Unfair Share

You're driving the 110-mile, high-speed burn from Dallas to Flint, Texas, with visions of gold in your mind. OK, maybe not gold, but at least enough cash to pay that exorbitant TXU Gas bill that hit you like Ray Lewis earlier this month.

As you pass the junk shops and the doublewide serving as Frank's Museum of McDonald's Memorabilia, you reflect on what you're doing, why you're here. It all started a few weeks ago, when you filled out that sweepstakes entry form at the State Fair of Texas. You scribbled down your address and phone number, figuring someone had to win the $50,000 cash grand prize. Not long afterward, you received a certified letter saying you were, in fact, a "major prize winner" of either $500 cash, $700 in vacation vouchers, or the whole enchilada, $50,000 cash money. The letter instructed you to dial an 800 number to confirm receipt of your letter. No other details were given.

So you called. The person on the other end congratulated you: You're a winner, and you're guaranteed a big prize! You were psyched. You'd never won anything in your life.

It wasn't until the end of the conversation that you were told to claim your prize in Tyler, Texas. Oh, and you'll have to take a 90-minute tour of a time-share first. But what the hey. When all is said and done, you'll be at the very least $500 richer.

So you set an appointment.


For the next three or so days, you were bugged each evening by telemarketers from Dallas-based Silverleaf Resorts, who made you promise you were really going to show up. They offered little other information, and certainly did not mention the hundreds of complaints filed against Silverleaf with the Texas Attorney General's Office, the Texas Real Estate Commission, and the Dallas Better Business Bureau, alleging everything from telephone harassment and bait-and-switch sales tactics to poorly maintained cabins and deceptive claims.

The hustle is on.

So here you are, burning down Interstate 20. One thing's for sure: You're not going to the Villages resort near Tyler because you've been seized by a sudden, urgent desire to buy a time-share in the middle of nowhere. No, this is all about cash.

But when you get there, the place looks lovely: rows of cabins nestled among lush pine forest, flanked by pristine Lake Palestine. Your tour will eventually take you to a nicely furnished cabin, complete with doilies, quilt-covered beds, and a champagne chiller. Later on, when you get up close, you'll notice the cabins are little more than two-by-sixes and drywall: cheap, almost shoddy structures erected on a former campground. The cabins vary in quality and comfort, though, and the Presidential Suites, about two miles away, resemble luxury homes. From the multi-leveled suites overlooking the lake to the cheesy bungalows built on stilts and stuck in the woods next to trash bins overflowing with empty Budweiser cases, the 20-year-old Villages resort was built to house vacationers of all budgets. There's a place for you.

Now you sit for a while, in a rustic waiting room with a blazing fire. You watch salespeople congregate at the reception table, huddled close together and whispering. Finally, after 30 minutes of waiting, one of the salespeople breaks free from the pack and greets you. He or she is nicely dressed, a slick dress shirt and tie combination for the men, complemented nicely by a leather jacket, and slacks or suits for the women. One of them calls your name, and you're whisked away to the selling floor.

You enter a room with dozens of tables, surrounded by people like yourself: hard-working folks of all ethnic backgrounds and elderly couples trying to capitalize on some easy money. There's lots of FUBU gear, and some men wearing white T-shirts, their beer bellies stretching the cotton. When you take the family on vacation, you don't stay at the Four Seasons. It's usually a Best Western or a Holiday Inn. For others, it's a camper or RV. You've been lured by the promise of cash--and the opportunity to save tens of thousands of dollars over the years on vacations, if you're willing to spend just a little now.

The salesperson seats you, then asks to see your prize voucher. He or she acts surprised, eyes widening as if your letter is unique. A verification number on your voucher tells whether you won cash, yet your salesperson is 99 percent sure that you've won vacation vouchers. Make that 99.98 percent: That's the proportion of major prizewinners, according to Silverleaf, who win $700 family vacation vouchers that are essentially of no value unless you're willing to bankroll your own trip, hotel and all, to a Silverleaf resort location, and use one voucher per day on recreational activities. At the Villages, you can go fishing, though you'll have to buy your own bait and rent your own boat, or you can lounge by the pool and play tennis or miniature golf. This is the prize you're going to win. But you don't know this yet, and your salesperson isn't inclined to tell you now, since he's working on commission. So the sales pitch comes first.

It starts with a questionnaire: "Where did you vacation last year?" "What did you like about it?" Then there are some loaded questions: "Wouldn't you agree it is better to own a vacation program and SAVE money than rent motels and SPEND money?" After dutifully providing your answers, you're given a thorough tour and told everything you would possibly want to know about time-shares and how Silverleaf is a cut above the rest because you can trade in your Silverleaf week for, say, a Resort Condominium International week anywhere in the world, but only if you sign a sales contract on the spot. The offer is void after you leave the grounds.

At some indistinct point, the sales presentation starts getting a little cheesy. Maybe it's the fact that your salesperson always has something in common with you: "You like to take road trips? I love to take road trips! One time, my husband and I just jumped in the car and didn't know where we were going! Isn't that a scream?" Or: "My daughter went to the University of Missouri too! It's in Springfield, right?" The end game, though, soon becomes clear: getting you to sign a contract, ranging from $10,500 to $15,500, for a Silverleaf time-share today, before you've had a chance to mull over the family budget or seriously consider whether you want to vacation in Flint, Texas, for the rest of your life.

The uneasy feeling gets considerably worse when you overhear a conversation between two Silverleaf salesmen during a December visit to the Villages. "How you doing?" one asked. "Just rolled another one," his colleague replied with a smirk.

The name "Silverleaf Resorts" may not sound familiar, but there's a fair chance you've encountered the company through its telemarketers or sweepstakes. If you've ever filled out an entry form at the mall to win, say, a new pickup truck, or entered a contest at the State Fair for a $50,000 cash giveaway, you may have given your personal information to Silverleaf. The company does a lot of selling in Dallas, its national headquarters, and in other major cities within driving distance of its 22 resorts: Houston, San Antonio, Chicago, St. Louis, to name a few. People tend to remember the salespeople, if not the company's name, because of the extremely hard sell.

And chances are when you did fill out your entry form to win free stuff, you didn't read the fine print, the rules and regulations on the back describing your odds of actually winning cash. You stand about as good a chance of getting struck by lightning in your bathtub as you do of winning the grand prize, or even a cash award. On an entry form obtained at the State Fair this year, contestants had a 15 in 250,000 chance of winning $500, and a one in 250,000 chance at the $50K. As you are filling out your entry form, people all across the country are doing the same thing.

In Texas, though, Silverleaf is the undisputed king of time-shares, with six resorts. They're located in Canyon Lake, west of San Marcos; Big Sandy, in East Texas; Conroe; Galveston; and two in Flint, near Tyler. Silverleaf Resorts Inc. is a publicly held company, traded on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE: SVR) and employing some 3,500 people nationwide, including 1,800 in Dallas at its corporate office on River Bend Drive and four telemarketing centers. Thomas Franks, executive vice president of corporate affairs, estimates that more than 200,000 people went to a Silverleaf time-share presentation in 2000. And the company's annual revenues have increased tremendously over the past five years, surpassing the national trend in time-shares. Between 1995 and 1999, total revenues increased more than 500 percent, from $44 million to nearly $231 million. The company has taken a hit lately in its share price, however, dropping to Monday's $3.20 per share, from $7 in January 2000.

In the past, Silverleaf has referred to itself as the Wal-Mart of the time-share industry, because it has targeted buyers in Middle America. A time-share is essentially an agreement among purchasers to share a property by dividing the time spent there. In Silverleaf's case, the purchaser would own 1/52nd of a resort unit, or one week a year. The time-share owner is able to stay one week a year at that particular resort. An owner can also ask to exchange his week for a week at another, similarly priced Silverleaf property for a small surcharge. Those exchanges are allowed on a space-available basis. With Silverleaf's optional Endless Escape bonus package, offered at two presentations the Dallas Observer witnessed to buyers who signed a sales contract that day, time-share owners can book additional weeks at Silverleaf properties on a space-available basis for no charge.

American Resort Development Association President Howard Nusbaum says the time-share industry has cleaned up significantly over the years, but admits it's still a high-pressure sales endeavor. "Versus their peers, Silverleaf's sales performance is pretty good," Nusbaum says, referring to Silverleaf's impressive sales during the last three years. "One thing that kind of bugs me about time-shares, and I think it bugs about everybody, is it's a hard-sell business. The off-setting point to it is that the owners association tracks owner satisfaction rates, and it's been over 85 percent every year for the last 10 years." Nusbaum says ARDA tracks satisfaction numbers in the industry as a whole, but not by specific resorts or companies. "It's like when you buy a car," he adds. "I think everyone hates buying a car, and no one ever looks kindly upon their car salesman, but you're happy with your purchase at the end of the day."

Nusbaum says Silverleaf's strong sales and its status as a publicly traded company indicate it has outgrown the time-share stigma of years past. "You look at their peers, I'll bet you every time-share company in the nation has some number of lawsuits going on at any time, just like any brokerage firm, but I find that the numbers of complaints are going down because these companies are finding that it's cheaper or it's better business to not be pushing the envelope on sales practices. And the laws are getting stricter."

If Silverleaf is one of those time-share companies that has cleaned up its act, its complaint file doesn't show it. During the last 36 months, the Dallas Better Business Bureau has handled 223 complaints against Silverleaf, and 19 more are pending. The BBB received 103 complaints in 2000 alone. In addition, the Texas Attorney General's Office has received 227 complaints over the past two years. Attorney general's office spokesman Tom Kelly says that Silverleaf is under the microscope, though he declined to say whether his agency is conducting a formal investigation. He even offers up his own encounter with a Silverleaf telemarketer. He was solicited by a Silverleaf caller at his home recently, and was amazed by the salesman's persistence. "I kind of laid into him. It was just a real high-pressure sell," Kelly says. "Even after I told him that I work for the attorney general's office and that we had investigated them before and that I needed to get off the phone and not discuss another word with him, he kept going! It was a hotel giveaway vacation, and he said I was the one. I couldn't miss this, and it wasn't really going to cost me anything. It was disgusting."

Kelly would not offer any information about the earlier investigation he mentioned.

The Texas Real Estate Commission also has received 21 complaints against Silverleaf during the last three years. Silverleaf representatives say, though, that these complaints are coming in from all over the country, and while one complaint is too many, 490 complaints from the two state agencies and the BBB is essentially nothing compared with the hundreds of thousands of people who tour Silverleaf properties and the tens of thousands who buy.

Nevertheless, the complaints are far-ranging, with the majority reviewed by the Observer focusing on what prospective customers believe are deceptive sales claims and tactics.

One such claim concerns the investment value of a Silverleaf time-share. Although Silverleaf's corporate offices deny that their salespeople pitch the time-shares as equity purchases, the Observer witnessed two on-site presentations in which the salesperson circled "equity" as one of the advantages afforded by a Silverleaf time-share. The word was circled on a document used during presentations at the Villages that lists the advantages, respectively, of staying in hotels and motels on your vacation; camping; owning a second home; and purchasing a time-share. Industry analysts and real estate agents familiar with the region have a different opinion about the value of Silverleaf time-shares. "They are essentially worthless," says Nancy Brown, a real estate agent in Tyler who has been in the business for 30 years.

Silverleaf executives respond to the complaints by saying they've cleaned up their act since being sanctioned by federal and state authorities in the 1980s when they were operating under the name Freedom Financial.

After examining thousands of pages of complaints and talking to about 20 Villages time-share owners over the course of four visits, the Observer came across plenty of horror stories.

While some of the written complaints read like mere bellyaching--people upset because they didn't win the grand prize--others contain serious allegations. There's Cynthia Diederich of Peoria, Illinois, who says Silverleaf called her and offered her two free airplane tickets to anywhere in the country. "I said, 'This is too good to be true, that there's got to be strings attached,'" she recalls. "They said all you have to do is come and listen to the presentation, and you get two free tickets to anywhere you want to go." Diederich says she initially blew off the Silverleaf representative like she does every other agent who calls in the middle of dinner. But this particular caller was very persistent. He said all the right things. The Diederichs thought he was pitching the Fox River resort in Sheridan, Illinois, about 70 miles southwest of Chicago and about 120 miles from the Diederichs' home. "It wasn't too far from here, only a couple of hours north, so we thought, 'Well, hey, you know, Saturday we'll drive up and take a look at the place.' We'd talked about time-shares before, and we figured we can go and spend the 90 minutes they said it would take."

On a cold November day in 1998, the whole family trooped up to Sheridan. They signed in at the lodge, then toured the resort. "What was weird was he [the salesman] wasn't selling us time at this particular time-share. He wanted us to buy a time-share somewhere in Texas," Diederich says. "We looked at him and said, 'You want us to buy a time-share in a place that we can't even see the facility?' And he said, 'Well, yeah.'" When the tour was over, the Diederichs wanted to get their free airline tickets and get out of Dodge, but they were ushered to the selling floor. It was here that their guide started getting nasty, she says. The Diederichs said they needed a little time to mull over their decision, but the salesman said he didn't want to hear those words; this is a fast-paced business and they need to decide. He couldn't understand why the Diederichs, a middle-class family of four, wouldn't want a piece of the action. They thanked their guide and told him no thanks, they'd just like to redeem their prize.

According to virtually every customer with whom the Observer spoke, when someone refuses to buy, a "manager" is sent over to check on the salesperson--supposedly to ensure that everything ran smoothly. But the manager always shows up with a pitch of his own. Turn him down, and you get yet another "manager."

For the Diederichs, the manager was a nightmarish figure. "He was like a gangster," Diederich says. "I felt like I was sitting with the Chicago Mafia. This guy was really heavy-handed. I was almost afraid to say no to him, he was that intimidating." When they finally escaped, they went to redeem their prize. Their plane tickets to "anywhere" ended up being tickets to Las Vegas, Florida, Mexico, the Bahamas, or Hawaii, all desirable destinations, but there was one big catch. To use the tickets, the Diederichs would have to book a certain hotel for a minimum of seven nights, and the cheapest rate was $100 a night. Money was way too tight for the Diederichs to shell out a minimum of $700 on accommodations alone, so they filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. They never took their vacation.

A similar thing happened to Patricia Cockerham of Irving. A 44-year-old claims adjuster, she took the tour at the Villages on December 15, 2000. Cockerham, like the Diederichs, was also lured to Silverleaf by the promise of airline tickets. At first, a representative promised her two tickets on the phone. Throughout the course of the conversation, the salesperson upped the ante--three airline tickets, then four. Eventually, it was eight airline tickets. "Their pitch was good," Cockerham says. "But not as good as me." She was at the Villages for more than two hours, and she says the salesman seemed to take a liking to her, telling her how pretty she was and asking her if she was single.

There was no electricity that day because of violent storms in East Texas, and Cockerham was cold. She wanted to hurry up the meeting, but her salesman took his sweet time. She had told him at one point that she was originally from Monroe, Louisiana. Coincidentally, he was also from right outside Monroe. "I started naming some of the places around there, but he didn't know any of them. He obviously wasn't from there," she says. He wouldn't answer price questions until the very end of the presentation. He asked how much her vacations usually cost, and the bottom line he quoted her was that by buying a Silverleaf time-share, she'd save $66,000 over the next 10 years. She declined. Then came the managers.

By then, Cockerham was fed up. The sun was going down, there was no electricity, and she was facing a miserable 110-mile drive back to Irving. The salespeople kept trying to haggle with her. They pitched Silverleaf's Endless Escape bonus package, which, in theory, allows people to get free additional time if they call a few weeks in advance, provided there is space available. "They kept asking questions and slicing and dicing the down payment," she says. "When that didn't work, they tried the approach from, 'Gee, you're so beautiful, and I can tell you work hard. You have such lovely nails. When I look at a woman and her nails are kept, I know she takes care of business. Think of what you can do, with your friends here. This is something you can do just for you.'" Finally a fifth manager appeared, quoting hard numbers: Every Silverleaf time-share owner has to pay a $49.98 monthly maintenance fee. Forever. So in addition to the monthly principal and interest payments on the time-share, a customer is paying some $600 a year in maintenance fees. The best price they quoted her--after much haggling--was a $500 down payment, then $386 a month for seven years, or a total of $32,924, including interest, but not including maintenance fees, at which point the time-share is deeded. It's yours free and clear. But for the first seven years, that amounts to more than $5,000 a year for a one-week vacation, transportation not included.

The salespeople told her she had to pull the trigger on the spot--otherwise she might be missing out on a great deal. But Cockerham was steamed. She told the people she just wanted her eight airline tickets.

At the prize redemption center, another employee tried to sell her a time-share one last time. Cockerham figured that was a small price to pay for eight free airline tickets to Hawaii, a destination she'd set her sights on for some time. She didn't notice the fine print on the back of these airline vouchers until she got home. It was the minimum seven-night stay again, as was the case with the Diederichs, but instead of the cheapest hotel accommodation being $100 a night, Cockerham's minimum in Hawaii would be $205 a night, paid in full 45 days in advance. "Seven days at $205 a night! That's crazy!" she says. She has not filed a formal complaint.

As bad as this sounds, there are prospective Silverleaf customers like Constantine Moldovan, working-class folks who don't have much savvy about the hard-sell tactics of the time-share industry. Since the Silverleaf salespeople usually tell their customers they must sign contracts the day of their tour, they often act on limited information, having no time to check out the company's reputation--or even their own family budget. Originally from Waco, Moldovan was planning a move to Seattle within the year. When the certified letter came in 1998 proclaiming him a major prize winner, he took a day off work and visited the Villages to claim what he believed was his $50,000 prize.

"I wasn't going out there to buy a time-share. Not at all," Moldovan says. "But they kept coming down with the numbers and also told us we could sell it anytime we want. Our [Silverleaf] agent promised she could resell it for me." In addition, he says the Silverleaf saleswoman told him a resort was being built outside Seattle and would be finished in 2000. (According to Silverleaf VP Thomas Franks, there have never been plans to build a Seattle resort.)

Moldovan says he's sunk more than $5,000 into his time-share so far and has yet to take a single vacation, because Silverleaf doesn't have a property anywhere near his new home in Washington state. Moldovan also has been trying since he sealed the deal to talk to someone about his purchase. While most of his questions were outlined in his deed of sale, the language was confusing and Moldovan wasn't able to decipher it. Silverleaf has one Dallas number where people can phone in complaints, making it a long-distance call in most cases. But the operator essentially shunts you into voice-message hell. Moldovan says he left three different messages, and after the third one, someone called back and said all of his questions would be answered if he were willing to come to a two-day information seminar, with free accommodations provided for the night. The representative also said he'd give Moldovan $100 in Silverbucks (Silverbucks are the company's own form of currency that can be redeemed for any service or merchandise at a Silverleaf resort or applied toward the monthly maintenance fees), not to mention he and his family would get a free breakfast and full use of the resort's amenities. "I went back, and it had nothing to do with any questions," he says. "All they wanted to do was sell me on the Presidential Suites." Those time-shares ranged in price from $8,900 to $21,500, Moldovan says. He was told to help himself to a continental breakfast until an agent was available, but when the agent tried to upgrade Moldovan and his family, Moldovan flatly rejected the proposal. "She threw a fit," Moldovan says. "She told us that the breakfast was only for people interested in buying property. She asked us to leave and not eat. I had my 5-year-old daughter and my 2-week-old baby with me." He filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

Then there's Hiram and Cynthia Vega, two prison guards in Minden, Louisiana. In November 1998, relatives referred them to Silverleaf. Cynthia's parents own a Silverleaf time-share and were given $25 in Silverbucks for the referral. Hiram was promised airline tickets to Las Vegas, and he also was given two free cameras "that weren't worth a penny; one of them didn't even work," he says. But it was the hotbox tactics that got to him. "The part that really gets tricky is the pressure sale," he says. "You walk in there, and they pound you, pound you, pound you. They present it to you so good. They present you a beautiful cabin, but when you get to start renting units, it's a different story. And they won't let you think about it at all. It was take it or leave it or come back and pay interest." The Vegas have pumped about $6,000 into Silverleaf so far and have taken eight vacations on their Endless Escape bonus program. For more than a year now, though, they haven't been able to book any bonus days.

Silverleaf customers are sold on the idea of "bonus time," meaning that if someone doesn't use his paid week, it is given away to another customer for free. The salespeople mention this bonus time repeatedly, saying how nice it would be if you were in the area of the Villages or of any other Silverleaf resort and could just pop in for a free night's stay. According to numerous complaints, though, this doesn't happen quite that easily. Silverleaf spokeswoman Kathy Barr says if people call for reservations for a particular day and there's space available, they get the space. But the policy is that you must call two weeks in advance, and still, you can only book a condo if there is space available.

Hiram Vega says he's visited three Silverleaf resorts, including the Villages, and physical cabin conditions were all right in the beginning but have deteriorated over time, especially at the Holly Lake resort in Big Sandy, Texas. "We went there for a weekend, and when I got there, the first room they put us in had cat hair all over the furniture," he says. "My wife got sick because of her allergies, so we went to complain. They moved us to another unit. The unit that we moved into had rat feces everywhere. Believe it or not, we cleaned it up. So we went out of town sightseeing that day, and when we got back, there was fresh rat feces all over our bed and all over the place. It was infested with wood rats." Despite the hefty maintenance fees, you don't get much in the way of maid service at Silverleaf resorts. You can get new linens and soap, but no one comes around daily to make your bed or vacuum.

The Vegas complained to the Better Business Bureau, and in response, Silverleaf agreed to let the Vegas out of their contract, provided they sign a disclaimer promising not to talk about the settlement. At press time, they were still contemplating Silverleaf's offer.

Both the Moldovans and the Vegas probably would be heartbroken if they knew how cheaply they could snag a Silverleaf time-share on the open market. Silverleaf sells its time-shares for three different seasons: red, white, and blue. The red season is prime time, spring and summer months, and is the most expensive package. White is for the medium-traffic months, and blue is limited to the off-season. Many time-share owners, tired of the costs, try to peddle their properties on the Internet, because few real estate agents will handle time-shares, says Tyler real estate agent Nancy Brown. According to Blake Woods, a Villages salesman, if you were to buy a red week at the Villages from a Silverleaf agent, you'd spend $15,500, which doesn't include interest on the monthly payments. For a white week, it's $12,500, and a blue week is $10,500. (Silverleaf spokeswoman Barr quoted different prices: $12,300 for red, $8,500 for white, and $7,000 for blue.) A woman in Beaumont who asked not to be identified makes it her business to buy Silverleaf properties cheaply and resell them over the Internet for bargain-basement prices: $2,250 for the red week, $1,250 for white, and only $350 for blue.

Silverleaf's corporate predecessor, Freedom Financial, and CEO Robert Mead got in some hot water with state and federal authorities during the time-share boom of the 1980s. (Mead changed the name of Freedom to Ascension Resorts Ltd. in 1989, which became Silverleaf Resorts Inc. in 1997 before the company went public.) At the time, there were few regulations concerning time-shares. Hard-sell sales tactics and phony contests were not only prevalent, but were more or less industry standards, say industry analysts. In 1988, the Missouri Attorney General's Office accused Freedom Financial of breaking consumer fraud laws in conjunction with its direct-mail contests and fined it $45,000, Barr says. Also in 1988, Freedom Financial was convicted on federal mail fraud charges and had to pay a $1.5 million fine. Then in 1997, when the Texas Real Estate Commission investigated claims of bait-and-switch sales techniques and illegal incentive programs, Silverleaf paid the agency $30,000 "for accounting purposes" and agreed to abide by eight provisions concerning its business practices, according to TREC attorney Beverly Rabenberg. One of those provisions was to inform buyers that they have until six days after the sale to cancel their purchase, as provided by the Texas Timeshare Act. The $30,000 went to the state of Texas, and Silverleaf admitted no wrongdoing.

Robert Mead, who owned Freedom Financial and is now the majority shareholder and CEO of Silverleaf, has never been charged with any wrongdoing. But an associate named David DeFusco, who provided "sales leads" to Freedom Financial, pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and money laundering and served seven years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. He admitted to conspiring to lead people to visit Freedom Financial's time-shares under the false premise that they'd receive prizes. Those prizes didn't exist.

Silverleaf VP Franks, who used to be chairman of the American Resort Development Association in Washington, D.C., says Silverleaf's volume of complaints has decreased over the last few years, and will continue to do so. "This is something we take very seriously," Franks says. "We track every one from every agency and work to resolve them. And I think we have an impressive track record in resolving issues." The TREC's Rabenberg concurs. Some of the time-share owners who've filed complaints with state agencies or the BBB have been released from their contracts, although they were not refunded any money they had already paid. People who simply want to welsh on their contracts undoubtedly file some of these complaints, Franks says. Getting a person to commit to a time-share contract in the span of a few hours is not an easy sell, and when some people realize the full cost of their purchase, they no longer want it. As a result, they trump up complaints with the hopes of having their contracts dissolved, Franks says.

Franks has been around the time-share business for a long time and knows that complaints go with the territory. But his numbers get a little fuzzy. In an interview, Franks produced an internal score sheet of complaints filed with the Texas Real Estate Commission, the BBB, and the state attorney general. He says complaints filed with the Texas Real Estate Commission have been decreasing over the years, with only eight complaints in 2000. But Rick Valdes, a spokesman for the TREC, produced different numbers, saying that the number of complaints has gone up every year since 1998, with 14 received in 2000.

Which isn't to say there are no satisfied Silverleaf customers, though it took the company a while to provide some with whom the Observer could speak. Jo Daily, 64, of Galveston, inherited her time-share from her father after it had been paid off, and now she only pays maintenance fees (the deeds can be willed). She's a small-business owner, and since she's her own boss, she vacations whenever she wants. When the workload is mounting up and she wants to escape, she heads to a Silverleaf resort, several of which are within a day's drive for her. "I absolutely love it," she says. "I use it about 10 weeks a year."

In Daily's case, the time-share is a bonanza. Since she vacations as often as she does, including in the off-season, she takes advantage of the Endless Escape bonus program. She checks in and checks out without spending a dime. Overall, for the year, factoring in the maintenance fees, she spends less than $10 a night.

Even the old-timers, though, aren't spared a little sales pressure from Silverleaf. Daily says she's been urged to upgrade to the Presidential Suites.

Danny Evans is a retired Highland Park police officer, and he and his family are very satisfied customers--so satisfied that he bought two time-shares so he can have two weeks of vacation each year. "We wanted a place we could start going a lot on the weekends," he says. "After we went out and did the tour and stuff, well, we just decided that that was more or less what we were looking for, and we bought into it that weekend." He has red time--prime time--but also takes advantage of the off-season Endless Escape program when it's not too crowded. "During the summer, we just don't even try to go," he says.

December 15 was a particularly cold Texas day. On the drive out to Flint, the landscape was even drabber than usual. An ice storm had crippled East Texas, wiping out electricity in many locations, including the Villages. This was the third day the resort had gone without power, but that didn't stop the selling. Salespeople conducted tours by flashlight, lantern light, and candlelight. There was no escaping the chill.

On the far end of the Villages property, a Dallas-area time-share owner and former policeman was slumped over a cold steel railing in dire need of a coat of paint, with his fishing line in the water. The man, who did not want to be identified, fishes whenever he blows through town at Silverleaf's floating fishing dock, which has an enclosure for when it's really cold--like today. The fishing pavilion, though, is disgusting. The water inside it is filthy, with cigarette butts and beer bottles floating around. On the way to the pavilion, you pass a dead duck floating facedown in the muck, flies buzzing about. Needless to say, it stinks, too.

The former cop continues to fish here because, well, he paid dearly for the privilege. He shelled out $8,000 cash for his time-share, buying it on the spot in 1994 because, as he explains, "according to state law, you have to do it that day or they can't give you a good price. That's what they said." State law has no such provision. Even worse, he hardly gets any use out of his time-share. "If I could sell my time, I would in a heartbeat. But you can't. They're worthless." The only saving grace so far is that the Villages provides a trailer park where he can park his RV. He's an older guy, retired, and he now spends his days traipsing about the country in his mobile home with his wife. But rather than he and his wife snuggling up in their condo, enjoying Endless Escape bonus time and taking pleasure in their golden years, he sits here in this dirty fishing pavilion and curses the salespeople who sold him a vacation from hell.


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