Couple Who Secretly Bought an Entire San Francisco STREET for $91,000 Finally Reveal How They Did It

Couple Who Secretly Bought an Entire San Francisco STREET for $91,000 Finally Reveal How They Did It

Michael Cheng, who scored the coup with wife Tina Lam, is speaking out (and suing).

By Alesandra Dubin

Let us take you back in time for one of the most incredible tales of a real-estate coup on American soil since the Louisiana purchase: The year was 2017...

Last August, the story broke that a San Jose couple was able to covertly purchase a private and wealthy San Francisco street in a 2015 online auction for $91,000 after discovering that its residents' governing board unknowingly owed under $1,000 in back taxes going back 30 years. And it wasn't just any street in a city known for some of the most astronomically expensive real estate in the country: It was Presidio Terrace, a prestigious gated address with 38 homes that average $5 million apiece. (Its famous former residents include California politicians Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi.)

The couple, named Tina Lam and Michael Cheng, now owned such areas as the road and sidewalks on the cul-de-sac. And homeowners were horrified that the investors now had power to monetize their investment through such means as charging residents to pay for parking on their own street.

After months of trying to rescind the sale, the homeowners were delivered a victory in late November and regained control of their street thanks to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

But the story remains squarely in the realm of investing fantasies — one of the most epic real-life real estate coups of all time. So how did they do it?

Cheng explained his process in an interview with Business Insider  — and part of it, as is often required as an element of life's biggest successes, was luck. When he bid on the parcel at auction, he said, he really didn’t know much about it or its value. But he’s an investor who earns income by regularly investing amounts in the tens of thousands of dollars on land for sale at auction in the extremely affluent San Francisco Bay Area. Those land parcels are represented by a series of letters and numbers, according to Business Insider — so it’s not as if a flashing neon sign points investors to their biggest opportunities for payoff. Some of the parcels are zoned for building residential housing, and those Cheng knew would be profitable. Others were just clunkers. Cheng recognized the Presidio Terrace parcel as being located in an especially desirable part of the city though, and he watched as the bids went higher over three days.

"I figured they knew something I didn't," Cheng told Business Insider.

About six months went by before the couple realized what they’d gotten — but they laid low.

"Once we found out what it was — the historical significance of it — we felt like this is really worth keeping," Cheng told Business Insider. "In life, you can have money. But having something of significance is meaningful. This kind of property doesn't come along very often in a lifetime."

Eventually, the sale became clear to everyone — and the drama erupted. And eventually the homeowners won their case — which Cheng chalks up to their wealth and political connections. But the real estate couple knows they are the street’s legal rightful owners and are suing to get it back. They’e even set up a GoFundMe page for their legal defense.

“We feel like it's about more than just the street," Cheng told Business Insider. "We're standing up for the law."

As demonstrated by at least one piece of fan mail Cheng showed Business Insider and some early GoFundMe support, many Bay Area residents who feel marginalized by the region's exponentially expanding wealth are likely to champion that cause. 

Photos: Google Maps (map); GoFundMe (couple)

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