How Wall Street-Funded Self Help Propaganda Greased the Real Estate Bubble

By Yasha Levine

I was passing through the Mojave Desert and by chance stopped by a local thrift store in Joshua Tree. I’m glad I did, because I spotted a book that I just had to own. At $0.50, it was priced to sell. And as you can tell from the title above, the book’s a classic. It’s bound to remain fresh and relevant through the ages—not as a useful guide to homeownership, but as a fossil record of the biggest real estate scam in the history of the United States.

A lot of people still wonder how and why so many millions of people bought such ridiculously overpriced homes and took out mortgages and loans they clearly could not afford?

That’s what I kept wondering when I moved out to Victorville back in the Spring of 2009 to do immersion reporting from the front line of the real estate meltdown. Located about 100 miles east of Los Angeles on the edge of the Mojave Desert, Victorville got higher and crashed harder, in terms of real estate, than almost any other place in California. It doubled its size to 100,000 in just eight short years, growing from an isolated hick outpost into a booming commuter suburb filled with the cheapest McTractHomes south of Fresno. By the time I got there, Victorville was a ruined city filled with empty master planned communities, some of them half built and abandoned, rotting dry in the sun. I spent nearly two years reporting on the real estate swindle out there, and I never could stop thinking about the central question: How the hell were people coerced into moving out here?  Why would anyone think that buying a $500,000 house in a desert 100 miles away from Los Angeles be good idea, no matter what kind of loan deal you got or how booming the market. What kind of propaganda were these people subjected to?

Well, this book provides a part of the answer: people were explicitly instructed to do so.

The Automatic Millionaire Homeowner hit the front bookcase displays at Barnes and Noble in March 2006, at the very top of the real estate market and just a few months before the whole thing crashed and burned. Its main message was simple: If you take out a mortgage to buy a home, you will always make money. There is no way you can lose—no matter when you buy, how much you pay or what type of loan you get. And the kicker is: both the book and finance expert who wrote it were bankrolled by Well Fargo and Bank of America.

This book is just one of dozens—if not hundreds—of similar self-help snake oil guides promising a sure bet system to get rich in real estate. But it’s a good example of the massive propaganda effort financed by Wall Street that was designed to funnel as many people as possible into the mortgage meat grinder. The book was packed with blatant lies that seem so obvious and even comic in retrospect. The book was not put out by some shady fly by night operation, but by a supposedly credible financial expert who had the backing of the most well-known and respected banks, TV networks and newspapers.

But the whole thing was a fraud, shamelessly boosted by some of the biggest names in news media—none of whom have been held accountable for their role in defrauding millions of Americans.

So let’s take a look…Crack open the book and turn to the introduction, it begins like this:

What if I told you the smartest investment you would ever make during your lifetime would be a home!

What if I told you that in just an hour or two I could share with you a simple system that would help you become rich through homeownership?

What if I told you that this system was called the Automatic Millionaire Homeownerand that if you spent an hour or two with me, you could learn how to become one? [emphasis mine]

Would you be interested? Would you be willing to spend a few hours with me? Would you like to become an Automatic Millionaire Homeowner?

Interested? Intrigued? Want to know more? Well, turn a couple of pages and you get this:

As I sit here in August 2005, I have no idea when you will be reading what I’m writing. Maybe it’s March 2006 (when this book is scheduled to be published)—by which time the real estate market could be slowing or cooling down to modest single-digit annual gains (or not). Perhaps this book was bought by a friend of yours who passed it along to you—and it’s now 2007 and those once “certain” boom markets are going bust due to speculation. Or maybe the opposite has happened—interest rates have remained at historic lows, and home prices have continued their march upward.

In fact, it doesn’t really matter when you happen to be reading this or what’s going on right now in the markets. This book is not about the boom . . . or the busts. . . . What this book is about is the truth. And the truth is this:

Nothing you will ever do in your lifetime
is likely to make you as much money as
buying a home and living in it. [emphasis in the original]

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