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Post-Katrina Market Offers Shot at Upward Mobility


In New Orleans, a few diligent buyers are finding deals in the city's tough real estate market. Flooding from Hurricane Katrina left almost all of the homes damaged. Most buyers can't find undamaged, affordable houses, while sellers are having trouble getting rid of their flooded properties.

NPR's Laura Sullivan reports there are still some once-in-a-lifetime bargains at both ends of the housing market.

LAURA SULLIVAN: If ever there was a historic New Orleans home, this towering yellow house with grand porches and lush gardens is it.

Mr. ANTHONY POSEY (Real Estate Agent): This is what would be considered a steamboat gothic, four to five bedrooms, four to five bath. We can walk over here. It also has a heated swimming pool. The mint here and the rosemary are part of the originally property that would have been here for over a hundred years. That long.

SULLIVAN: Local realtor Anthony Posey recently did something unusual with this $1.3 million house. He sold it to a new family.

Mr. POSEY: This is only the eight time it's ever exchanged hands.

SULLIVAN: In a 165 years?

Mr. POSEY: Yeah. There are houses in the Garden District that have never changed families.

SULLIVAN: Until now. Hurricane Katrina has managed to do what the Civil War, city fires and the Depression couldn't: get high-end historic homeowners in the Garden District to leave town. Anthony Posey says that means for the first time in a long time there's space for newcomers in this old money neighborhood.

Mr. POSEY: The million-dollar market is actually a buyer's market. There are deals to be had in the Garden District.

SULLIVAN: It's come as almost a shock to local realtors, and it's not just the buyers of the most expensive homes that are finding a sudden opportunity. It's also the buyers of what are now the city's cheapest homes, houses that took in sometimes 12 feet of water.

Arthur Sterbcow is president of Latter and Blum, the largest real estate company in New Orleans. He says families that never could have afforded their own homes are starting to buy and renovate the city's uninhabitable houses.

Mr. ARTHUR STERBCOW (President, Latter and Blum Realtors): Typically it's the younger people who are doing it. The elderly and the poor tend to move out and not come back, and those who come to replace them are young, because they've got the energy, the initiative, and they've just got that can-do spirit.

(Soundbite of crying baby)

Mr. FRED WILD(ph) (Homeowner): Welcome to the Casa de Wild, huh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SULLIVAN: Fred Wild and his wife Christina Roy Wild are standing in front of a brick, one-story house in the once upper middle class neighborhood of Lake View. Inside it has no walls, no ceiling, no electricity. But to the Wilds and their two children it might as well be a castle.

Mr. WILD: Being able to live in New Orleans and in Lake View is a dream come true.

Ms. CHRISTINA ROY WILD: For me it's the house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILD: It's a four-bedroom house. Each kid will have - he'll have his own room. She'll have her room. We have an extra room. I mean, I never thought we'd have a four-bedroom house on a teacher's salary.

Mr. WILD: Yeah, we never would have.

SULLIVAN: Fred and Christina Wild bought this $250,000 house for 80,000. They figure it'll cost them about $40,000 to renovate themselves. It doesn't matter to them that when they move in they'll probably be the only ones on the block. And even though the failed levees that swamped this neighborhood are still weak, and just a block away, Christina Wild says they've stopped worrying about another hurricane.

Ms. WILD: We don't really look at it as a risk because we don't have a whole lot to lose.

SULLIVAN: Sometimes, though, they wonder about the previous family who did lose everything and moved away.

Mr. WILD: I think there's a part, for both of us, that feel a little funny about...

Ms. WILD: A little guilty, almost.

Mr. WILD: It helps assuage the guilt, having my whole family having lost everything; otherwise I think we'd feel a little like carpetbaggers.

SULLIVAN: Out in the backyard, little Fred Wild is running circles.

FRED (Child): I like it.

SULLIVAN: His father likes it too.

Mr. WILD: I like the trees. The trees are two big cypress trees. I think they're pretty and they smell nice, and they're just about hammock sized, you know. This could be pretty nice, if the bugs ever go away.

SULLIVAN: The Wilds are hoping to move in by December. Given the amount of work this house still needs, it may be a while before they get much use out of that hammock.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.