1. Get a realty broker and a lender
The first 2 steps in buying a foreclosure should happen almost simultaneously: Find a real estate broker who works directly with banks that own foreclosed homes and get a preapproval from a lender.
Elaine Zimmerman, a real estate investor and author, recommends that shoppers first visit any site with a database of foreclosed homes. You also could look at a local real estate website that lets you filter the results to see only foreclosures. You might find the acronym REO, which means "real estate owned" (by a bank, that is). This signifies that a home has been through foreclosure and the lender is selling it.
2. Get a broker on your side
The goal of combing through foreclosure listings is not to find a house; it's to find an agent. Banks usually hire one or a few real estate brokers to handle their REO properties in a market. In a lot of cases, the buyer works directly with the bank's broker instead of using a buyer's agent. That way, the commission doesn't have to be split between 2 brokers.
"A lot of these Realtors have a long-term relationship with these banks, and they know of listings that haven't even come on the list yet," Zimmerman says. "Call them about the listings that you're interested in, but also ask them about listings that may be coming up because sometimes it may take a day or two or even a week before a listing actually comes onto the database."
Such a request might not always pan out. In places where thousands of foreclosed properties are for sale, you might not get much one-on-one attention from overloaded agents. To prove that you're serious about buying, says Jensen, "right before or after you meet with the agent, meet with the lender."
3. Get a preapproval letter
Unless you plan to pay cash, you'll need a recent preapproval letter from a lender. The letter will describe how much money you can borrow, based upon the lender's assessment of your credit score and income.
"The problem is, buyers want to find the house first, and then they think they'll work out the financing," Jensen says. "But the problem is, the really good deals on these bank-owned, they go quick -- and the buyer doesn't necessarily have time to try to work out the financing afterward. They need to work that out first."
Zimmerman says some first-time buyers make the mistake of assuming that the bank selling the home will also finance the mortgage as part of the deal. "Don't expect to get financing from the bank that foreclosed on it," she says. "That's a totally separate transaction, and they view it that way. The people in the (bank's) REO department are not loan officers. They are getting rid of bad assets."
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4. Pricing depends on sales pace
There's no rule of thumb on what the bank's bottom line is on price. Just as with any other real-estate purchase, you have to look at the recent sales prices of comparable properties, or "comps."
Jensen says: "You really have to look at the comps in today's current market conditions and write a competitive offer based on that. Sometimes the bank prices the homes really low, and the home will have multiple offers over list price within hours. Sometimes it's priced too high, and you can come in lower. A lot of times, buyers will come to me and say, 'We want to write offers for half price.' It just doesn't work that way."
5. Don't expect a repair discount
Keep in mind that foreclosed houses generally are sold as-is. That means that you shouldn't expect to get a discount to compensate for repairs. Jensen says: "Let's say the house is listed for $200,000, all the comps are $200,000, and so the client comes in and says, 'Hey, look, I want to buy this house but I've got to do paint, carpet and fix some mold damage, so I want to take $15,000 off the price.' You know what? All the other ones were in the same condition, and they sold for $200,000."
Jensen further counsels to look at the "absorption rate for your product class." That means you should find out how quickly comparable houses are selling. In foreclosure, a 3,500-square-foot house with a pool in a gated community might sell within days or hours, whereas more modest homes might sit on the market for weeks. Or vice versa, depending on market conditions.
If homes in your product class are selling swiftly, "the best advice on a bank-owned property is to come in at your highest and best, unless the property has been sitting on the market forever with no activity," Jensen says. "If you're going to be upset because you would have gone $5,000 more, but you lost the property, just bid the higher price in the first place."
Find tradespeople ASAP
Because repairs are almost inevitable with foreclosed houses, Jensen and Zimmerman recommend getting to know tradespeople who can assess and repair damage from pests, mold and leaks. Zimmerman says you should assume that the air conditioning needs to be fixed, and possibly the heating system, too.
LOAN SEARCH: Finance home improvements on a foreclosed property with a personal loan.
It all sounds daunting. But at least you don't have to wait for the owner to move out of the house.