For Beyonka Triplett, moving from an apartment in the mean streets of East Chicago to a quiet Merrillville street was a dream come true.
And to boot, TotalBiz 247's agents told her the tudor-style home with a pool in back could be hers for $185,000 in 18 months or less on a "rent-to-own" contract.
It wasn't until she, husband Alton Bruce, and their infant son were secure in their new nest that she started to doubt. There was the call from TotalBiz about a late payment they say wasn't late.
And then a visit from the couple that said they owned the house. Beyonka and her husband said that was impossible -- TotalBiz owned the house.
David and Susan Gesmond, from Portage, said the house was still in Susan's name. TotalBiz was suppose to pay the mortgage. But payments were often late. They were afraid they could lose the home.
The Gesmonds explained they had signed a sales contract with TotalBiz two years before. They were told they would get $165,000 for the home in 18 months. That was $10,000 more than their original asking price.
The Tripletts found that strange, because they were expected to come up with $185,000.
There had been another family in the house before them, David Gesmond said. He discovered that family had left, leaving the door open and the pipes in danger of freezing.
Maybe that's why TotalBiz's payments on the Gesmonds' mortgage were often late.
"Our credit is just shot," David Gesmond said, sitting at his Portage home in February holding a lawsuit Susan had filed against TotalBiz.
The Gesmonds and Tripletts were not alone in the their plight. TotalBiz 247 has advertised homes for sale in local newspapers for years along with the lines: "We will finance you. No credit check."
Such "rent-to-own" and land contract deals are now drawing the interest of Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter as part of wide-ranging investigation into real estate and mortgage fraud in Indiana.
TotalBiz already has drawn interest from authorities because its principal broker and Realtor is Kurtis Kintzel. He also ran a company called Buzz Telecom, which Carter and authorities in other states are investigating for alleged deceptive marketing of cut-rate long-distance phone service.
The fact that Kurtis Kintzel is a licensed Indiana real estate broker is one of the first things stated in all TotalBiz contracts. Sellers and buyers say that was one factor giving them confidence in the deals.
'We own the homes'
When asked about TotalBiz 247 during two interviews at the company's offices in March, Kintzel said the company owned about 25 homes. He was selling them to clients on land contracts or in so-called "rent-to-own" deals.
He acknowledged customers are generally people with bad credit who could not get a home any other way. He said he offers attractive interest rates of around 6 percent when financing customers' first 18 months in their homes. He said they would pay 12 percent or more in the sub-prime market, if they could get financing at all.
After the 18 months, they are supposed to obtain bank financing.
"We are just supplying a solution so people can become homeowners," he said.
When asked about the complaints of sellers, he denied there were third parties with any ongoing interest in the deals.
"We own the homes," he said.
Homeowners who have signed sales contracts with TotalBiz say they were approached by agents for the company after posting "for sale by owner" signs at their homes.
TotalBiz does not perform the role of a landlord under its contracts. Taxes and insurance are paid by the would-be buyers, and they maintain the home.
Kintzel said the business had operated for about 2 1/2 years and he had many satisfied customers. When asked for names and telephone numbers of satisfied customers, he did not provide them.
But later, he faxed a sheaf of handwritten notes, signed and initialled by clients, praising TotalBiz and thanking the company for getting them into their own home.
He said he knew of only "one gentleman who was very upset" and planned on settling with him the next day.
"We are ending the relationship," he said.
In early March, David Gesmond said he entered into a settlement with TotalBiz to get the Merrillville home back. Susan dropped her lawsuit.
Gesmond said he and his wife signed a statement not to reveal the terms of the settlement. He said he also signed a statement acknowledging complete satisfaction with TotalBiz services. If he violates the settlement, TotalBiz can levy a hefty fine, he said.
When asked if he had to pay to get out of the contract, Gesmond said according to the settlement's terms he could not reveal that.
"I had to choose between two evils," he said.
A would-be seller, Francine Jewett, described her experience with TotalBiz as "good" -- for about a year. Then TotalBiz failed to make the mortgage payment on her Griffith home for two months running.
That put her in default on her mortgage.
"That's when they started this whole, 'we'll make it right' dance," Jewett said recently in her office at Purdue University Calumet in Hammond, where she teaches.
To this day, TotalBiz hasn't made it right, she said. She and husband, Stephen, are now set to make their fifth monthly mortgage payment on the Griffith house.
"Anger, disgust, and frustration -- total frustration," Jewett said. "That's what I feel."
A letter from the couple's lawyer in January notifying TotalBiz it was in potential default on its sales contract with the Jewetts went unanswered for months.
Now, Kintzel has told them he'll "let them out" of the contract, she said.
Jewett said TotalBiz clearly defaulted on her contract, meaning she won't have to enter into any type of settlement. She now doubts TotalBiz contracts could be enforced in the first place.
"We had high hopes when this started," Jewett said. "And then, kaboom!"
Reality sets in
Perry and Katherine Singleton signed a TotalBiz real estate contract in November 2005 and moved into the split-level home in Hobart.
Contacted in February, Perry Singleton said he thought he could never get bank financing at the end of the 18-month contract for his home. That's because he learned from the sellers that he was being charged $30,000 more than their asking price. He did not know that until the sellers contacted him earlier this year.
"The reality is, if we can't refinance this house when our contract is up, we'll have to move," Singleton said.
'These guys are crazy'
The owners and would-be sellers of the Hobart home the Singletons want to buy are Frank Elliott, 72, and his wife, Peggy, 69, of Portage. They started battling TotalBiz at the beginning of the year over late mortgage payments and unpaid utility bills.
They sold their Hobart home to TotalBiz for $146,000 on the same type of extended sales contract as others.
At one point, TotalBiz said the Elliotts had to come up with $1,000 for homeowners insurance, although the contract makes that the buyer's responsibility, Frank Elliott said. The couple has gone to the Fed, the IRS and local police.
Elliott said a TotalBiz agent told him in February if he paid $10,000 he could get out of the contract. Then he lowered it to $5,000, but reminded Elliott he really "owed" them the spread between the their price and the buyers' -- $30,000.
"These guys are crazy," Frank Elliott said in February as he spread out late notices from the utility company on the kitchen table of his Portage home. "They're not getting a cent out of me."
The Elliotts fought TotalBiz for two months to get out of their contract. In mid-March the Elliotts signed the same type of TotalBiz settlement agreement as the Gesmonds.