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Real Estate Scam

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A standard Corrupt Corporate Executive scheme, a con on a large scale: playing with property value to gain profit. Different versions exist, but in its most simple form it involves using nefarious means to drive tenants out of their homes, and generally lowering the property value of a neighbourhood in order to make room for a new building project.

This trope is a good, if somewhat overused, way to get a bunch of ordinary people involved in the story.


Compare Shady Real Estate Agent and Community-Threatening Construction. Not to be confused with Landmark Sale.


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  • The Corrupt Corporate Executive Big Bad in You Don't Mess with the Zohan tries to make the New York Israeli and Palestinian communities fight each other so he can buy off the neighbourhood and build a mall on top of it. When creating a conflict doesn't work out, they hire a group of neo-nazis to vandalize the neighbourhood.
  • In Police Academy 6: City Under Siege, the Big Bad orchestrates a crimewave alongside an old bus route, which would soon be the route of a train line. The crimewave would then drive down property prices allowing him to buy them and then resell them when the train line is complete and the price skyrocketed. It's even lampshaded at the end:
    Commisioner Hurst: So you're saying all of this was nothing more than a real estate scam!?
    Sgt. Hightower: A billion-dollar real estate scam, sir.
  • In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the conspiracy to buy Toon Town and turn it into a paved highway.
  • Blazing Saddles: The railroad line currently being built has to be re-routed through the town of Rock Ridge. Big Bad Hedley Lamaar comes up with a scheme to drive out the town's residents and acquire the land cheaply, then sell it for millions to the railroad company.
    Hedley Lamarr: Unfortunately, there is one thing standing between me and that property: the rightful owners.
  • The film Local Hero plays around with this trope.
  • Superman — Lex Luthor's plot to buy up all the cheap land in the desert bordering California before blowing up the fault line and turning that desert into beach front real estate.
  • Same song, different beat in Superman Returns. Lex wants to create a new continent in the Atlantic Ocean, destroying half of the US in the process, and then sell it at a premium.
  • The movie Hot Fuzz — this is a subplot (at least Sgt Angel thinks it is).
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
  • Subplot out of Evan Almighty — The main character Evan, who is a congressman, cosponsors the destruction of a natural forest for urban development.
  • One of the main characters of An Education partakes in "blockbusting": a scam often performed prior to the 1970s in which a Shady Real Estate Agent would convince white homeowners into selling their homes at a loss to them by implying that black people or other racial minorities would move into the neighborhood and cause property prices to plummet.
  • In Rurouni Kenshin, Kanryu starts up the fake Battousai murders to scare the locals into selling out and moving so he can turn the village into a port he controls so he can ship guns and drugs without the risk of being caught by the police.
  • In Romeo Must Die, two gangs are trying to buy up every property in a part of the city, because the NFL wants to build a new football stadium nearby, and providing a properly sized plot of land with only one or two owners to deal with instead of dozens would save the NFL a great deal of effort and make the gangs millions.
  • Shark Attack: It turns out that the mayor is responsible for the surge in shark attacks (who were spiked with hormones that made them more aggressive), as he intends to drive down real estate prices so he could buy out the whole town.
  • The Deputy Prime Minister in Ali G Indahouse plans to raze Staines so that Heathrow Airport can be expanded.

  • A major part of the plot of the Tim Dorsey novel Triggerfish Twist. A real estate dealer owns most of the houses on Triggerfish Lane, and is trying to buy up the rest so he can level all the houses on the street and build more expensive homes there he can sell at a profit. This plot involves deliberately stocking his rental houses with the most unruly tenants imaginable in an effort to drive their neighbors away.
  • Part of Lockhart's plan to raise the capital to find his father and save his family home in Tom Sharpe's The Throwback.
  • One of these drives the plot in Orca. During a financial crisis some bankers squeeze money out of landholders with the threat of foreclosing on them, hoping to take the money and vanish once the bank collapses. Vlad is drawn into the plot by owing a favor to one tenant.

    Live Action TV 
  • CSI: Miami has a murder take place in a neighborhood that turns out to be a plot to lower property values.
  • Burn Notice "Broken Rules": Michael helps out a neighborhood in Little Havana where a gang has suddenly started extorting much higher amounts of money from the locals than they used to and killing anyone that cannot pay. Michael infiltrates the gang and discovers that the boss has been intentionally extorting too much from the neighborhood families to drive them out and make a killing by purchasing the local real estate once the values plummet due to her reign of terror.
  • A standard plot on Leverage.
    • One example that stands out is "The Miracle Job" — a priest is assaulted by gang members, who were paid by a real estate mogul trying to buy up the land his church (which is in danger of closing) is on. The gang tries to prevent the church's closing by faking a miracle... which backfires, as the mogul's now going to build around the "crying statue" and turn the place into a faith-based moneymaker.
    • Also used in "The Snow Job", by way of Crooked Contractor.
  • Maurice Levy from The Wire constantly suggests his clients from Organized Crime turn to real estate; they do. One of the background subplots is that drug money is being funneled to State Sen. Clay Davis, who then tells Stringer which buildings are due to get revitalization grants so Stringer can buy them while they are still dirt cheap. Clay Davis, however, is just being a Snake Oil Salesman to Stringer.
  • The All in the Family episode "The Blockbuster" had the Bunkers dealing with the titular scammer.
  • Daredevil (2015): Armund Tully is a slumlord that is using vandalism and intimidation to drive out his rent-control tenants. Matt, Karen and Foggy suspect that he is trying to build condos on the property. This would not be out of character for Tully, given his reputation with them and with the cops, but the reality is that Tully is in cahoots with Wilson Fisk. And Fisk does not care about making a profit on the property because he's giving it to Nobu and his faction of The Hand, who do not want the residents getting in the way of their plans to build Midland Circle on that valuable block of Manhattan real estate so they can mine for dragon bones.
  • In the Married... with Children episode that introduces Jefferson, Al mentions to Bud that he bought a cabin near the shore of Lake Chicamocomico with the money he scammed from Jefferson and Marcy's wedding. A minute later, Jefferson comes in and Al asks him why was he in prison, and he responds that he was arrested for selling plots of land on Lake Chicamocomico, a toxic waste dump, and brags that "the truly stupid are still sending in money." Several episodes later, when Jefferson and Marcy decide to skip town after agreeing to help the Bundys claim the prize money they were not qualified to win (Kelly was a spokes-girl for the company), the IRS swooped in and immediately took the winnings, saying it was to be used as restitution for Jefferson's Lake Chicamocomico scam.
  • Supernatural: In the Scooby-Doo crossover episode, Sam, Dean, and Castiel get sucked into an episode of the cartoon, with Sam complaining that the real estate scams the Scooby Gang solve aren't good cons. It turns out, the villain of the week was using a ghost for his own real-estate scam.
  • Veronica Mars: Neptune, CA, real estate mogul Dick Casablancas built a significant part of his fortune on overvalued properties, deliberately using false advertising and such. It's only after Veronica accidentally does an on-site inspection (while performing an investigation on Cassidy Casablancas' behalf into his stepmother's infidelity) and notices the discrepancy that she informs the authorities, forcing Dick Sr. to destroy all his documents and flee the country. She tries to get one of her favorite teachers, who invested heavily in the company, to get his money back, but he refuses because his money is already effectively gone, and he doesn't want to save himself by saddling someone else on the market with the loss.

    Tabletop Games 
  • A weird variant in one of the Shadowrun short stories from Wolf and Raven: a Corrupt Corporate Executive is conspiring with racist gangs to drive out or kill elves living in a particular neighborhood. The twist is that he's not trying to buy the elves' property cheap, but to change the demographics of the neighborhood, so it'll be the ideal location for test-marketing his company's products. Same methods, different profit motive.

    Video Games 
  • "Nothing brings down real estate prices like a good old fashioned gang war" — said by Avery Carrington in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Donald Love in Grand Theft Auto III.
  • In Saints Row 2, one of the minigames available is 'Septic Avenger', where you ride around in a septic-truck and spray property with crap to lower the values. Ironically, this is feasible because of Ultor's reconstruction of the once-embattled Saints Row district, turning it into an upscale office-park... and creating a severe shortage of low-price housing. Meaning that hard-working low-income families are willing to buy a cheap house even if it's covered in crap. (The realtor-term is "Fixer-upper".)
  • A big scam drives the plot of L.A. Noire. The Suburban Redevelopment Fund, a cabal of several prominent local officials and citizens, buys up land along the proposed route of the new freeway, building cheap houses on them to drive up the value when the government offers to buy them out under eminent domain.
  • A driver of the plot of Yakuza 0. Tachibana Real Estate are slowly but surely driving out or buying out all of the tenants around a part of Kamurocho in order to bulldoze it for a lucrative new development, the Millennium Tower. The Tojo Clan are attempting to do the same thing to the same end, only less effectually; Tachibana plays dirty, hiring homeless people to intimidate existing tenants and reduce property values and in one case literally throwing money at them to bribe them to leave. The entirety of the plot is driven by both sides' attempt to locate and either buy out or silence the absent owner of a small pocket of derelict land slap bang in the middle of the proposed development. The Tojo Clan eventually win out, and Tachibana Real Estate is presumed to have died with its owner. The brighter point in that is that Tachibana's goal was to reunite with his sister, not to gain profits from the property, while Shintaro Kazama arranges it so that the development project stays out of Sohei Dojima's hands, undermining his power in the Tojo Clan.

    Western Animation 
  • This happens in "The Itis", a first-season episode of The Boondocks. Ed Wuncler I shuts down a vegan restaurant that's across from a public park he wants to buy, and turns it into a soul food restaurant (run by Robert Freeman, natch). By the end of the episode, the restaurant gets closed down (thanks to a lawsuit from a former customer), and Wuncler owns the park (thanks to the lowered property values caused by the restaurant and its negative effect on the neighborhood).
  • Futurama has many examples of this, the most notable being the Scammer Aliens in Bender's Big Score.
  • The Simpsons episode "Livin' La Pura Vida" has the Simpson family joining other Springfield families on the Van Houten's annual vacation to Costa Rica with Kirk and Luann saying that they will handle all the budgeting at the end of the trip. However, the Simpsons discover that the luxury villa they're staying in is actually owned by the Van Houtens and were lying to the other families so they can charge them top dollar for their "shared vacation" and pocket the money for themselves.
  • The episode "Karate Island" of Spongebob Squarepants is about this.
  • This seems to be the main motive for Scooby-Doo villains, usually about scaring people away from the old amusement park/neighborhood/whatever so that the owner would have to sell the land.
    • For example, the Where Are You episode "Spooky Space Kook".
  • South Park has the kid's parents winning a free trip to a ski resort in Aspen in exchange for attending a presentation offering a timeshare, which they are free to decline at any time. They soon find out that they are unable to leave or actually enjoy the resort because the salesmen keep taking them back to the presentation room until they cave in and buy the expensive timeshare. When the parents call the police, they find out even the police are in on it! Along with other powerful authorities like the United States government. As it is, the salesmen will not take no for an answer.

    Real Life 
  • As mentioned above, "blockbusting" was an unfortunately common practice between the 1940s and 1960s. When relatively affluent African-American families were finally able to buy property in formerly all-white neighborhoods due to the gradual victories of the Civil Rights Movement, real estate moguls would intentionally play up the fear of (mainly working-class) whites, and say that their neighborhoods would become ghettos and their properties worthless. As a result, the moguls were able to buy up the properties at a severe discount, and then sell them back to the arriving black families at a steep mark-up. Black people still had lots of problems finding banks that would give them favorable mortgages, so the deals that they made were very exploitative. The black residents, therefore, had little extra money to put into repairs or upkeep, leading to an unintentional deterioration of the neighborhood. Thus, whites viewed the blacks moving into their neighborhood as a death sentence on their hard-earned property value, and blacks viewed whites as part of the system out to exploit them. The entire core of modern racism, all because of some cynical real-estate moguls. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was intended to deal with some of this, but at the end of the day it barely put a dent in the problem.
  • Eminent Domain fraud. Eminent Domain is the power by which governments can take land (while, theoretically, providing just compensation). Usually, this is to remove houses and buildings to make way for things like roads and utilities. The fraud kicks in when some companies claim to have eminent domain power when they don't, threatening to throw people out of their houses when they have no legal right to do so.
    • Part of the controversy of the Keystone XL Pipeline is the claim that the company placing the pipeline is doing this to remove people who refuse to sell their land to them.
  • When looking for a house or condo to buy or an apartment to rent, or even when seeking a vacation rental, be wary. Some unscrupulous "sellers" will attempt to sell a house or rent out a property they don't have authority to sell, in order to earn a quick buck. Be suspicious of sellers/landlords who are unwilling or "unable" to show a property (or have someone show it to you), or who demand money up front before you've signed the lease or even seen the property.
  • Bad mortgage and lending practices played a large role in the financial crisis of 2007-2008.
  • Swampland in Florida scams. They have been a headache to Florida for many years. Starting in the 1920s, unsuspecting investors would be told of prime but useless swampland that was dirt cheap. The investors, so quick to make an easy buck out of it, would purchase said land before ever placing eyes on it, blindly unaware that it is nearly impossible to develop. The Florida land boom of the 1920s was riff with such scams as it was the first real estate bubble in the state. One notable example is developers literally busing in customers and selling them shares in "towns" that were only vast plots of uninhabitable swampland with signs stating where the nonexistent buildings would be. Unfortunately, it is still running rampant due to the ability of buyers and sellers to purchase and sell land over the Internet.
    • A variant of this occurs in the American Southwest, where scammers sell off inaccessible desert land. The lots that are sold don't have access to water, utilities, and in many instances, are not accessible by road.
    • Landmark Sales. This is another variant, where scammers such as George C. Parker would often "sell" landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge to newly-arrived immigrants. Cops would often chase away his victims whenever they tried to establish toll booths on the bridge. "If you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you" is a phrase often attributed to Parker that implies someone is gullible.
  • This is a real problem with vacation rentals such as AirBnB and VRBO. Landlords know they can make much more money with a vacation rental over the long run than they can by simply renting their property out to a long-term tenant. So they take out multiple leases or buy up property in a building or in a city to use as vacation rentals. This, of course, takes that real estate out of the market, which in turn drives up the cost of rent in the surrounding area, leaving longtime residents with no choice but to leave. Some have even been known to evict current tenants, just so they can use the vacant apartments/cottages/etc. as vacation rentals.
  • Extraterrestrial real estate scams. This refers to so-called claims of land ownership on other planets, natural satellites or parts of space by certain organizations, individuals, and scam artists. These are considered bogus, as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 considers space to be an "international common" for the benefit of mankind and prohibits all nations from claiming sovereignty. Nevertheless, some private individuals and organizations have claimed ownership of celestial bodies, such as the Moon, and are actively involved in "selling" parts of them through certificates of ownership termed "Lunar deeds," "Martian deeds" or similar.
  • In some places, there's also straight-up theft of real estate. Usually, this involves a vacant property with a deceased or otherwise absent owner in a neighborhood with rising values. This con centers on the fact that in many jurisdictions, a deed to property must be notarized, and that a notary must have proof of the grantor's (i.e. seller's) identity to make sure that the person selling/giving the property actually owns it. In one variant of the con, the hustler presents false identity documents to the notary "showing" that the person in front of them (usually the hustler's partner-in-crime) is the owner;note  in another variant, the hustler cooperates with a crooked notary to "verify" deeds without any identity documents presented at all. Since the actual owner is usually deceased or absent, it often takes the true owner or their heirs years to even notice that anything has changed, and since these fraudsters usually try to turn around and sell the properties to innocent third parties, it can create some major problems once discovered. Philadelphia has had a notable rash of these since the early 2010s at least, owing to the city's hot real estate market today after decades of hollowing out.


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