HomeVestors of America claims to be the country’s largest cash homebuyer and says it helps homeowners out of jams. But a closer look reveals that the company trains its franchisees to cash in on homeowners’ desperation.

A California real estate investor continued to be involved with one of the country’s most successful “We Buy Ugly Houses” franchises years after pleading guilty to felony charges for misleading two elderly homeowners who signed below-market sales contracts.

Despite assurances from HomeVestors of America that it had cut ties with Cory Evans “a number of years” ago, the former co-owner of Patriot Holdings LLC was still engaged in the business as recently as March, according to interviews with former business affiliates and text messages and emails obtained by ProPublica.

After ProPublica asked the company in April how it had responded to Evans’ conviction for attempted real estate theft, his involvement in a franchisee group chat appeared to cease. His last message to the group was on March 8.

Dana Pope, who until 2022 ran a Los Angeles-based HomeVestors franchise, said that during her time with the company, “Cory was very much always in the office, always active.” She said, “He was training me. He was in every conference we ever had.”

A HomeVestors corporate spokesperson said this week that the company has documentation showing Evans’ ownership interest in Patriot Holdings was terminated in 2021 and his name removed from the franchise agreement. “Based upon your reporting and questions, we have initiated a review into Cory Evans’ ongoing involvement with Patriot Holdings,” she said.

Neither Evans nor Patriot Holdings’ owners responded to a request for comment. Evans is not listed as a “manager or member” of Patriot Holdings in current California business filings.

Highlights From This Series

April 18, 2023

We sent HomeVestors of America questions about the findings of our reporting. Soon after, the CEO praised the reporting in a meeting with franchise owners but added that the company would “bury” the story once it was published.

May 11, 2023

Despite HomeVestors’ promise to hold its franchises to the highest ethical standards, we found some used deception and targeted the elderly, infirm and financially vulnerable while offering to buy their homes for far below market prices.

May 15, 2023

Five families discussed their experiences doing business with HomeVestors franchises, including a man who later died while waiting to be kicked out of his home. Some franchises had sued homeowners after they tried to unwind their deals.

June 13, 2023

The head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau cited ProPublica’s reporting before a U.S. Senate committee and called for more oversight of HomeVestors’ practices.

July 1, 2023

Despite HomeVestors’ efforts to “bury” ProPublica’s reporting, millions read the investigation and more than 40 media outlets featured our work, including The Washington Post, The Dallas Morning News and Apple News Today.

Aug. 1, 2023

Shortly after ProPublica asked for comment on reporting that showed a top HomeVestors franchise owner had stayed involved in operating the business despite a felony conviction, HomeVestors CEO David Hicks stepped down.

Jan. 24, 2024

HomeVestors continued to reform business practices in response to ProPublica’s reporting, including requiring franchises to provide homeowners considering selling to them with a disclosure that allows deals to be terminated within three days.

Evans caught the attention of law enforcement in 2019, after he misled two elderly Southern California homeowners into signing sales contracts, according to court documents. The deals stemmed from what HomeVestors characterizes in its training and marketing materials as “Ugly Situations”: One homeowner had developed a hoarding problem and feared her house would be seized by the city for code violations; the other faced foreclosure. Both “were desperate for help since they did not want to lose their homes,” and Evans “took advantage of their individual fears for personal gain,” a Ventura County District Attorney’s Office investigator wrote in an arrest warrant declaration.

Evans was charged with four felonies in December 2019. Two charges were dropped in exchange for Evans’ guilty plea to two counts of attempted grand theft of real property in August 2020. When he was sentenced in September 2020, he was given probation and ordered to pay restitution and drop lawsuits he had filed against the two homeowners. He also was prohibited from participating in real estate transactions for about a year.

After the conviction, HomeVestors could have immediately revoked Patriot Holdings’ franchise, which was co-managed by Evans, his brothers and another partner, according to the terms of the agreement. But the parties instead struck a deal, according to HomeVestors’ corporate spokesperson. The franchise could continue operating provided Evans was removed as an owner.

In April, a HomeVestors representative told ProPublica that Evans “has had no affiliation with HomeVestors for a number of years.” And in a May blog post, HomeVestors stated it had “required that Cory Evans be removed from Patriot Holdings.”

Yet texts, emails and interviews indicate otherwise.

From June 2022 to March 2023, Evans was active in a group text chat where Southern California HomeVestors franchisees exchanged advice and updates on events. He sent frequent meeting reminders and added and removed participants from the text group. He orchestrated regular franchisee meetings with a business coach. Ahead of a regional meeting in August 2022, he described a plan to “roll out the most recent products available for Homevestors franchise.” And in January, he announced a training “on the basics of taking calls and running appointments.”

A recent ProPublica investigation found that HomeVestors, which bills itself as the largest cash homebuyer in the country, taught its franchise operators to target people in desperate situations. The reporting found some franchisees used deception and targeted the elderly, the infirm and people close to poverty. In response to the report, two U.S. senators and the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau called for more scrutiny of HomeVestors and companies like it. HomeVestors CEO David Hicks announced this week that he would step down on Aug. 1.

(Our reporters discussed their findings and potential reforms with outside experts in a recent virtual discussion.)

In response to ProPublica’s initial findings, a corporate spokesperson said the company works to weed out bad actors and would ban tactics that can trap homeowners in sales contracts. The spokesperson pointed to Evans’ removal from Patriot Holdings as an example of the company enforcing its ethical standards.

HomeVestors knew as early as January 2020 that Evans had been charged, according to a letter one franchisee wrote to the company’s then-general counsel, Bonnie DePasse. “You took the position that the company is standing behind the Evans and running a counter PR Campaign to minimize the damage,” the franchisee wrote. (A HomeVestors spokesperson said DePasse no longer works for the company and that the lawyer had reiterated “our company values” when communicating with the franchisee.)

Pope said when she joined HomeVestors in May 2020, Evans taught her how to interact with prospective sellers. Emails she received show Evans working with the franchise after the district attorney subpoenaed records from HomeVestors’ corporate offices. Two weeks after Evans pleaded guilty to the charges, he emailed Pope, “We don’t want to lose out on new leads coming in.”

Credit: Highlighted and redacted by ProPublica

Evans also attended HomeVestors meetings throughout 2021, Pope said. She shared with ProPublica an invitation to a February 2021 meeting that listed Evans and his brother Cody as hosts. She said she was unaware of his legal troubles at the time, even though they were covered by local news outlets. “Had I known all that was going on, I would have probably thought twice about buying that franchise,” she said.

That year, Patriot Holdings was listed among HomeVestors’ “Rising Stars.” Internal HomeVestors records obtained by ProPublica during its investigation also listed Evans alongside his brothers on the company’s 2021 “top sales volume” award. The HomeVestors spokesperson said he was mistakenly included on the award.

In addition to receiving numerous accolades from HomeVestors, Patriot Holdings remains one of its most profitable franchises. Two of Evans’ brothers, Cody and Chris, are development agents who recruit and train new franchisees. Until recently, they were touted on HomeVestors’ website as some of the “Best Real Estate Investors Nationwide.”

Beyond revealing Evans’ continued involvement with HomeVestors, the texts offer an unfiltered view of franchisees’ gripes and challenges. Franchisees celebrated an FTC crackdown on the online homebuying company Opendoor, exchanged tips on evicting tenants who use Section 8 housing assistance and mocked HomeVestors’ advertising agency, Imaginuity, for what they said was a poor return on the monthly marketing fees they paid to the company. (Asked to respond to the criticism, Charlie Calise, the owner of Imaginuity, said: “We won’t speculate on a series of communications that we were not part of.”)

In April, the chat focused on HomeVestors leadership’s all-franchisee webinar, during which the company laid out a plan to “bury” ProPublica’s story. After that meeting, one franchisee called the investigation a “left-wing, lunatic article, stating that Homevestors rips off old people and steals equity.” Another wrote, “I always worry when the company lawyer sends out and invite.”

After Hicks, the CEO, alerted franchise owners to ProPublica’s forthcoming story, text messages show, he and Chief Operating Officer Larry Goodman planned an in-person visit to franchises in Southern California. HomeVestors said the goal of the visit was to “give a company-wide update” that included information about ProPublica’s yet-to-be published story. The spokesperson said Hicks “does not recall seeing Cory Evans at the meeting.”

The month before that meeting — and more than two years after he was convicted — Evans went silent on the group chat. His Homevestors.com email address, which appeared to still be functioning in early April, stopped accepting messages in June.

Mollie Simon contributed research.