Everyone keeps saying it’s a buyer’s market, now’s the time to buy, blah blah blah. What difference does that make when you still don’t have $150k to plunk down for a house – and when the credit crunch means that even YOUR spotless credit makes it hard to get a loan?
Not to mention that so many of the houses for sale now, while the current owners are taking a loss, still have prohibitive prices or costs that are so inflated they still aren’t accurately reflecting what the place is worth. You could be getting a “deal” and still watch your home devalue over the next several years.
And anyway, who wants to pay that much when they don’t have to? Not me.
There are lots of ways to buy a house on the cheap these days. With the help of my friend (and realtor!) Anne Soffee, I rounded up some ways that you can get in on the ground floor.
1. Shop for foreclosures
Starting with the most obvious, foreclosures are good for you because it means that the house isn’t necessarily a junker. There are lots of foreclosed homes in very good neighborhoods that may have everything you are looking for. Anne says to be aware, though, that an owner who couldn’t pay for his house, also probably could not pay for any major repairs that were needed. A thorough inspection will be necessary, especially since most of these homes are also sold “as-is” – meaning the current owner (i.e., the bank or government) will not be making any repairs before handing you the keys.
Another caveat from Anne: "The enticingly low price you see on the listing can sometimes be misleading. Particularly when a foreclosed property is in a desirable neighborhood or otherwise "hot" market, it could sell for well over the advertised price. Banks will sometimes get dozens of bids on a choice property before they accept one -- often for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars above the list price."
2. Look for short sales
A short sale is a great way to get a cheap house, because the homeowner still owns the home (which means all the normal real estate rules apply), but the bank has agreed to let them sell it for less than their current mortgage. It’s basically designed so that the bank can avoid the trouble of a formal foreclosure. The biggest downside for you, as a buyer, is that you may have to wait a loooong time for the bank to approve your offer – because they are the ones holding the purse strings at this point. Anne says that recently more banks have been pre-approving their short sales to help streamline the process. There’s no guarantee of the discount you’ll get with this kind of a purchase – you might save $5k or you could save $50k. It’s entirely dependent on the current mortgage and the bank.
3. Pick the best location. There are two ways this can go. You can buy in a transitional neighborhood – this is typically in an urban environment, as opposed to the suburbs, so you have to want to live in the city. There are major deals to be had in areas that the city wants to fix up, or even better, where residents have just started moving in and fixing up places for themselves. You do have to have a bit of a sense of adventure for this option though – you may have to deal with higher crime rates and the occasional unsavory character (I always thought this was part of the charm), and you will most likely not be in the county’s best school district.
You can head the opposite direction as well: home prices are usually cheaper in the country. Bonuses here are that it’s usually quiet, homes might be new or old and you certainly won’t be crowded. The drawback is that you live in the sticks, so if you are someone who needs to go to Target every 2 days, it’s not the best choice.
4. Consider an "as-is" homes
These can be located anywhere and they could be private sales or a foreclosure. When you buy one of these homes, you agree to take on all its problems. You will have to shell out for your own inspection (usually at least $250) and whatever pops up on the inspection is purely for your own knowledge – you can’t ask the seller to make repairs. But sometimes the house is perfectly fine: I sold my first house as-is – with no major repairs needed – and the buyer scored a $20k discount, just because I needed to unload the house.
5. Apply for a local grant
There was an organization in my old town that worked in transitional and developing neighborhoods – "blighted areas" the city called them. There were tons of historic houses that were boarded up and falling apart. Through this organization, you could buy a house for ONE.DOLLAR. One. The only catch was, you had to agree to live in the house for a certain number of years, fix the place up and keep it maintained. Look for programs like this in your area, because they do exist.
HUD’s Good Neighbor Program – This is very similar to what I mentioned above. Through this program, eligible families can buy a home at a 50% discount – you just have to occupy the home for the required period of time (so, all you flippers out there, this one’s off limits). After the three-year occupancy period, you can sell the home – and keep the profits.
You absolutely can find these deals on your own, but it's much, much easier to go through a realtor. Get yourself a buyer's agent. These agents work purely on your behalf - not for the seller, not for the bank and not even for themselves (they are prohibited from showing you their own listings in many cases). And, they are free. You don't have to sign a contract with them, and you don't pay them money - they get paid when the seller pays their commission.
That said, if you choose to go it alone, you can find foreclosures, short sales and all the rest through your state's HUD office, Fannie Mae, IRS Auctions and Auction.com. Major banks like Chase will sometimes list homes for sale on their sites, as do some asset management companies like Keystone, United Country and Williams & Williams. Often foreclosures and auctions will be listed in the classifieds section of your local paper - and there's always old-fashioned pavement pounding. Drive around and look for realty signs - if a property is a foreclosure or bank owned, it will likely be advertised.
Anne left me with one more great tip:
"In real estate, don't forget that cash is king – so a first-time buyer who submits an offer that's dependent on FHA financing or an iffy mortgage approval will probably take a back seat to an investor willing to hand over quick cash with no appraisal or approval necessary."
Anne Soffee is a realtor living and working in Richmond, Virginia. She specializes in older homes in the heart of historic Richmond.
Image via respres/Flickr