Foreclosure is a process that occurs over a period of time, involving three major stages. Interested home buyers can make a purchase offer and potentially acquire property at any point in the foreclosure process. However, there are different variables to consider at each stage, and different parties involved, depending upon how far the home has proceeded down the path towards foreclosure.
STAGE 1: PRE-FORECLOSURE
When homeowners default on their mortgage, their property is considered to first be in a state of pre-foreclosure. Lenders are typically quick to respond to that first late payment, with phone calls to the borrower.
How the foreclosure process actually proceeds from this point forward varies greatly from state to state. It’s important to know, for example, how your state determines property ownership prior to foreclosure, since this largely dictates which steps will be taken and how long each step will take.
Buyers may find that properties that are in the pre-foreclosure period are attractive investments. While it’s unlikely that a highly discounted price can be negotiated, especially for desirable properties, there are several advantages to purchasing at this stage.
First, there may be less competition from other buyers before the property is put up for public sale. Also, if your agent approaches the current homeowners with sensitivity to their situation, you’ll improve the odds that a cooperative agreement can be reached, eliminating many of the problems and uncertainties that make purchasing foreclosure properties in auction sales a risky business.
STAGE 2: SALE/AUCTION
If the lender and borrower are unable to work out a solution during the pre-foreclosure stage, the lender will take steps to sell the property to new owners. Following a notice of sale, a foreclosure property is typically listed for sale at auction. The timing and procedures of these sales vary by state and, to some extent, sales terms will be determined by the lender. For example, an auction can occur through a public sheriff’s sale, or through a private party. Some lenders may even opt for a short sale, which means the property is sold for less than the amount of money owed, simply to remove a non-productive asset from the books.
Frequently, the best bargains in distressed properties can be found at auction sales, although numerous pitfalls can be encountered. First, it’s fair to say that you probably won’t have complete information about what you’re purchasing. Because defaulting homeowners frequently still occupy the home at this point, and are not likely to open their doors to show you around, you won’t be able to see beyond the exterior, much less bring in inspectors. In this type of sale, there are no requirements to disclose flaws; properties are sold “as is,” without any warranties.
It may also be difficult to determine if there are any old debts that could surface later as liens on the title. For example, you may become obligated to settle with the contractor who put a new roof on the home, but was never paid. And if the old homeowners still occupy the home, you’ll have to contend with the awkward business of evicting them, facing the additional risk that they will damage the property before they vacate.
Another challenge can be paying for the home. Usually, public sales require cash payments, meaning that your financing will need to be in place well in advance of the auction.
STAGE 3: REAL ESTATE OWNED (REO)
If a foreclosure home does not successfully sell at auction, it moves into the lender’s inventory and is considered a real estate owned (REO) property. Generally speaking, lenders don’t like to hold non-performing assets, especially ones that require upkeep and maintenance, so they may be motivated to sell. At the same time, lenders still want to maximize their profits and are unlikely to accept deep discounts.
Buying foreclosure property at the REO stage is typically the easiest and most straightforward approach. Many of the risks that are present at the auction stage have now been eliminated. However, the potential return on your investment has also been reduced. On the other hand, expenses such as taxes and liens, that aren’t generally covered in an auction sale, may be covered by the lending institution in an REO sale.
If the home is held by a smaller bank, you and your buyer’s rep may be able to negotiate a purchase directly with the lender. It’s more likely, however, that you’ll be working through an outside real estate representative who has been retained independently by the bank.