1,200 homes since 2008 — and is now buying five to seven a day — is an early entrant in a business that some deep-pocketed investors are betting is poised to explode.

With home prices down more than a third from their peak and the market swamped with foreclosures, large investors are salivating at the opportunity to buy perhaps thousands of homes at deep discounts and fill them with tenants.

Nobody has ever tried this on such a large scale, and critics worry these new investors could face big challenges managing large portfolios of dispersed rental houses. Typically, landlords tend to be individuals or small firms that own just a handful of homes.

But the new investors believe the rental income can deliver returns well above those offered by Treasury securities or stock dividends. At the same time, economists say, they could help areas hardest hit by the housing crash reach a bottom of the market.

This year, Waypoint signed a $400 million deal with GI Partners, a private equity firm in Silicon Valley. Gary Beasley, Waypoint’s managing director, says the company plans to buy another 10,000 to 15,000 homes by the end of next year. Other large private equity investors — including Colony Capital, GTIS Partners and Oaktree Capital Management, in partnership with Carrington Holding Company — have committed millions to this new market, and Lewis Ranieri, often called the inventor of the mortgage bond, is considering it, too.

In February, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees the government-backed mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, announced that it would sell about 2,500 homes in a pilot program in eight metropolitan areas, including Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles.

And Bank of America said in late March that it would begin testing a plan to allow homeowners facing foreclosure the chance to rent back their homes and wipe out their mortgage debt. Eventually, the bank said, it could sell the houses to investors.

Waypoint executives say they can handle large volumes because they have developed computer systems that help them make quick buying decisions and manage renovations and rentals.

“We realized that there is a tremendous amount of brain damage around acquiring single-family homes, renovating them and renting them out,” said Colin Wiel, a Waypoint co-founder. “We think this is a huge opportunity and we are going to treat it like a factory and create a production line to do this.”

Mr. Hladik, who is one of seven inspectors working full time for Waypoint’s Southern California office, is one cog in that production line.

On a recent morning, he walked through a vacant three-bedroom home with a red tiled roof here about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, one of the areas flooded with foreclosures after the housing market bust. Scribbling on a clipboard, he noted the dated bathroom vanities, the tatty family room carpet and a hole in a bedroom wall. Twenty minutes later, he plugged these details into a program on his iPad, choosing from drop-down menus to indicate the house had dual pane windows and that the kitchen appliances needed replacing.

The software calculated it would take $25,413.53 to get the home in rental shape. Mr. Hladik adjusted that estimate down to $18,400 because he deemed the landscaping in good shape. He uploaded his report to Waypoint’s database, where appraisers and executives would use the calculations to determine whether and how much to bid for the house.

With just three years of experience, Waypoint is one of the industry’s grizzled veterans. But critics say newcomers could stumble. “It’s a very inefficient way to run a rental business,” said Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho Securities USA. “You could wind up with an inexperienced group owning properties that just deteriorate in value.”

The big investors are wooed by what they see as a vast opportunity. There are close to 650,000 foreclosed properties sitting on the books of lenders, according to RealtyTrac, a data provider. An additional 710,000 are in the foreclosure process, and according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, about 3.25 million borrowers are delinquent on their loans and in danger of losing their homes.

With so many families displaced from their homes by foreclosure, rental demand is rising. Others who might previously have bought are now unable to qualify for loans. The homeownership rate has dropped from a peak of 69.2 percent in 2004 to 66 percent at the end of 2011, according to census data.

Economists say that these investors could help stabilize home prices. “If you have a lot of foreclosures in one community you will improve everybody’s home values if you take them off the market,” said Diane Swonk, the chief economist at Mesirow Financial. “If those homes are renovated and even rented, it is a lot better than having them stand empty.”

Until now, Waypoint, which focuses on the Bay Area and Southern California, has been buying foreclosed properties one by one in courthouse auctions or through traditional real estate agents.

The company, founded by Mr. Wiel, a former Boeing engineer and software entrepreneur, and Doug Brien, a one-time N.F.L. place-kicker who had invested in apartment buildings, evaluates each purchase using data from multiple listing services, Google maps and reports from its own inspectors and appraisers.

“Stay on it.”

An algorithm calculates a maximum bid for each home, taking into account the cost of renovations, the potential rent and target investment returns — right now the company averages about 8 percent per property on rental income alone. By 5:30 on a recent morning, Joe Maehler, a regional director in Waypoint’s Southern California office, had logged onto his computer and pulled up a list of about 70 foreclosed properties that were being auctioned later that day in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.

Looking at a three-bedroom bungalow in San Bernardino, he saw that Waypoint’s system had calculated a bid of $103,000. Mr. Maehler, who previously advised investors on commercial mortgage-backed securities deals, clicked on a map and saw that rents on comparable homes the company already owned could justify a higher offer. The house also had a pool, which warranted another price bump.

By the time the auctioneer opened the bidding on the lawn in front of the San Bernardino County Courthouse at $114,750, Mr. Maehler had authorized a maximum bid of just over $130,000.

As the auction proceeded, Waypoint’s bidder at the courthouse remained on the phone with Mr. Maehler in the company’s Irvine office about 50 miles away.

“Stay on it,” Mr. Maehler urged as the bidding went up in $100 increments. The bidder clinched it for $129,400.

The sting of the housing collapse, driven in part by investors who bought large bundles of securities backed by bad mortgages, makes some critics wary of the emerging market.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence that private market actors who now see another use for these houses as rentals, as opposed to owner-occupied, are necessarily going to be any more responsible financially or responsive to community needs,” said Michael Johnson, professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Waypoint executives say they plan to be long-term landlords, and usually sign two-year leases. Once the company buys a property, it typically paints the house and installs new carpets, kitchen appliances and bathroom fixtures, spending an average of $20,000 to $25,000. They try to keep existing occupants in the house — although only 10 percent have stayed so far — and offer tenants the chance to build toward a future down payment.

Waypoint’s inspectors are evaluating hundreds of properties that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are offering for sale. Because the inspectors are not allowed inside these homes, they are driving by 40 of them a day, estimating renovation costs by looking at eaves, windows and the conditions of lawns.

Rick Magnuson, executive managing director of GI Partners, Waypoint’s largest investment partner, said “the jury is still out” on whether Waypoint — or any other investor — can manage such a large portfolio. But, he said, “with the technology at Waypoint, we think they can get there.”

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