For two years, the Turkish property investor thought he had purchased a renovated rowhome in the Park Heights area that had tenants who were paying rent. He’d received 20 months of such payments.

Then, five months ago, the money stopped.

Property Invest USA, the Miami-based company that facilitated the transaction — along with nearly 300 others across Baltimore to buyers in Turkey and Central America — was being evasive under questioning, he said.

“They are trying to give answers, but most of the answers is funny,” said the man, who did not want to be identified for privacy reasons.

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So the 34-year-old investor, a commercial airline pilot, decided on a recent layover in Washington to make the trek to Baltimore and take a look at the property for the first time since he bought it in June 2021. He climbed out of a Lyft and folded his arms.

“Yeah, here we are,” he said, standing on the sidewalk looking at a front lawn that hadn’t been mowed in ages. “It’s obvious there’s no tenant.”

Last year, the Baltimore Banner identified Property Invest USA as one of two companies soliciting overseas buyers to purchase investment properties in some of Baltimore’s most distressed neighborhoods. In fact, Property Invest USA was being sued by the other company, ABC Capital, for allegedly stealing its business model. Property Invest USA denied the allegation, and the case later settled, according to court records.

But while ABC Capital was facing scores of lawsuits for allegedly misleading its investors by failing to renovate some houses and pay rent, and has since filed for bankruptcy protection, Property Invest USA was at that time facing no known complaints and most of the homes it sold appeared to be in decent shape. Investors contacted by The Banner said they were being paid. CEO Cengiz Bayirli appeared on CNN Turkey and in splashy print and online spreads, portraying a high-class lifestyle.

Still, for a company promising rent, a curious number of the homes it sold — about one-fifth — remained vacant, with some in heavy disrepair.

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The pilot had been referred to Property Invest USA by peers. Before he bought, he had received a couple photos of the property from the company, which he showed a reporter. Looked good, he thought. The interior had a grey-and-white color scheme and appeared recently renovated. He says he did not know that on the day of his closing, Property Invest USA paid $53,000 to acquire the property, and would sell it to him for twice the amount in what’s called a “double closing.”

Since December 2019 and continuing through July, Property Invest USA spent at least $15.1 million acquiring homes and sold them to individual investors for a total of $30.2 million, according to an analysis of property transactions.

Now it was time for the pilot to see what he paid for. A local Realtor he had contacted prior to arrival, Nick Pfisterer, led the way up to the front door. Pfisterer wondered how they would get inside, as the pilot did not have keys. But when Pfisterer tried the doorknob, he found it was unlocked, and they walked right in.

“Hello? Hellooooo,” they called.

The interior bore no resemblance to what the investor had been shown. The photos showed a radiator, which this home did not have, and a different stairway. There was no trendy grey-and-white renovation; instead, it was painted funhouse colors — purple, turquoise, yellow and blue.

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A Turkish pilot travelled to Baltimore to inspect a home he purchased through Property Invest USA, which he believed was being rented out. The interior was in disrepair.
A Turkish pilot travelled to Baltimore to inspect a home he purchased through Property Invest USA, which he believed was being rented out. The interior was in disrepair. (Handout)

“I had a dream. In my dream, I saw those same colors,” the pilot said, pointing to his arm and saying he had goosebumps.

Though it was mostly clean, as they toured the inside they saw mold, ceilings caving in, plaster on the floor, and warped flooring. Pfisterer guessed it had been many years since any work had been done on the home.

A Turkish property investor travelled to Baltimore to learn the true condition of a home he had bought and believed was being rented. The home did not match pictures he was shown, and had damaged ceilings and floors. (Handout)

“I’ve seen some bad houses, and this looks like it hasn’t been touched in years,” Pfisterer said. “Even if it was renovated, pardon my language, it’s a shit job.”

How long had the home been vacant? There were some clues. There was a ticket stub from a movie dated 2014. A calendar magnet on the refrigerator was from 2016. Another ticket stub, for UniverSoul Circus, had the year 2018. On the door frame outside the upstairs bathroom, someone had marked the height of a child.

“DJ, 5/20/20.”

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The pilot had a reason to be in the area, but other investors who also weren’t getting paid and had been communicating with each other in recent months were perplexed at what to do. They certainly weren’t familiar with how to navigate American real estate and legal systems. Part of Property Invest’s business pitch was that they wouldn’t have to worry about that.

As they stood on the rear deck, the pilot quizzed Pfisterer about his options. Could he rent the property out? Pfisterer said it couldn’t be rented in its present condition. How much to fix it up? It would be a significant job, Pfisterer said. At minimum, $50,000, he guessed.

What if he sold as is? Pfisterer said the most likely option was to take it to an auction. He said it was possible the home could be sold for $75,000, based on other recent sales in the area.

The pilot says his contract provides that after three years, he can exercise an option to sell the home back to the company, with Property Invest USA taking a 6% percent commission. He asked them to do so in January, but it hasn’t happened. He shared a screenshot of the contract as well as an email from the company with a reporter.

There were continually excuses, he said — they would get to it the next week, and then the next, and then the next. He’d even visited with Property Invest USA’s CEO Bayirli in Miami in June, where they got a meal together. He observed that Bayirli had a new-looking Range Rover.

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Sitting outside the home, he placed a call to Bayirli over WhatsApp. Bayirli did not pick up, or call back.

He seethed and took a drag from a cigarette.

Over the weekend, Bayirli finally reached out. Others received the same email.

“We hope this message finds you well,” an email signed by Bayirli began. “We understand that you have been eagerly awaiting an update on your property, and we sincerely apologize for the delay in delivering this information. Your patience and understanding during this time have not gone unnoticed, and we deeply appreciate your trust in us.”

It contained a grid claiming the pilot owed Property Invest USA thousands of dollars for the empty, damaged home that he says Bayirli misrepresented and which the company appears to have never rented out.

The email concluded: “Regrettably, due to unforeseen circumstances that have impacted our ability to deliver the exceptional service our clients deserve, we have made the difficult decision to discontinue our operations.”

The email offered to help transition him to a property management company, or to help sell the property. “Your property’s well-being remains our top priority, and we are here to address any questions or concerns you may have.”

The company’s website and social media accounts were deactivated that day. Bayirli set his own Instagram account to private.

Bayirli on Tuesday returned a message seeking comment from The Baltimore Banner, and denied that his business was shutting down. “We’re dealing with a lot of COVID stuff from the past. There has been a tremendous burden for all of the investors and for our company, and we are working through these issues and we will have to amend how we will go forward,” Bayirli said. “We are definitely not ending our business. I’m not closing down my company.”

He declined to answer questions about properties that allegedly were never rented out or misrepresented. “I’m getting into a meeting. It’s been a crazy week,” he said.

Keith Kaiser and his Canton-based company, Reliable Property Management, have been managing Property Invest USA’s homes — but no longer.

Kaiser said he hasn’t forwarded any rent money to Property Invest USA for more than a year, because their account with him has been in the red. He said Property Invest USA had not prepared for the heavy work that needed to be done on some of the homes, leaving some of them unrentable, but that Kaiser made some repairs so the homes could generate income.

Now, “they owe me a lot of money,” Kaiser says.

Kaiser said many of the homes are rented and can continue to be. But Bayirli sold his clients on an simple process, when the reality was anything but, Kaiser said.

“It’s an easy sell when you don’t tell people about the downside, and promise the upside,” Kaiser said. “They overpromised and underperformed.”

Investor Aylin Öney Dodanlı purchased three homes for a total of $314,000. One was acquired by Property Invest USA for $25,000, and flipped the same day to her for $108,000. It is vacant and boarded up. Another was acquired by Property Invest USA for $50,000 and sold to her for $114,000. A man who answered the door said he was paying rent to Reliable Property Management. A third was bought for $27,000 and flipped for $92,000, and appears uninhabited.

An investor in Dubai spent more than $300,000 through Property Invest USA buying homes she believed were being rented out (Justin Fenton)

Dodanlı, who lives in Dubai and works for a pharmaceutical company, said her husband and Bayirli were friends in high school. She said when the rental payments stopped coming earlier this year, Bayirli said he was having a problem with his bank. Then people started to comment on Property Invest USA’s social media posts, saying he wasn’t responding to them.

“There are lots of mad people over here who are trying to find a solution,” she said. “We want him to be punished for this.”

Kaiser said he’s continuing to make repairs and keep up with bills on the properties, and offering to work directly with the property owners.

“We’re going to try to retain as many as we can,” he said.

Standing on the porch of his home waiting for a locksmith that never arrived, the pilot wondered if he’d been naïve to invest in property 5,000 miles from home. A group of other pilots had recommended it.

“This is United States. If something bad happens, I can go to court. The United States works efficiently. I thought that,” he said.

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

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