Q: About a year ago, I started receiving emails that were obviously not meant for me, but they weren’t junk or scams either.

They were simply information about real estate dealings, like the time and location of a closing coming up, or something about a document that was needed.

I realized that they were intended for someone who needed the information, so I wrote back to tell the sender that they had the wrong person. This happened a bunch of times, with different senders, and I faithfully replied as above.

Soon I learned that they had been intended for another person who has almost the exact name I have (we have different middle initials) and we have almost the exact same website address.

I started exchanging emails with this person who almost has my name and it turns out we had a lot in common. But we also have some things that aren’t in common – he buys and sells about $50 million in real estate every year.

I thought I could probably learn something from him and I asked if I could pay him as a consultant. He said I wouldn’t need to pay him as a consultant but we should talk so he could find out my end game.” I also told him I was prepared to invest $100K in cash to invest in real estate and he told me I was ready to start.

He says his investments are short-term, 6-months to 2.5 years, and he usually gets a return of 60 to 200 percent on his cash. He does it full-time, and is also a licensed real estate agent. He looks for properties that are being sold for less than they’re worth.

For example, he told me he recently bought a house that he thought should be worth $850,000 but was being sold by the heirs for $690,000.

Because I had been forwarding the emails to him faithfully, he offered to help me buy my own investment like this. And, asked me to sign a “memo of understanding,” which would allow him to buy (maybe in my name?) quickly if the right property came up.

He suggested I look for properties in a ski community in California, which is a place I’ve vacationed frequently, and know pretty well. He lives there full-time and has invited me to come and stay with him. There is a lot of development going on there, and he suggested I reserve two units in a new development going up.

Before I plunk down my money, I’m wondering what you think. Should I go into business with this guy who I’ve spoken to but never met? Should I do my own investment deals in this vacation area I know? What do you think?

A: That’s some story. And, it’s difficult to know whether you’ve fallen into the hands of a crook or a highly-successful real estate investor who has a kind heart. Some choice.

I think the smartest thing you can do is be cautious and try to find out if your almost-namesake is on the level.

Did you Google this guy? Have you talked to other people with whom he has done business? (A good place to start would be spending a few weekends tooling around the ski area in California where he wants you to invest your money.) Have you checked out his real estate agent’s license (or is he a broker) to see if any complaints have been lodged against him? Have you checked out the Better Business Bureau (www.BBBonline.org)?

If your due diligence on this character checks out, then my guess is that he probably isn’t a scam artist. You found each other by such an unlikely set of circumstances.

Still, it pays to be cautious. Unless you’re seeing his tax return, you’ll be taking a risk if you work with this guy. I can’t make the decision for you, but here are some things to keep in mind:

First, no more than 40 to 50 percent of your total net worth should be invested in real estate. That includes your primary residence. If the $100,000 will put you over that limit, you need to be extremely careful. While the new construction market appears to be expanding, sales of existing homes appears to be contracting. You don’t want to get caught on the short end of the stick.

Next, don’t invest any money you can’t afford to lose. An investment in real estate isn’t short-term, even if you’re going to keep the property only 6 months to two years. You’re investing in the future, which takes patience. Real estate isn’t particularly liquid as an investment, so it may be tough to get out quickly if something goes wrong. What happens to your retirement and long-term financial life if this deal goes bad?

Take enough time to do your due diligence about the property you’re buying and the developer who is building it. Who are the companies that are developing this ski area? What other major developments have they completed? Have there been any problems with these developments? (Check with the local municipality’s building department for their take on these developers.) What has the long-term consequences been of these other developments? Did people make money? Do people still go to this community?

And, you don’t want to buy from developers who build communities with long-term problems. Knock on the doors of these communities and talk to the owners who can tell you whether the communities are well-built or not. Are there any ongoing lawsuits against the developer?

Buy what you know. I like the fact that you go to this place, and that you’ve been invited to stay there with this guy. You should certainly meet him in person before you start shelling out cash. Buying what you know is a good idea because if you know the place, like the place, and can see yourself going there, then you’ll have a better time imagining who will buy or rent the home when you’re ready to sell.

Do the numbers. Can you afford it? Can you afford to carry it before you flip it or rent it? What is the long-term exit strategy for the property and how will you make the numbers work? Can you put a small amount down and finance the rest at closing? Leveraging is a good way to make this work — if you can afford the payments. Think about exotic mortgages. An interest-only loan might make this affordable for you.

Finally, do you have the stomach for real estate investing? Not everyone wants to deal with the midnight calls, rent collection, maintenance and upkeep – particularly if you already have a full-time job. You also need a good real estate team, including a real estate attorney. Before you sign any documents, you need to have a good understanding of what you are getting into and what your risks are.

Real estate investing can be a constant worry, but it can also set you up financially for the rest of your life. The thing is, you just want to be able to sleep at night.

These are some of the things you should be considering. I hope this helps. Good luck.

Dec. 5, 2005.