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By Aly J. Yale
November 17, 2020
Sam Island for Money

No homes for sale in your area? Then just pick out a property and call up the owner. You could also check obituaries, dive into local property records or head to social media for potential homes to buy. At least that’s what many real estate pros are doing.

“Creativity is key in this type of market,” says Adrienne Allen, head of real estate at homebuying platform Homie. “Go all out and never underestimate the power of something simple like a greeting card.”

Allen says her personalized greeting cards have been a successful way of reaching homeowners and convincing them to sell in today’s inventory-strapped market, which has just a 3.6-month supply of properties as of September. It’s the third-lowest level since the Census Bureau began tracking in 1963.

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“With such little inventory, more and more people are looking to find homes that are not actively on the market,” Allen says.

Ryan Waller, a real estate agent with Home Group Realty in Ontario, Canada (where homes are in even shorter supply) is currently using a similar, off-market strategy with one of his clients. He even had the buyers walk around their chosen neighborhood and hand-pick which houses to get in touch with.

“We drafted a nice letter to each of them — personalized to the house, and dropped them in their mailboxes,” Waller says. “The letter gives a short summary of the buyer and has a family picture.”

Though Waller’s and Allen’s techniques have both worked, they’re not the only option for desperate buyers. Are you on the hunt for a home in today’s low-supply market? Here are seven outside-the-box methods you might want to try.

1. Advertise on radio and local media.

Sending cards and letters aren’t the only ways to get homeowners interested in selling their properties. According to Waller, local advertising can help with these efforts, too.

“We’re big marketers in town and have also resorted to media to help us — running ads on local radio stations with messages like ‘We have buyers looking for the following …’” Waller says. He’ll even include specific neighborhood names, number of bedrooms and other specifications in the ads to ensure his buyers get what they want.

His team is also rolling out full-page newspaper ads to find potential sellers. As Waller explains, “During COVID, we’ve found that many people have re-discovered newspapers, and it’s been a good source of business.”

2. Focus on fixer-uppers.

Looking for homes that aren’t so move-in ready can be a smart move as well — at least if you’re comfortable with a little work. These properties usually have fewer offers, and buyers can often get a better deal on them, too.

“Buying a home that has deferred maintenance, repairs or one that needs cosmetic updates typically will have less competition and offer the buyer a steeper discount,” says James Watson, a real estate investor with Omaha Homes For Cash. “This will call for some physical work on the buyer’s end but will add instant equity after the work has been completed. That alone is unheard of in a hot market with low inventory.”

With fixer-uppers, it’s important to do your due diligence. Getting a thorough home inspection, as well as other checkups for termites, pests, asbestos and other potential problems, can help you spot major issues before finalizing the deal — not to mention save money in the long haul.

3. Check local divorce announcements, obituaries and foreclosure notices.

Newspapers can also be a good place to look. According to agents and investors, both foreclosure notices — published in the legal notices section — and obituaries are good indicators that a homeowner might be motivated to sell.

In these scenarios, buyers (or their agents) can call up the homeowners or heirs, inquire about the property, and discuss the benefits of selling in the current marketplace. Richard Latimer, CEO of Veritas Homebuyers in Huntsville, Ala., says making these owners a cash offer on the spot can also be effective.

“It doesn’t hurt to call and inquire a bit — being sensitive, of course, to the person’s situation,” Latimer says. “A person may not even think of selling the home until they are made a cash offer.”

Divorce notices can be a good resource, too. In some states these are sometimes required when a spouse can’t be located, but divorce papers need to be served. If they’re a thing where you’re searching, you’ll find them in the classifieds or legal notices section of the newspaper or posted at the local courthouse.

Many times, divorcing homeowners are already thinking about selling their properties — ideally quickly and with as little hassle as possible. The key here is being mindful of their unique circumstances.

“Working divorce listings has become a niche within a niche for real estate agents and realtors,” says John Romito, a Realtor at Heart & Home Real Estate in Eugene, Ore. “These listings require great patience, the ability to remain detached and professional, an inclination toward empathy and the ability to handle difficult situations with delicacy.”

4. Look for “For Sale By Owner” and rental properties.

FSBOs — or For Sale By Owner properties — are also a growing option in today’s market. According to Dylan Lennon, a Realtor with Keller Williams Professional Asheville, N.C., FSBOs are on the rise, as homeowners look to capture the surging demand caused by low interest rates.

Many sellers put these FSBO listings on sites like Zillow and Trulia, but they’re not typically represented in housing inventory numbers. For those that aren’t listed on major platforms, buyers can look to FSBO-specific websites, in local newspapers and, sometimes, online in places like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist.

“Owners are plugged into their local real estate markets,” Lennon says. “They know that inventory and interest rates are low, and they want to capitalize on the market.”

It’s for these same reasons that rental property owners may be willing to sell as well — especially ones with current vacancies. You can look for rental ads in the local paper, online, or on most major real estate listing platforms.

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5. Pore over property records.

You can also check property records through your local courthouse or appraiser’s office. According to experts, these can tell you a lot about a home — as well as its owners’ likelihood to sell.

Take real estate investor Jonathan Sanchez, for example. Sanchez says searching property records for what he calls “absentee owners” has helped him find countless properties in times of low inventory.

“One indicator of a property owned by an absentee owner is that the yard is in disrepair or there is a pile of newspapers on the front steps of the house,” Sanchez says. “Another way is by reviewing public records and comparing the physical address against the property tax address. If they differ, then there is a high chance that it’s owned by an absentee owner.”

A good example? Sanchez says that’d be someone who inherited a home from a family member. They might be stuck with a far-off home (hence the different addresses), but are unable to actually live in or manage the property themselves. In this case, they might be willing to sell — maybe even at a discount.

Other pros have used public records to find recent eviction attempts (sometimes property managers would rather get rid of the home than deal with these) or even to target 2008-2009 buyers — those who bought just after the housing crash. Often, these homeowners aren’t aware of how much their home’s value has increased since the downturn. And discovering how much they stand to profit? That can sometimes seal the deal.

6. Leverage social media.

Social media can offer potential homebuying opportunities as well. Dina Castillo, a Realtor with Piatt Sotheby’s International Realty in Pittsburgh, often uses Facebook to mine homes for her clients.

To do this, she finds groups and pages that are related to her buyers’ desired location and then shares details about what those clients are looking for in a post. For example, for a buyer looking in Pittsburgh’s Brookline neighborhood, she’d head to the “Brookline Today” group, calling for homeowners whose properties might fit her buyer’s needs.

“A lot of people who need to sell their home first before buying something new are afraid to put their home on the market,” Castillo says. “The fear is they wouldn’t be able to find something else that is suitable for them on a quick timeline. Sometimes, connecting with these people off-market takes away that fear — especially if I’m working with a flexible buyer.”

7. Make a sight-unseen offer.

For buyers interested in one of the few homes that do hit the open market, agents say it’s all about acting fast. Sometimes, that means putting in an offer without ever setting foot inside the house.

Liz Coughlin, partner and COO at HD Properties, for example, recently helped a buyer submit a sight-unseen offer on a home in Palm Springs, Fla. The home went up on the local listing service at 8:15 a.m., she sent her clients video from the property around 11, and by 3 p.m., they’d made an offer. Despite the fast-acting approach, it wasn’t even the first one on the table.

“Inventory is super tight,” Coughlin said. “You just have to jump on top of anything that is a mostly good fit.”

Fortunately, her clients won out — but had they waited another few hours? The story could have been very different. Bidding closed on the property the next day.

The bottom line

Homebuying demand is strong, but the number of for-sale options out there? Those are in short supply. Getting creative, looking at off-market properties, and working with a well-connected agent can all help you get a leg up in today’s fast-moving market.

As Lennon puts it, “A lot of buyers wonder why they need to work with an agent, and I think during times of super-low inventory — like now — it’s pretty clear. Working with a buyer’s agent who is willing to get creative is the key to unlocking new possibilities and finding that needle in a haystack.”

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Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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