Distressed Homeowners: Rules of Engagement

Jeremy’s take on buying a foreclosure from a distressed homeowner is typical.

“I’ve heard that’s a good opportunity to buy,” he said over a breakfast of bagels and coffee, explaining that he and his wife are trying to purchase their first home and are looking for bargains. “But I’ve also heard the process is complicated, and I’m not sure I want to deal with all the legal issues and other issues involved.”

As foreclosures proliferate and home prices stagnate in many real estate markets across the country, more investors and potential homebuyers like Jeremy, who may have been priced out of the market in recent years, are considering foreclosures as an opportunity to find bargains. And contacting distressed homeowners — who have defaulted on their mortgage payments but may be able to sell their property to avoid foreclosure — can be a good way to circumvent intimidating public foreclosure auctions, which require a higher risk tolerance and much more cash on hand.

But the prospect of contacting owners in default is enough to scare some buyers away, despite the steep discounts that are available. That’s because communicating with a distressed homeowner can be mentally, physically and emotionally draining for many buyers. They endure the hassle of tracking down the owner’s contact information and then summon the courage to actually make contact, only to have the door slammed in their face — figuratively and maybe literally.

Meanwhile the homeowner is being bombarded by letters or phone calls from the foreclosing bank and other investors, some of them showing little compassion or consideration for the homeowner’s predicament. The homeowner doesn’t relish the idea of talking to another person who promises to help out but whose sole purpose is making a quick buck.

Yet somewhere in this downward spiral of embarrassment, frustration and cynicism is an opportunity to make the best out of a difficult situation. If the prospective buyer or investor can cut through all the clutter and communicate effectively with the distressed homeowner, both parties may be able to emerge from the situation with a victory.

The following are some rules of engagement to help you communicate effectively with distressed homeowners.

Think win-win
The right approach includes viewing the purchase of a pre-foreclosure property as a win-win situation for you and the homeowner in default. Before making any attempt to contact distressed homeowners, spend some time considering how you would feel if the roles were reversed. What would you do if you defaulted on your mortgage? How would you respond if someone contacted you offering to help you avoid foreclosure by buying your home?

Such an exercise should help you realize that homeowners aren’t likely to respond favorably unless you show genuine concern for their situation and offer them an alternative that is truly better than any other option.

“Marketing should be about what you can do for that motivated seller, not about you,” said real estate investor and trainer T.J. Marrs.

Once you meet with the homeowners, be prepared to do a lot of listening, advised Southern California investor Michelle Mangione, who has been purchasing properties from distressed homeowners for more than three years. Listening to what they have to say will help you understand where the owners are coming from and how you can present an offer that helps them out.

“You can be a better negotiator just by listening,” Mangione said.

Be ready to act quickly
You’ll be wasting your time — and that of distressed homeowners — if you’re not ready to act quickly once they agree to sell. Make sure you have financing in place and the proper real estate forms on hand when you meet with the owner. You can obtain the proper forms through a local real estate agent, real estate attorney or escrow company.

Also make sure that it makes financial sense for you to purchase the property. Start by subtracting all the debt owed on the property from the estimated market value to determine how much equity you have to work with. You can research the estimated value and debt using an online foreclosure database like RealtyTrac or with the help of a local real estate agent.

Send letters first
Your first communication with owners in default should be a letter or postcard focusing on what you can do for them. It’s less confrontational than calling on the phone or knocking on the door — although you may eventually follow up with a phone call or in-person visit. Include your phone number and e-mail address on the letter.

Marrs recommends sending several letters over the course of the default period. Your letters will become increasingly effective the closer it gets to the date of the public foreclosure auction.

“One letter is pretty much useless,” Marrs said. “Three letters is about five times more effective than one letter to the same lead.”

Mangione recommends sending handwritten letters to help you stand out from all the other investors contacting the homeowner.

“I hand write every one. It’s important to me,” she said, noting that her letters are effective because they successfully get homeowners to call her back. “The owners get back to me. I just wait for a phone call.”

Use the f-word sparingly
In your initial contact with homeowners, whether by mail, by phone or in person, avoid mentioning the obvious — that they are in foreclosure. This approach helped real estate agent Adam Hunt smooth out what could have been awkward conversations with two distressed homeowners he contacted recently.

“Literally, both of them I went to their house and knocked on the door. I introduced myself. ‘I’m a real estate agent, I specialize in finding properties for my clients and helping people in foreclosure. Do you know anyone that can benefit from that?’ And of course they said ‘I can benefit from that,’” he said, noting both homeowners ended up selling to his clients.

Know state laws
Several states, including California, Illinois, Minnesota and New York, have laws and statutes that specifically govern real estate transactions involving homes in foreclosure. The primary focus of these laws is to protect homeowners in default from unscrupulous scam artists. Many of the laws require that any sales contract involving a home in foreclosure include a notice of cancellation section that gives the distressed homeowner a clear method for cancelling the sale within a certain timeframe — typically up to five business days after the contract is signed.

You should become familiar with applicable laws in your state, not only so you do nothing illegal when communicating with the homeowner, but also so you can present yourself as an above-board, ethical and knowledgeable buyer. In most cases these laws are not overly oppressive and incorporate common-sense provisions that apply to any real estate transaction.

Buyers and investors can often find excellent bargains by purchasing directly from the homeowner in default. And while communicating with homeowners in default requires persistence, careful preparation and tact, it’s certainly possible — and profitable — for anyone willing to learn the process.

On the Web:
http://www.realtytrac.com/
California Civil Code 1695
New York Senate Bill 4744
Illinois Senate Bill 2349
Minnesota Statute 325N

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