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DAVID PARKINSON

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Ever wanted to swagger up to that idealistic young drifter, blow a cloud of cigar smoke in his face and drawl, "Son, I own this town"?

Well, put your millions where your mouth is. Several towns in North America have gone up for sale in the past few years -- roads, buildings, businesses, homes, utilities, everything.

Most of these are ghost towns, in many cases built during the expansion of the western United States and forgotten once they became no longer economically useful. Others are mining towns that were abandoned when the mines closed.

Keep in mind that you're buying real estate, not omnipotence. Most of these towns were never incorporated, and thus fall under the jurisdiction of county government.

The current gems on the market are a pair of abandoned mining towns -- Kitsault, B.C. and Playas, N.M. Both come with all the modern amenities.

Kitsault, on a picturesque inlet in northern British Columbia, boasts 92 houses, seven apartment buildings, a hospital, a swimming pool, curling rink and racquetball courts, a shopping mall, a kilometre of beach and 80 hectares of wilderness. The price: $7-million.

Playas, encompassing 745 hectares of New Mexico desert, includes 259 houses, 25 apartment buildings, a community centre, a medical centre and an airstrip. There's a bowling alley, swimming pools, tennis courts, a shooting range, even a rodeo arena. All for just $3.2-million (U.S.).

Tortilla Flat, Ariz. ($5.5-million), just east of Phoenix, offers fewer perks but makes up for it in atmosphere. This old-west ghost town is a popular tourist attraction, and its saloon is a favourite among bikers.

Many "towns" recently offered at lower prices are little more than a collection of ramshackle homes, a gas station and a greasy spoon. They include Otis, Ore. ($3-million, on a pretty stretch of the Salmon River near the Pacific coast), Cornudas, Tex. ($1.3-million), and the California towns of Amboy ($1.2-million), Carlotta ($1-million) and Minkler ($600,000).

Still outside your budget? There are a few handyman's-special towns out there for the first-time buyer. Lobo, Tex. -- four hectares, a few crumbling houses and a store -- sold for $20,000 in 2001.

Most town sales are handled through local real estate brokers. But increasingly, the avenue of choice for town-peddlers has been on-line auctioneer eBay, which has the added advantage of allowing you to pretend to be in the market for entire communities. Since real estate auctions on eBay aren't binding -- transactions are actually completed off the website -- you're under no legal obligation to honour any bids you make.

In 2002, little Bridgeville, Calif. (33 hectares, 14 worse-for-wear houses and cabins, some heavy equipment) was the subject of an eBay bidding frenzy, finally landing a winning bid of $1.8-million, more than double the minimum bid of $775,000. When no cheque arrived, the agent overseeing the sale went to the next-highest bidder, then the next, then the next. Turned out that none of the top dozen bids was for real. The town sold earlier this year through more traditional channels, for $700,000.

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