UPDATED: November 13, 2018 3:50 PM
FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – A Fort Worth company is at the center of controversy after people around the world say they did not get what they signed up for.
Homeowners were sold the American Dream: beautiful homes in a booming part of DFW.
Little did they realize, their homes were funded by people halfway across the world, seeking their own American Dream.
Now both groups are saying they were duped.
Serene Country Homes planned to build 4,200 homes across DFW. To do that, they recruited investors from Asia, even pitching green cards in exchange for investments.
But it’s unclear how many of those homes will ever get built.
Homeowners told Consumer Justice their experiences were anything but serene.
“The stove caught on fire, the dishwasher was never actually installed,” said Sherry Huckaby, who lives in the Trails of Fossil Creek.
Cameo Rodriguez lives in the same community.
“The first thing that you see when you drive in here are unfinished, abandoned homes,” Rodriguez said.
“There’s no communication,” said homeowner Will Williamson.
Serene broke ground on two communities in Fort Worth known as the Trails of Fossil Creek and the Hills of Windridge.
Several homeowners in both neighborhoods said Serene has yet to finish building houses or complete warranty work on their homes.
“They have your money. It was great up until the point we signed the contract, from then on, zero communication,” said Ryan Crews, a homeowner.
With construction at a standstill, homeowners said they worry Serene is going under.
But Consumer Justice found the company hard at work, selling the American Dream in Asia.
Ads featuring smiling families proclaim, “Buy U.S. real estate, qualify for a green card.”
One post, in Vietnamese, simply features a family with a pair of passports, superimposed over an American flag.
Serene’s own website tells potential investors to, “plan your move to the U.S.” through the federal EB-5 program.
The process grants green cards to foreign investors who create jobs in the U.S.
One of Serene’s Facebook pages even includes a link to an example of a U.S. citizenship interview.
Not interested in moving to America? No problem. Various ads tout hefty payoffs with returns as high as 20 percent per year.
The homes in the Trails of Fossil Creek start at $194,950, while the homes in the Hills of Windridge start at $224,950.
Amateur investor V.J. Nambiar said he bought in.
“This looked like a very good project,” Nambiar said. “Everything about it seemed right.”
Nambiar lives in Singapore. He said he invested $40,000 in 2012 and 2013, with plans of making nearly twice that amount by 2017.
But six years later, Nambiar said he received a return of roughly $1,000.
While he doesn’t want a green card, Nambiar said he does want his money back.
“We have not gotten any response for over a year [from the company],” said Nambiar, who told Consumer Justice he identified investors in other countries such as Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
“Most of us are approaching our retirement,” Nambiar said. “This [money] was actually for my children’s education.”
The database provides a listing of unregulated persons who, based on information received by MAS, may have been wrongly perceived as being licensed or authorized by MAS.
Nambiar said at that point, the company moved to the Philippines.
Additionally, at least five investors reported A2A to police in Singapore, according to a 2017 article in The Straits Times.
Later that year, Serene was actively courting investors from Asia and bringing them on tours in Fort Worth.
Sriram Villupuram is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. He said the project raises several red flags, especially in a booming real estate market like DFW.
“It sort of strikes me as odd that they have to work so hard, to go across the Pacific Ocean to find investors,” said Villupuram, who teaches in the Department of Finance and Real Estate.
He also questions how investors can monitor the project from thousands of miles away.
“You have no control and oversight over what is happening,” Villupuram said. “Are the homes even being built?”
The typical real estate investments pays out in two years, not four or six, according to the professor.
“[Investors] should’ve gotten more money by now,” Villupuram said.
In both communities, Consumer Justice found entire blocks of unfinished homes. One contractor said he stopped work in August because Serene owed him $34,000.
“We all started noticing there is no action at all on these houses under construction,” said Huckaby. “It is a literal ghost town.”
When no one at Serene returned repeated calls or emails, Consumer Justice stopped by the main office in Fort Worth.
An employee said no one could talk.
But that same day, while interviewing neighbors in the Hills of Windridge, Consumer Justice spotted the same car that was parked outside the Serene office.
The driver was Joseph Attrux, the chief executive officer and chief financial officer of Serene Country Homes.
He did not stop to talk to Consumer Justice before driving into his garage and closing the door.
It constitutes a scary silence for people on both sides of the world who gave their savings to Serene.
“It’s just an unsettling feeling,” Rodriguez said.
Investors started working with a lawyer in Houston in hopes of getting back their money.
Attorney Marianne Robak said investors are requesting written statements of accounts from the company’s president and owner, Dirk Foo. She said they have yet to receive that information.
Robak said she is representing approximately 100 clients in this matter.
Later this month, investors are set to vote on whether they want to sell a plot of land in Fort Worth where Serene never even broke ground.
The 889-acre property is located in the Sendera Ranch Community. The company had planned to develop 2,385 lots.
A notice obtained by Consumer Justice states Serene was offered $100 million from a potential buyer. It is unclear where the money came from.
Beyond Fort Worth, Serene advertises communities in Willow Park, Waxahachie and Conroe on its website.
UPDATE Tuesday, November 13
More than a dozen overseas investors filed a lawsuit against the company last week in Tarrant County.
They are requesting Dirk Foo, the owner of Serene Country Homes, provide a statement of written accounts.
Foo is considered the trustee of the Hills of Windridge and the Trails of Fossil Creek. As the beneficiaries of the trustee, investors stated they are entitled to certain financial information.
The lawsuit also asks the defendant to stop transferring or selling undeveloped lots to other companies.
Representatives for Serene did not respond to requests concerning the lawsuit.
READ THE LAWSUIT HERE