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What is a probate sale in real estate?

What is a probable sale - african american woman with gray hair going over paperwork with hispanic man
kate_sept2004/Getty Images
What is a probable sale - african american woman with gray hair going over paperwork with hispanic man
kate_sept2004/Getty Images

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When someone dies, they leave behind an estate that contains all of the assets they owned during their life, such as cash, investments and real estate. The legal process through which these assets are sold, or divided amongst heirs, is called probate. If you’re looking to buy a home, you may run across probate sales. These can be unique opportunities to purchase a property.

What is a probate sale?

Typically, a deceased person leaves behind a will that outlines what they want done with their possessions. However, sometimes the terms of a will are unclear, or the person dies without a will, leaving the person’s family to decide how to handle their assets. The courts can also get involved: In real estate, a probate sale is the sale of a home under the supervision of probate court.

Should you buy a probate sale?

Probate sales can be complicated, and they’re very different from most real estate transactions. So it’s important to understand the pros and cons before buying a home through a probate sale.

Benefits

  • Homes in a probate sale are often priced lower than they would be otherwise
  • Probate sale opportunities may not be available through the usual real estate market channels
  • Fewer people are typically interested in probate sales, meaning there’s less competition to buy the home

Risks

  • The purchase process can take much longer
  • Many probate-sale homes are in poor condition and need repairs
  • Additional regulations around probate sales can make the transaction more complicated

How to buy probate real estate

The first step, of course, is to find a home that’s being sold via a probate sale. This can be tricky, because they often don’t get listed through the usual channels.

Though it’s morbid, one option is to check obituaries and local records to see if any recently deceased people owned property in locations you’re interested in. Another is to look through local papers for notices to creditors or notices of petition to administer estates. These can give you a head start on finding properties that are about to go up for sale. Needless to say, make sure to exercise tact and courtesy if you speak to a family member.

The probate process can take many months, so be prepared for a long wait. You’ll likely work with the executor of the estate, a real estate attorney or the court to make an offer on the home.

One thing to keep in mind is that probate real estate is usually sold as-is. The previous owner may have been elderly or had health issues that made maintenance difficult. That means that a home inspection is essential, and that you should be ready for unexpected costs to pop up.

Finding comps

Before you make an offer on any home, you need to get a sense for what the property is worth.

The best way to do that is look for comparable homes in the area. Look for houses in the same neighborhood that are of similar size, number of bedrooms and more. Recent sales data can be very helpful in determining how much to offer for the property.

Finding a probate real estate agent

Probate sales are complicated, so a specialized real estate agent with experience can help guide you through the process.

To find a probate real estate agent, your best bet is to ask a probate attorney. There’s a good chance they’ve handled probate sales in the past and can connect you with the real estate agents that they’ve worked with. You can also reach out to local real estate agencies to see if any of their agents specialize in probate sales.

Can probate be avoided?

Yes, it’s possible to avoid probate for your own estate if you plan ahead.

One of the most common ways to avoid the probate process is by creating a trust. If you start a trust and add assets to it, the assets in the trust will skip the probate process.

Another way to avoid probate is to own real estate jointly. If you and a spouse jointly own a home and one of you passes away, the surviving spouse will typically retain full ownership of the home and not have to deal with probate. (This can depend on the intricacies of the house title, so it’s smart to consult an attorney.)

Frequently asked questions

Bottom line

Is a probate sale the right choice for you? If you’re looking to buy a home on the cheap and you have time to wait, it might be. They can be complex, and the homes involved might require some repairs, but you have a chance of scoring a great deal. If you’re a first-time homebuyer or need a home quickly, you should probably avoid probate sales.

Written by
TJ Porter
Contributing writer
TJ Porter is a contributing writer for Bankrate. TJ writes about a range of subjects, from budgeting tips to bank account reviews.
Edited by
Senior real estate editor