real estate

How can I buy long-vacant house?

Steve McLindenDear Real Estate Adviser,
For 10 years, I've driven by an abandoned house near my neighborhood. It is completely vacant, and there's no Realtor sign posted there. Apparently, the owners passed away quite some time ago. I would like to know if I can purchase the house, and if so, how I'd go about it. I live in New Jersey.
-- Dania H.

Dear Dania,
Since you were already able to glean some information on the former residents, I suspect you could don your detective's hat again and pinpoint the present owner with some extra effort. Most cities and counties have tax records online, so plug in the address in that case, and "voila," as the French say, there it is -- usually. Not all counties and cities list owner contact information online, though, so you may have to visit in person. Sometimes, these data are available only in the recorder's office, or the deeds and records division. Someone at the office should be able to help you get this free information.

Then you have to find the decision-maker

It may be an heir/family member of the deceased owners who owns the place now, or it may be a lender. If it's the latter, you may face a labyrinthine path in finding the person who actually controls the property. It could be anyone from a bank REO agent to an asset manager to a special servicer to any number of others, few of whom are motivated to deal with you since they receive so many inquiries from investors seeking fire-sale prices. If you persist, however, I'm betting you'll get some answers. You could start by going to the nearest branch of the bank at a nonpeak time and chatting up a loan officer who might consent to digging around for the primary contact person for you.

A buyer's real estate agent, if you're hiring one, might get some answers a bit quicker and even produce a market analysis giving you a rough idea of what the place is worth. I say "rough" because even if someone's maintaining its exterior, there's no guarantee of the interior condition. In fact, the house may be persistently vacant due to major flaws and/or safety issues, or absent owners.

The foreclosure angle

It's worth noting that an inordinate number of habitable vacant homes are mired in foreclosure limbo in your state. In fact, in a study of one Newark, N.J., neighborhood released this spring, researchers found that 43 percent of bank-owned properties there remained vacant years after they went into foreclosure. Financial-industry observers speculate that lenders are keeping many of these in stasis so they can report them as assets, not losses, and thus meet government liquidity requirements.

Making an offer

If it's apparent the home is still owned by a family member or other individual, you can try tracking down that owner and making a reasonable offer. If you can't locate that person from a tax assessor's data, which is not always up-to-date, try using any of a number of inexpensive "people search" sites on the Internet. If you hit a snag there, ask immediate neighbors of the property what they know about its status and owners. No doubt they'd like to see a long-vacant home on their block filled by a conscientious owner. Once you do contact the owners, reassure them you are an individual living nearby who wants to make a fair offer, not one of those less-than-scrupulous opportunists who may have been trying to lowball them.

Just don't give up! After 10 years, someone might be more than willing to deal no matter what their motivation has been for keeping the place on ice. Good luck!

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