Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Americans rich and poor pawn more to pay bills

Americans rich and poor pawn more to pay bills

By Sue Zeidler and Tim Gaynor

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Whether it's a Tiffany diamond or a three-year-old lawnmower, more and more Americans from all social classes are pawning their possessions to make ends meet.

Pawn shop owners see strong business across the country, even in unexpected locales like Beverly Hills, the mecca of luxury living and shopping.

"Banks aren't lending so people are coming here for short-term loans against collateral like diamonds, watches and other jewelry," said Jordan Tabach-Bank, CEO of Beverly Loan Co, self-described "pawnbroker to the stars."

"I do see my share of actors, writers, producers and directors," he said, but also cited more visits from white-collar professionals and especially business owners struggling to meet payroll obligations.

"We still do the five-, six-figure loans to Beverly Hills socialites who want to get plastic surgery, but never have we seen so many people in desperate need of funds to finance business enterprises," he added.

In the 70 years of the family business, Beverly Loan, which usually charges 4 percent monthly interest on loans, has never loaned so much as it has in the past few months, he said.

"We're a lot easier to deal with than a bank," he said from his office on the third floor of a Bank of America building near Rodeo Drive. An armed security guard watches over the reception, where case after case is filled with precious gems.

It's less glamorous at Mo Money Pawn, located in the grimy area of central Phoenix, where struggling building contractor Robert Lane waited for the shop to open its doors so he could pawn a table saw he bought for $900.

"It's to get ahead and pay off some of the bills," he says standing outside the store, where he hoped to get $300 for a cherished workshop tool he now rarely uses as work dries up.

MORTGAGE BROKERS AT PAWNBROKERS

There are as many as 15,000 pawnbrokers across the United States. As the U.S. recession deepens, pawnbrokers -- long seen as a lender of last resort -- are noting a rise in business.

No national body keeps statistics for the sector, but proprietors across the spectrum say they are thriving as home foreclosures spiral and bank credit remains scarce.

"Business is good," Mo Money owner Eric Baker said. The store, which makes loans on anything from a motor home to guns to lawnmowers and jewelry, says turnover is up by around 20 percent over a year ago on a broader range of clients.

"You are seeing some bigger stuff, you're seeing some people you probably wouldn't have seen," he said.

Newer clients include struggling contractors like Lane, as well as cash-strapped real estate, land and mortgage brokers, seeking loans, which are pegged by state law at 22 percent over 90 days.

"They are coming in with the houseboats, the quads, the Harleys... The toys they can live without, sitting in the garage," Baker said, sitting in his office at the store, where several of the staff have pistols holstered in their belts.

Across town, William Jachimek, a 25-year veteran of the trade, said cash-strapped mortgage brokers started coming in about a year ago and now account for 10 percent of business.

"We had one mortgage broker who pawned his wife's jewelry and their Viking oven," says the owner of five pawn shops who takes "everything that can be sold on E-bay" as collateral.

Business is up 20 percent on last year at Mo Money Pawn, and seven percent at Pawn Central, Jachimek's flagship store. Nevertheless, a growing number of customers are defaulting on loans, creating some uncertainty.

"It's really good from the aspect that we're taking stuff in and your money is making money while it's out there. But, on the other side, a lot of people are not picking stuff up," Baker said.

Pawnbrokers said it was getting harder to turn over items and unsold merchandise is mounting. Back in Beverly Hills, Tabach-Bank said defaults were up a bit, but still only about 5 percent. "Unlike banks, we are able to work with our customers," Tabach-Bank said. "We're not the kind of pawn shop that cuts you off the day your loan comes due."

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