VERO BEACH, Fla. - Custom built homes. Hopeful homeowners, and a builder facing grand theft charges. Is it a sign of bad economic times or the developer helping himself to the buyers money?
"We thought it would be a perfect place for us," said Eagle Trace Estate Homes buyers Margaret Buxton.
James and Margaret Buxton designed their Vero Beach retirement home complete with an in-law suite.
Nearly 3 years later, "It's look but you can't touch. It's very depressing," James said peering inside the windows.
The home sits empty with a pool littered with garbage.
"The water is green. It's never been finished. It could have all been finished. It could have all been done. We were paying him," said Margaret.
They paid their builder, Eli Baron of Eagle Trace Estate Homes, $395,000.
"The home is 90% complete," said James.
The Buxtons said the closing date was pushed back repeatedly. Then the development went into foreclosure.
"I was in shock. I was in shock," said Margaret.
At least seven homeowners, whose properties are in different stages of completion, are tied up in a foreclosure fiasco.
"Not only could we lose our home, but all the money that we worked our entire adult lives for," said Margaret.
From Maryland, Debra and George Fox, told the Consumer Watchdog how they looked forward to retiring in Vero Beach. It's now a distant dream.
"This has just been a painful process, and the money we lost it's hard. We can't do it again," said Debra.
Debra and George Fox took Baron to court and got a $101,645 judgment in their favor. They have to stand in line with a long list of people owed money, including Uncle Sam
Baron has more than $250,000 in tax liens.
"I don't think there's a very good chance everyone can be made whole," said real estate attorney Barry Segal.
Instead of buying furniture or decorating their homes, buyers are paying lawyers like Segal, hoping to get back their investment and save their home.
The Consumer Watchdog asked, "Were there red flags these homeowners should have seen?"
"There are red flags that a trained eye would see," said Segal.
The buyers we spoke to thought their real estate contract protected them, but it wasn't enough.
Segal said title insurance could have helped prevent the legal limbo.
"You had people paying for the construction, but never taking title to their property," said Segal.
The Buxtons built a home on land they didn't own.
"I only own the improvements on the land," said James.
It's a red flag another buyer caught.
They couple paid upfront for the land, but the State Attorney alleges the money wasn't used for its intended purpose and charged Baron with grand theft.
"This is a contract dispute. I don't believe it should have been filed in criminal court," said Baron's criminal defense attorney Andrew Metcalf.
Metcalf believes his client will be cleared of the charge.
Court records show Baron was also charged with grand theft in 2001, and given probation for the crime.
"I don't believe my builder is the bad guy. I think my builder is a victim of circumstance," said Metcalf.
Metcalf said money dried up when the construction didn't go as quickly as expected.
"There was a large mortgage on the entire property, and the hope was we are going to build houses. We will make a little profit. We'll be able to pay the mortgage. Being behind was not a problem. They had renegotiated the note and they had renewed the note. This particular investor that bought it did not want to do that. In fact, he wanted an extremely high interest rate on the money," said Metcalf.
The builder allegedly didn't pay up, so the investor foreclosed.
The trial starts next week.
"I would say the anxiety outweighs the hopefulness at this point," said James.
The Buxtons have tried to work out a deal for a year with no success.
Baron's attorney said there is a settlement agreement between the builder and investor that would not put the homes on the auction block.
The Buxtons don't want to be outsiders looking in anymore, but they are cautiously optimistic.
"We've had many other points where we have been hopefully only to have our hopes dashed," said James.
The attorney for the investor, Sergio Concepcion & 523 Mortgage, would not comment on the pending cases.
Baron's civil attorney assured the Consumer Watchdog this will get worked out allowing the builder, investor, and homeowners to move forward.
To read more on the ongoing issues in Eagle Trace, you can read more from our partners at the the Treasure Coast Newspapers .