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BUYERS HOME IN ON REAL ESTATE BARGAINS

More than 500 buyers from as far away as Toronto and New Hampshire showed up in Buffalo today looking for real estate bargains.

The attraction?

A two-day auction of 1,100 city-owned properties -- buildings and vacant lots -- foreclosed on for back taxes.

"High rents, low purchase prices," said T. LeMont Silver Sr., when asked why his out-of-town company is buying property in Buffalo.

Silver said he represents Financial Destinations, a Derry, N.H., company that has bought and sold real estate here for two years.

"We have about 75 to 100 properties on our radar screen," he said.

Watching closely from the sidelines were city lawmakers and neighborhood activists concerned about the growth in the number of out-of-town investors who buy and sell Buffalo properties without making improvements.

"I'm here to screen buyers," said Niagara Council Member Dominic Bonifacio as he scanned the crowd of potential purchasers. "I have problems with specific buyers, and I want to stay on top of them."

The crowd, one of the largest pools of buyers in recent memory, filled each of the seats in the downtown Convention Center room. Dozens more were left to stand as City Treasurer Michael Seaman called out the bids.

Most of the buyers, even those from out of town, seemed to have specific properties in mind.

"If I walk away with two or three, I'll be happy," said John Cheatley, of Toronto.

Cheatley said it was his company's first time buying foreclosed housing in Buffalo. He said the appeal is the city's low property values.

"Definitely, prices," he said, when asked why Canadian investors want to buy real estate here. "The U.S. is the land of opportunity."

One of the first buyers of the day was downtown restaurant owner Mark Croce, who after a spirited bidding war, ended up with a commercial building on Franklin Street.

Later, when asked if he planned to open yet another downtown restaurant, Croce said, "I always have plans."

Of the 1,100 properties up for auction today and Tuesday, about a third face demolition by the city. By law, the city is required to solicit interest in those properties before taking control of them and tearing them down.

"We've already identified about 400 houses that need to be torn down," Seaman said before the auction started. "And we have the money to do it."

The city's hope is that no one will bid on any of the 400 or so properties scheduled for demolition.

Officials hope the rest will be bought by responsible owners.

"All sales are final," a city official told the crowd as the auction began. "And we don't want them back."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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