Realty meets reality on Discovery’s ‘Property Wars’

By Kara G. Morrison, The Arizona Republic.

Doug Hopkins, one of the stars of Property Wars, stands outside his office in Mesa, Ariz.
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  • Doug Hopkins is standing in front of a modest, powder-blue ranch house in Tempe, Ariz., So close to Phoenix Sky Harbor airport that he has to raise his voice above the pitch of planes overhead.

    “Maybe it was a good thing I didn’t get this,” he joked, noting the constant jet noise.

    Hopkins is a Mesa, Ariz., Real-estate investor who specializes in buying foreclosed homes at auction (called trustee’s sales in Arizona). You may have seen him on Property Wars, the Discovery Channel reality show now in its second season.

    This house was one of more than 20 on Hopkins’ list to check out this morning in early March. But he lost interest when he found out it had a revolving line of credit that hadn’t been released.

    “We couldn’t clear title on it,” Hopkins said, explaining that he could have gotten stuck paying tens of thousands still owed to the bank, rather than making a profit by fixing and flipping the house.

    Minutes before, he stood here with Good Morning America correspondent Cameron Mathison, doing a segment about “Property Wars” and showing Mathison how he vets a property. Hopkins looks for visual clues that could cost him money: a missing air-conditioner, roof problems, any damage he can spot peering through windows and over fences. Investors typically see the property only from the outside before they bid on it at a trustee’s sale.

    The show — all episodes filmed in the Phoenix area — has been “trending” lately on Twitter, which is to say that it’s getting some Internet love. Hopkins has 2,034 followers as @propertydoug; fans and other buyers on the show tweet about new episodes, which air 7 p.M. Thursdays.

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    Sharp Entertainment — a New York City-based production company that also produces shows on extreme couponing and rattlesnake wrangling — is filming more Property Wars episodes that will air starting in May.

    Competing for houses.

    The show is similar to the A&E Network’s Storage Wars, but instead of storage lockers, buyers try to outbid one another for houses ranging from small, run-down ranches like this one to sprawling million-dollar mansions.

    Typically, Property Wars shows four main buyers vetting homes; two or more usually arrive to check out the same property. Episodes also show the buyers bidding by phone and then the winning bidder walking through the home for the first time.

    Viewers see whether the buyer has nabbed a phenomenal deal, complete with high-end appliances and custom finishes, or a huge money pit.

    One home Hopkins bought ended up being a grow house for marijuana. He opened the doors to find animal excrement, fire damage and mold.

    “That was one of the worst ones,” he said. “It looked great from the outside. … It cost us $30,000-plus to get it rehabbed. I don’t remember how much we lost, but it was a loser for sure.”.

    Another house had a garage door but no wall on the back of the garage. The purchase was so bad, Hopkins said on the show that he would rent the property out after fixing it to recoup part of the losses.

    Phoenix, with nearly 5,000 foreclosures in February 2011, was fertile territory for a show like Property Wars when it first aired in July 2012. Now that foreclosures are cooling off — there were 989 in metro Phoenix this February, according to the Information Market, a Tempe-based real-estate research firm — it isn’t yet clear whether the show has legs.

    “Back in 2011, we were buying 150 to 200 (houses) a month. Now, it’s down to 40 a month for myself and clients,” said Hopkins, who has been buying foreclosures at auction since 1999 and calls himself the “King of the East Valley” on the show.

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    According to Nielsen, Property Wars is averaging 1.3 million viewers this season, compared with about 10 million who tune in to A&E’s Duck Dynasty reality show, more than 7 million who watch NBC’s The Biggest Loser, and about 2 million who watch A&E’s Storage Wars.

    Manipulated reality?

    Property Wars often shows buyers hurling humorous insults or bleeped-out expletives at one another, just before the bidding starts.

    Marty Boardman, a Gilbert. Ariz., Real-estate investor, isn’t a fan of the show.

    “The notion that four investors could show up at the same house at the same time, with no one else around,” requires viewers to suspend disbelief, wrote Boardman, co-owner of Rising Sun Capital Group, on biggerpockets.Com, an online real-estate investment magazine.

    “The city of Phoenix is over 540 square miles,” Boardman continued. “Getting from one side of town to another to inspect a property in morning traffic can take hours. If these guys were bidding on multiple properties on the same day, which the show claims they do, they’d need a time machine.”.

    Ultimately, Boardman said, “I’m embarrassed, because it’s not the way it really happens. They’re re-enacting the whole process.”.

    In a statement, the Discovery Channel responded, “While all shows are edited for time, the stories are real.”.

    Others have made claims similar to Boardman’s about reality TV. Former Storage Wars star David Hester, for example, is suing A&E, alleging that much of the show is staged. He claims wrongful termination and breach of contract, but a Los Angeles judge recently threw out one of Hester’s main claims.

    Hopkins said one thing viewers don’t see is that cameramen set up inside the house before the winning bidder walks through it for the first time. He concedes the cameras may alter one thing: the buyers’ planned top bid.

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    “I think it makes us pay more money, because no one wants to lose on camera.”.

    Show is very real.

    Hopkins insists the animosity between him and Scott Menaged, labeled the New York real-estate buyer on Property Wars, is real. The first time they showed up at the same property, Hopkins said they fought on camera.

    “We are really enemies,” Hopkins said. “I hated him (Menaged) before, and I hate him even more now. The show has made him more obnoxious than ever, and I didn’t think that was possible.”.

    Menaged declined to comment through publicists for the Discovery Channel.

    Other buyers on the show are Arizona real-estate investor John Ray of bidazforeclosures.Com, who publicists said was not available for an interview, and Ed Rosenberg, the moustached, motorcycle-driving investor from Los Angeles.

    “John (Ray) I’ve known for over 10 years. John is a pretty nice guy. I respect John a lot,” Hopkins said. “Ed, he seems like a decent guy. It’s just tough to have friends in this business. They cost me money every day.”.

    Hopkins can look like a hothead on the show. In a recent episode, he threw his smartphone out the window while driving after he learned he’d lost a great deal on a luxury home.

    But Hopkins said that’s not the whole picture. Divorced, he’s the proud dad of two daughters, ages 10 and 13. He’s a Suns season-ticket holder, a big sports fan, a golfer. He owns RedBrick Realty in Mesa and postedproperties.Com and buys directly from homeowners who need to sell their homes quickly via a short sale.

    “I’m a really nice guy. I’m passionate,” Hopkins said. “I don’t know if you call it a temper. I like to win. I’m competitive.”.

    Hopkins also said he doesn’t know what Property Wars producers will show until an episode airs.

    “On Thursday nights, I’m glued to my TV set. I have absolutely no idea if I’m going to look like a genius or an idiot.”.

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