PHOENIX — Each time Lance and Kelli Thorson thought they had found their first home, someone would outbid them. It's already happened at least 15 times.
This wasn't how it was supposed to be in a depressed housing market like Phoenix. Buyers are supposed to be able to walk in, and get pretty much whatever they want. Now, the Thorsons have taken up a tactic not seen since the heydays of the housing bubble — they are making offers on homes before they've seen them, as many as three per day.
"It's frustrating because we've jumped through all the hoops and there still isn't a reward," Kelli Thorson said.
In Phoenix suburbs and other areas of the nation saturated with foreclosed homes, low prices for bank-owned properties are sparking bidding wars that drive up sale prices, entice investors and frustrate traditional buyers who make dozens of offers and still can't land a home.
Experts say the environment is strikingly similar to what they saw at the height of the real estate bubble.
"This market is about as abnormal as the hypermarket that we came out of a few years ago," said Jay Butler, director of the Realty Studies program at Arizona State University.
Just as they did during the boom period, investors now are stocking up on homes, driving up prices and forcing traditional buyers to the sidelines in some areas, Butler said.
Because they often pay cash and buy several houses at once, investors are attractive to banks trying to shed dozens of foreclosures, he said. Traditional buyers add time and hassle to the process because they have to be approved for a mortgage.
The market won't stabilize until investor influence diminishes and it is once again driven by buyers who plan to live in the home, Butler said.
The problem is centered in newer, lower-priced communities affordable for young families and other first-time home buyers. They're the same neighborhoods that were overrun with foreclosures as mortgage rates adjusted and home values dropped.
Homes are now listed at much lower prices than when they were sold just a few years ago. In the Phoenix area, the median resale home price last month was $125,000, down from a peak of nearly $265,000 three years ago. Prices have risen from a low of $115,500 in April, when agents say they began seeing a buying frenzy.
Real estate agents have been noticing the problem for the past two to three months, said Walter Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors.
It is especially acute in heavy foreclosure areas such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, southern California and southern Florida, where prices are correcting to levels well below their peak during the boom, Molony said. In those areas, it's not uncommon for sellers to get multiple offers.
The Thorsons thought they were ideal home buyers. They saved money, have good credit and little debt. But at house after house, the prices are being bid up above the asking price.
They made an offer on one bank-owned house, only to hear a counter offer that was $33,000 above the initial asking price of $117,000.
Federal legislation designed to help people stay in their homes has slowed the flow of foreclosures into the market, lowering the inventory and increasing the demand for remaining homes.
In Maricopa County, which includes metropolitan Phoenix, nearly 32,000 homes are on the market, down 30 percent from January.
In the Las Vegas area, home inventories are down nearly 10 percent since March, according to data from the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors. Last month, 4,702 homes were sold in southern Nevada, a record number; 74 percent were foreclosures.
Las Vegas real estate agent Jonathan Abbinante said he has clients who are making three offers a day on homes they've never seen. If they get a response, they'll check out the house and decide whether to continue or back out.
He said he sees a similar frenzy for houses he's selling.
"I sell homes right over the Internet," Abbinante said. "That's what I did in 2004."
Bidding wars often result in prices higher than a home's appraised value, putting traditional buyers at a disadvantage against cash buyers who don't need an appraisal to secure a loan. That's happening a lot lately, said Jerry Lou Davis, a real-estate agent in foreclosure-heavy Merced, Calif. She saw similar activity early in the housing bubble.
For the Thorsons, with a lease expiring next month and a second child on the way, the pressure to find a home is growing. Kelli is eager to paint and decorate. She already has plans mapped out for their 2-year-old daughter's room.
"Buying a first home is supposed to be a really exciting thing to do for a family," Lance Thorson said. "But all the hoops you have to jump through kind of take away from that excitement."