Published: Oct 29, 2010 9:11 PM EDT
Updated: Oct 29, 2010 6:12 PM EDT

LEE COUNTY, Fla. - According to real estate statistics released this week, the Ft. Myers-Cape Coral metropolitan area ranks second in the country in foreclosed homes, beat only by Las Vegas, Nevada.

Many bank-owned homes fall into disrepair as they sit vacant.  The nation's largest banks slash prices to encourage sales, but rarely invest money into the homes for upgrades.

Tara Molloy, a Ft. Myers real estate broker-turned-home stager, says some of the area's smaller banks are taking a more pro-active approach.

"It makes an absolutely huge difference," Molloy says. "The smaller banks realize that if they fix up [their foreclosures], they are more competitive on the market."

Molloy's company, Staging Matters, has been hired to stage around a half-dozen foreclosures in recent months.  In some cases, she's hired by agents representing bank-owned homes.  In a few, the bank contacts her directly.  All of Molloy's staged foreclosures have sold.

Realtors say smaller banks with fewer foreclosures may be more inclined to stage or improve the properties in an effort to sell them faster, and at a higher price.

"In this kind of economy you have to compete, and that's one of the things that sets their properties apart from all of the other [foreclosed] homes," Molloy says.

One of Molloy's projects sold in Estero within a week.  The bank-owned home received multiple offers, and was bought for $218,000, approximately 96% of the bank's asking price.

One of the banks to use Molloy is First American Bank, with a branch near College & McGregor.  In a statement to WINK News, bank Sr. Vice President Ken Anderson said the company had a policy to keep foreclosures in line with other homes in the same neighborhood.

"First American Bank ... implemented a policy early in the real estate crisis not to allow residential homes that it took back through the foreclosure or short sale process to be a detriment to the ambiance and lifestyle of a particular neighborhood," the statement said.

"Outside maintenance and landscaping is continued, and in many cases the vacant home is 'staged' with furnishings," it read.

Realtors say finding such a foreclosure can be like hunting for a needle in a haystack, so patience is important.

For homeowners who don't mind a fixer-upper, not only can they find a house more easily, they'll save even more money.