The latest evidence indicates the market is tightening again — not loosening, as had been expected. At this writing, the number of new listings has declined for the seventh straight week. So it’s time for serious buyers to start knocking on doors.
That’s what my cousin and her husband did, years ago, when they decided they wanted to buy their own place in Florida. And it worked!
They wanted to buy something in a small enclave in Bonita Springs, where they had been renting for several years. The first house they tried was occupied by a seasonal renter, who directed them to the owner’s house up the street. My cousin’s husband wasted no time: He knocked on the owner’s door and asked, “Would you be interested in selling your rental?”
They chatted for a few minutes, and the owner said he’d think about it. A few days later, he said he’d sell. They struck a deal, and to this day, the seller, my cousin and their spouses are fast friends.
It doesn’t always work out that way, of course. In this day and age, you are just as likely to have the door slammed in your face as receive a polite response. And if you pick the wrong day or time, you might even have a pistol — or worse, an AK-47 — brandished in your kisser.
Even without going to those extremes, you do have to be ready for a lot of rejection. Most people don’t even try this method, and even realty agents tend to dislike going door-to-door on behalf of clients who have identified where they want to live.
Some years ago, Lesley Lambert, then of Park Square Realty in Westfield, Massachusetts, swallowed her anxiety and started knocking on doors. Her first stop was answered by a woman who hugged her and started crying. At the second stop, the owner slammed the door, though he soon came out and apologized.
In her post on real estate site ActiveRain, Lambert didn’t say she acquired any listings, but she did come to realize that door-knocking wasn’t all that terrible.
As an alternative, some people write letters to owners in their prospective neighborhoods. I spoke to two agents who have tried that tactic on behalf of clients — one wrote letters and the other mailed fliers, each to no avail. But it worked splendidly for Northern Virginia broker David Rathgeber. Twice!
When Rathgeber, owner of Your Friend in Real Estate, wanted to move closer to his daughter and granddaughter, he sent letters to the owners of the 45 one-level houses that met his specifications. He received a response from three and bought from one. On another occasion, he targeted about 150 houses on behalf of a client; he only received “a few responses,” but that was enough.
“It was what my buyers wanted, never went on the market, and we paid a fair price with no competition,” Rathgeber told me.
The key, he says, is to be as precise about what you want as possible. Not just the location and style of house — say, modern or ranch — but also the number of bedrooms, baths, square footage, lot size and anything else that sets your heart aflutter.
“If a buyer can be very specific,” says Rathgeber, “this whole idea can work like a charm.”
Your agent should be able to help you identify places that meet your requirements. But you can do your own research before — or even instead of — calling in a pro.
Once you’ve identified a couple properties that seem to fit your needs, you can find out some basic info at your local tax assessor’s. With an address, you should be able to find the owner’s name and how much they pay in property taxes, wrote agent Bill Gassett on ActiveRain. (Just remember that your taxes would not necessarily be the same if you bought the place.) Gassett, of RE/MAX Executive in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, adds that “quite a lot of (other) useful information” is available from the county clerk’s office. You also can search online databases or visit your local library.
Be aware, though, that these sources are not infallible. Tax assessors’ records may be inaccurate, for example, because few owners let them in to look around. And Zillow’s popular Zestimate feature is widely panned by agents when it comes to ascribing values to properties. (On my own house, the only thing Zillow has right is the number of bathrooms.)
Whether knocking on doors or sending letters, it is best to identify yourself right away as a serious buyer — not an agent looking for listings or an investor who only wants to flip houses and pocket the profits. Tell them why you are interested in their place, that you are willing to make a fair offer and that they won’t have to pay a sales commission. Another bonus: They won’t have to allow potential buyers to schlep through their homes day and night. You can also offer to close the deal at their pleasure, even if it’s months off.
If they are not ready to move, ask if they know of anyone in the neighborhood who might be. Above all, be sincere and courteous — even if they are not.
Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 50 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing-finance industry publications. Readers can contact him at email@example.com.