BILOXI, Miss. (AP) – Rubble piles bear “For Sale” signs. Homes without roofs are being sold as-is. Placards announcing “We Buy Houses, Cash!,” are posted on corners throughout middle-class neighborhoods.

The Mississippi coast, wracked by Hurricane Katrina, is caught up in a real estate rush, as speculators and those looking to replace their own wrecked homes pinpoint broken and battered waterfront neighborhoods. In the weeks since the hurricane, prices of many homes – even damaged properties – have jumped 10 to 20 percent.

But what Katrina spared, the real estate rush now imperils. The arrival of speculators threatens what’s left of bungalow neighborhoods that are among the Gulf’s oldest communities, close-knit places of modest means where casino workers, fishermen and their families could still afford to live near the water.

Many, underinsured and with few alternatives, see no choice but to sell.

“It’s the oldest part of Biloxi, full of old families. This was a place they could still afford to come to and settle,” said Bill Stallworth, a city council member who represents much of the area. “Now that’s being taken away.”

It doesn’t take much for a property owner in those neighborhoods to attract prospective buyers. A call to a real estate agent fetches bidders the same day. A for-sale sign in the yard is almost as good. In some neighborhoods, owners can wait for unsolicited offers from people who show up at their doorstep.

Kim Weatherly, a 50-year-old casino worker who lives in Biloxi’s Point Cadet community, is watching it all with a heavy heart. The neighborhood is potentially the city’s most valuable piece of property, sitting on a peninsula that juts into the Gulf of Mexico that’s a center for casino gambling.

Many of the tiny bungalows in the casino shadows have stood for generations. The neighborhood was snug, with the houses close to each other and to the streets. Many had views of the coastal skies from their front steps and the waterfront was just a short walk away.

“People with young kids, they’re going to get out of town and let their kids grow up somewhere,” said Weatherly, who helps run a neighborhood food bank between shifts cleaning up casino wreckage. “Old folks, they’re going to retire, forget about rebuilding. That’s it. I’m retiring. Give me my money.”

Those without flood insurance may have even fewer options and buyer Dan Triplett expects many will sell quickly. Triplett, owner of Gulf Coast House Buyers, buys and sells property and has been particularly busy since the storm.

He’ll buy storm damaged property or nearly vacant lots for next to nothing. While real estate brokers find top-dollar buyers, Triplett makes cash deals or pays off mortgages in exchange for land.

“I deal with the other part of the spectrum of the market: people who don’t necessarily care to get full price but they need to sell quickly,” said Triplett, who said most of his post-Katrina business has come from retirees and those who lost their jobs.

In the coming months, as severance pay runs out for casino workers, Triplett expects a “mass exodus” of people looking to sell quickly and leave.

Stallworth, the city council member, hopes that people won’t sell and that they will rebuild similar homes on their small lots. If they sell to developers, the properties will fall under more recent zoning that requires consolidation of lots, leading to the construction of larger houses and businesses.

But there’s money to be made. An upscale Biloxi house listed before the storm for $245,000 has been relisted at $268,000, real estate agent Judy Atherton said. Another residential seller who expected to sell at a profit with a list price of $109,000 recently relisted to $119,000, and Atherton expects the house will sell.

People don’t talk much about it yet. There are insurance payments to be discussed, federal aid to be applied for, mortgages to be haggled over. But the priest at the local Vietnamese church said a few families have already confided that they’re preparing to leave.

For many around the region, it likely will be a matter of price. Those homeowners who had flood insurance and want to stay may find that their insurance money won’t rebuild the same home.

Because of the boom, the cost of building a new home has increased from $80 a square foot a month ago to about $99, said real estate agent Nancy Stone Bourgeois.

Biloxi officials are already talking about rezoning the city. Mayor A.J. Holloway said the city needs to decide what it wants neighborhoods like Point Cadet to become because they almost certainly will not be identically rebuilt.

Casino employee Gene Ganucheau, whose home on the east side of Biloxi was hurled from its foundation and pulverized into little more than scrap lumber and metal, is banking on that. Ganucheau, 53, collected what he could, found a “For Sale” sign he once used to sell his car, posted it in the front yard and began taking phone calls.

Ganucheau hasn’t sold yet. He thinks Mississippi will allow casinos to rebuild inland and he expects the blue-collar neighborhood to become one of luxury condominiums and casino property.

“Someone’s going to buy us up, that and everyone else in the neighborhood,” he said.

There’s precedent for such a transformation. A year after Hurricane Charley ravaged much of Charlotte County, Fla., real estate agents say housing prices jumped as much as 30 percent as investors and new buyers gobbled up beachfront property.

Bourgeois, an agent in Biloxi, has been besieged by callers looking to buy. Some missed the Florida boom and have instructed her to make an offer on anything that opens up on the beach. Her phone rings incessantly with potential buyers, mostly investors and people who can afford to buy second homes while repairing their first.

In the meantime, Weatherly expects about half her neighbors to move. Ganucheau expects most of his neighbors to depart.

“This is a very tight-knit, everybody-knows-everybody community,” Weatherly said. “I hate to see them go, but they have to do what it takes.”

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