While trying to buy a house this summer, I assumed our real estate options were limited to homes that were officially for sale.
Well, guess what? We ended up buying a house that wasn’t even listed—and learned that this home-buying strategy wasn’t just possible, but often preferable if you’re purchasing property in a competitive market.
Here’s how we pulled it off, and how you can, too.
How we bought an unlisted house
The backstory: My husband and I had been house hunting for months in Alabama, and had fallen in love with one particular property in the highly desirable historic district of Florence. We made an offer the same day we toured the house, only to be heartbroken upon learning that it went to another buyer (a relative of the seller).
Feeling at a loss, we scoured Florence for other options, but nothing else was for sale—which made sense, because it’s a coveted area of the Shoals region.
Disappointed and tired of waiting for listings that seemed to sell within days of their going live, we asked our real estate agent, Jody Lanier with MarMac Real Estate, if he had any ideas.
That’s when he introduced the idea of looking beyond what was available on real estate listings sites.
We were game to try it out. So our real estate agent put out feelers, and soon found a 1917-built home that was on our perfect street. My husband and I fell in love with it the moment we set foot on the front porch and felt giddy stepping inside.
Basically, the sellers had named their asking price, and if we were interested, we could put in an offer for that amount—take it or leave it. Since the price was within our budget, we went for it, signing and submitting a typical home buyer’s contract that evening.
In the morning, we had more good news: They’d accepted!
It was a thrill to know that we’d gone under contract without having to compete against other buyers, saving us a lot of worry and disappointment in the offer process.
How to buy a house that isn’t on the market
Buying an unlisted house appears to be a growing trend in heated markets. According to Pamela Ermen, president of Real Estate Guidance in Norfolk, VA, it’s called “going under the market,” which means digging into the housing inventory in a particular area to find unlisted gems where the owners might be up for selling if they receive the right offer.
It’s just smart to “introduce yourself as a buyer to [a home] before you have to compete with other people for it,” says Ermen, who specializes in such listings.
Here are a few tactics that will help make this needle-in-haystack process a success.
Find a real estate agent willing to do some digging
Buying a house that isn’t for sale takes more legwork on the agent’s end than usual. So for starters, you’ll want to make sure you have an agent willing to go the extra mile. Here are a few of the steps agents take.
- Review expired listings: This is where your real estate agent digs through expired listings to see who once had their home on the market, checking to see if it ever sold. If it hasn’t, your agent can then reach out to the sellers and see if they’re open to selling now.
- Check tax records: Your agent can also research tax records in a particular neighborhood to see who has a different address for tax returns than the property address. This suggests that the house is vacant or an investment property.
- Send direct mail: This involves a real estate agent sending postcards to homeowners in the neighborhood or ZIP code you want to live in, inviting them to get in touch if they’re open to receiving offers on their home. Since part of the appeal might be that the sale could be easy and practically painless—no home staging or open houses needed—the postcard should emphasize that the agent has “fully qualified buyers” (like yourself) who are interested in a “quiet sale.”
- Prospecting neighborhoods: This is where you and your agent drive around a particular neighborhood, writing down addresses of homes that, if they were on the market, you’d love to see. During the COVID-19 pandemic, buyers can also do this on their own, then pass the list of addresses to their agent, who can then reach out to these owners.
While a real estate agent will have to do many of the above tactics, there’s plenty home buyers can do as well to improve the odds of finding an unlisted property they’d love to purchase. Here are a few tactics we tried.
Commit to buying a house in a particular area
If a real estate agent is willing to go the extra mile to find you an off-market home, pledging your commitment to that person is a no-brainer. Stay loyal to that agent so his or her work will pay off.
In our case, our real estate agent showed us about 15 homes this summer, so we knew we’d work only with him on a sale to make it worth his time.
When an agent finds you an off-market home, be ready and willing to go see it at a moment’s notice. In our case, our agent urged us to go ASAP, before the sellers potentially changed their mind about selling. Ermen says she once showed an off-market home at 10 p.m.
Work out your mortgage ahead of time
Ermen says it’s a good idea to get pre-approved for a home loan, and have that letter from the bank in hand to submit with your offer. This proves you’re serious, and can put your money where your mouth is.
Decide what you’re willing to do
Get crystal-clear on your budget and what you’re willing (and not willing) to do to get a home before going the route of an off-market listing, says Ermen.
The nice part about buying a home this way means that you’ll hopefully avoid lots of back-and-forth negotiating, as in a typical sale, and the worry that you’re competing with other buyers. But that doesn’t mean you can necessarily go in with an offer far below asking. If you’re in a competitive market, you’ll need to ask yourself: What am I willing to do to buy this house?
Don’t assume your seller won’t play the field
Even if you’re the first buyer to come knocking at a homeowner’s door, don’t assume things will stay that way once you’ve piqued the seller’s interest in selling.
“You have to assume that a seller is astute enough to know that they might get more money with more competition,” explains Ermen.
You’re also going to have to be prepared to make an offer quickly, as we did. Be fair, legitimate, and direct in your offers.
“You know what they say,” Ermen says. “If you’re going to sleep on it, you won’t sleep in it.”