If you grew up on TV shows of the 1960s, you associate the word "Flipper" with a gentle, intelligent dolphin that was a loyal and sometimes even heroic friend to humans — kind of a "Lassie" of the sea.

Today, though, a "flipper" is a predatory fish prowling the turbulent waters of the real estate market, feeding off of distressed properties and swimming away with quick profits. To continue the TV theme: A land-shark knocking on the doors of vacant houses.

But is the modern flipper a bad addition to the real estate food chain?

It's a question that arises as real-estate flippers evolve from a relatively small group of entrepreneurs buying and selling a few houses here and there into a multi-layered industry that has become a major player in the housing market, locally, statewide and nationally.

One company, Blue Mountain Realty of Vacaville, this year has become the largest buyer of homes in Sonoma County, acquiring more than 70 properties since November, according to a story this month by staff writer Robert Digitale.

Blue Mountain is a flipping specialist. It buys foreclosed properties, performs quick remodel jobs of mostly the cosmetic variety and then puts the home back on the market. For example, its most prominent purchase — a 1912 mansion on McDonald Avenue — was acquired for $560,000 in November and now is listed for sale at $1.2 million. More typical are homes in the $300,000-$400,000 range and condos in the $100,000s in Santa Rosa, Windsor, Rohnert Park and Cloverdale.

Regardless of the price, the goal is to turn a profit as quickly as possible.

This leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those who see "flipping" as a way to profit from the misfortunes of those who have lost their homes to foreclosure.

But it's not quite that simple. Flippers, in addition to turning a quick profit for themselves, can create positive impacts for the greater community. They provide jobs in a struggling construction market. They turn distressed properties that otherwise might sit vacant into upgraded and attractive homes for sale in a constricted real estate market. The improvements they make on their own properties help maintain and even increase the value of the properties around them.

Blue Mountain's president, Greg Owen, told Digitale his company employs 500 people in California, and expects to flip 1,200 homes this year.

Depending upon your point of view, each one of those homes represents the broken dreams of its former owner, or the lofty aspirations of its next occupant.

In the end, it's both. Somebody loses and somebody wins. That's the reality of the real estate market.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.