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Buying a foreclosed home can potentially score you a great deal during a time when deals are hard to find. During the first two years of the pandemic, many homeowners were able to remain in their homes due to state and federal aid programs. Most of these programs have now ceased, and foreclosures were up 18 percent from February 2022 to February 2023, according to the real estate data company ATTOM. However, they are still relatively rare and well below pre-pandemic levels.
The process of buying a foreclosed home is more nuanced than buying a traditional listing. If you’re wondering how to go about it, consider this your primer.
What is a foreclosure?
Foreclosures happen when a lender takes back a property from an owner who has fallen behind on payments and defaulted on their mortgage. Lenders will then try to recoup as much of their investment as possible by selling a foreclosed home for slightly less than it might be worth. In the right situation, “you are getting something below market value because the bank is motivated to get the home sold,” says agent Rose Sklar of the Sklar Team at Coldwell Banker in Weston, Florida.
How to buy a foreclosed home
Buying a foreclosed home can be a great financial deal, but it’s more complicated than a conventional real estate transaction. Here’s a step-by-step guide for how to do it right.
1. Find an experienced real estate agent
Foreclosures can be difficult to find and price, so try to work with a real estate agent who specializes in them. An agent who is knowledgeable about the foreclosure process can represent your interests and keep the transaction moving. One strategy for finding the right agent is to visit websites with a database of foreclosed homes in your desired area. Look for Realtors who have specialized real estate training in this area, such as the Certified Distressed Property Expert (CDPE) or Short Sales and Foreclosure Resource (SFR) designations.
Buyers can also work directly with a bank instead of using a buyer’s agent to save on the commission split. This can be a risk, though: “Buyers feel more secure when they are [directly] represented,” says John Soffee, a Realtor with Freedom Realty Services in Midlothian, Virginia.
Your agent can guide you through various types of distressed sales. These include:
- Preforeclosures, in which a buyer bails out a seller before the bank takes the property
- Short sales, in which the borrower owes more than the home is worth and the bank agrees to forgive some of the debt
- Public auctions, in which bidders have a chance to make offers on foreclosed properties at the local courthouse
- Bank-owned homes, which belong to the lender
Some lenders, including Bank of America and Citibank, post their bank-owned properties online. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also lists its inventory of foreclosures. Ask your agent to look out for foreclosure properties that meet your criteria, too — they can go fast, so be prepared to move quickly.
2. Get a preapproval letter
A preapproval details how much money you’ll likely be able to borrow based on the lender’s thorough assessment of your finances, including credit score and income. “It’s always good to be prepared,” says Sklar. “Having your proof of funds will make it an easier transaction.”
You’ll also want to consider what kind of loan to get preapproved for. Foreclosed properties often require repairs or upgrades, and an FHA 203(k) loan can help. These loans allow buyers to finance repairs up to a certain dollar amount.
Foreclosures often get scooped up by real estate investors who pay cash. But don’t let that discourage you; many lenders will help you find the right financing to buy a foreclosed home. Find a mortgage lender who understands your goals.
3. Look at comps to determine what to offer
Finding the right price to offer is as much an art as it is a science. Your agent can run a comparative market analysis (CMA), which helps you understand recent sale prices of comparable properties, or “comps.”
Soffee says he runs a CMA from the last 180 days and evaluates several factors, including the pace of home sales and tax assessment history. If you’re up against cash offers, this information can help ensure your offer is a competitive one.
Your lender will require an appraisal to assess the home’s value, so keep that in mind when making your offer as well. If there’s a shortfall between your offer and the home’s appraised value, you might have to make up the difference in price.
4. Bid higher if other foreclosures are selling quickly
When a foreclosure comes on the market there is frequently hot competition, so be prepared to bid fast and high. There’s no exact formula on what the bank’s bottom line will be, so if foreclosed homes in your area are selling quickly, it’s important to work with your agent to craft a strong offer, backed up by your preapproval letter if obtaining a mortgage. Foreclosures are typically already discounted, so an offer that’s too low might be a non-starter for the bank.
Keep in mind that the type of house and location matter, so some homes might sell faster than others. Just as with a traditional sale, in competitive markets, you might need to offer full asking price (or slightly more if there are multiple bids) and keep contingencies to a minimum.
5. Be prepared for “as-is” condition
A foreclosure is usually sold in “as-is” condition. This means that the seller doesn’t guarantee the property’s condition, such as whether it has termite damage, structural issues or lead paint, for example, and is unlikely to make any repairs. It’s smart to look for a foreclosed home on the lower end of your budget so you have room to increase your bids and pay for necessary repairs.
If you plan to buy a foreclosed home, be sure to get a home inspection so you know exactly what you’re in store for. An inspection isn’t required to buy a foreclosed home, but it can identify major issues the bank isn’t aware of. It will help you decide whether to move forward with the purchase or walk away from the deal (provided you included a home inspection contingency in your contract).
Buying a foreclosed home: Pros and cons
Buying a foreclosed home is a personal decision. It depends on a variety of factors, including your risk tolerance, the property’s potential reward, your financing and your ability to move quickly. In many cases you’re also benefiting from someone else’s misfortune, which can be a deal-breaker for some people. Here are some pros and cons to consider.
- Good value: Especially in down markets, foreclosed properties often sell for a discount. “The advantage of purchasing a foreclosure property is, in short, price,” says Soffee.
- Strong returns: If you find a well-priced foreclosure and perform repairs cost-effectively, your reward is a property worth more than you paid.
- Complicated process: Compared to a typical transaction, buying a distressed property requires more specialized knowledge.
- Extensive repairs: Foreclosed properties often need work. Struggling homeowners might ignore routine maintenance, so the repair bills can be expensive.
- Stiff competition: Foreclosures typically are the purview of professional investors, and competing against them isn’t always easy.
To get started, browse listings of distressed properties online. You can also check your local tax assessor’s website — these sometimes display lists of properties with delinquent taxes, a warning sign that a property is becoming distressed. In addition, look for a local Realtor who has experience working with distressed properties.
You don’t technically need a real estate agent to buy a foreclosed home, but it’s smart to have an expert in your corner for this kind of transaction. Foreclosure sales are different from traditional sales, and more complex. An agent will protect your interests and provide market knowledge that you might not be aware of.
Foreclosure sales are often dominated by deep-pocketed real estate investors who pay cash, but that doesn’t mean you can’t finance the purchase. Make sure the lender you work with understands the kind of property you’re looking to buy. Some loan products, such as the Federal Housing Administration’s FHA 203(k) loan, can be ideally suited for purchases that will need extensive repairs.