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What Is Buying a Foreclosure Really Like? 5 Homeowners Spill the Tea

At HomeLight, our vision is a world where every real estate transaction is simple, certain, and satisfying. Therefore, we promote strict editorial integrity in each of our posts.

Why might you be interested in buying a foreclosure? The reasons are myriad, from getting a good deal to living in a neighborhood you couldn’t otherwise afford.

Christina Griffin is a top agent who’s listed and sold thousands of foreclosures in Florida. She was drawn to foreclosures because, “For me, having a house that has equity has always been important. I’ve always looked for deals and opportunities, and I’m really great at finding foreclosures.” Many homebuyers like buying and knowing that they have immediate equity, above and beyond the down payment, in the house.

If you’ve thought about buying a foreclosure, plenty of websites offer advice — or even promise to teach you the tricks of buying foreclosures and flipping homes for a “low fee” of several thousand dollars. But what’s missing are the stories of real-life homebuyers who’ve actually bought a foreclosure.

What’s it really like to negotiate with a bank? What happens if the copper plumbing is stolen out of the house between the offer and close? If you’ve ever wished you could sit down with someone who’s been through the process and is willing to share their experience, here are five homebuyers on what it’s really like buying a foreclosure.

A cul de sac where a foreclosure is located.
Source: (Michael Tuszynski / Unsplash)

A great opportunity

Homebuyers Oron and Lauren saw a great opportunity in the foreclosure they bought. They hadn’t been specifically looking for foreclosures when they found the bank-owned property back in 2015, but it was an amazing deal.

“It was on a dead-end cul-de-sac with three other houses,” Lauren explains, “with almost an acre of land, two outbuildings, and priced at only $75,000.” They made an offer of $70,000, which the bank accepted.

Their Realtor, Annette Wilcox, helped them make the offer for less than the asking price. “We weren’t sure what to expect, but they accepted it,” Lauren says, “and we didn’t have any trouble getting a mortgage.”

Luckily, Oron is handy, because the home had sat vacant for 18 months and needed a little work.

They did most of the cosmetic updates before moving in, replacing the HVAC and water lines.

Lauren’s advice to other foreclosure buyers is that they should “Always know that there’s going to be more money involved than you think for repairs — add 20% to what you think your budget is going to be.”

They also updated the home to match neighborhood comps — such as adding butcher-block countertops and upgrading the flooring.

They sold the Norwalk, Ohio, home three years after purchase for $160,000 — even though they’d intended to stay long-term, a job opportunity in Costa Rica proved too much to resist. When they sold, they realized a healthy profit of $90,000.

So needless to say, they’re happy they bought a foreclosure, and they would do it again!

A quick flip

Barry Karch works with 70% more homes than the average El Paso agent, which positioned him well to flip a house. He knew the market and what the home could capture in terms of sales price once it had been fixed up. Even though he’s normally a buy-and-hold investor (also known as a landlord), he couldn’t pass up the potential deal.

His flip was, “Super dirty and had all kinds of junk in there, so it didn’t look very attractive,” he says, “but it was fine once it was cleaned out.”

It didn’t need any repairs, and he never even made a payment on the mortgage he took out to finance the purchase. Closing on the sale didn’t take long — as the bank already owned the property — and with a quick turnaround, he’s satisfied with the roughly $15,000 he made.

Moving on after divorce

It’s not uncommon to have to sell the house and split the proceeds in a divorce, or to see one partner buy out another, but sometimes keeping the kids in the same neighborhood and schools can be tough. When Kristin S. got a divorce back in 2015, the only homes she could afford in the areas she wanted were foreclosures. Buying one got her a lot more house for her money.

“I purposefully used the listing agent working for the bank to also represent us,” she says, “since I knew that, by law, they had to represent us both fairly.” (This is not permitted in every state.)

Because her divorce wasn’t final, she had to work out a deal with the bank. Her mother and stepfather bought the home with the agreement that the bank would let Kristin take over the mortgage as soon as the divorce finalized. The unique circumstances meant that she did have to put down 20% on a purchase price of $245,000. Homes in the neighborhood now sell for upward of $300,000.

The house needed a lot of work, but the biggest issue was mold all over the garage walls and sheetrock. Contractors came to the house while the agent was there and gave bids on the spot.

“It’s a tuck-under garage and bedrooms above,” she describes, “so the listing agent agreed to pay for half of the repairs for a total of $6,000 because my son has asthma and his bedroom was above.”

Her best advice for other buyers looking at foreclosures is that it’s not for the faint of heart. “If you are an anxious personality, buying a ‘fixer-upper’ of any kind may be too much,” she warns. You should know, going into it, how much uncertainty you are willing to stomach.

She’s almost completely remodeled the home since closing, and has enjoyed the process, but not everyone has the vision to see what can be. “Know thyself” particularly applies when buying in the foreclosure market.

Source: (Claudio Schwarz / Unsplash)

An unexpected buy

When Marie S. started shopping for foreclosures, she wasn’t looking for herself. She and her husband had decided to start investing in real estate, but they didn’t have a lot of cash, so a foreclosure looked like the perfect option. But when their agent showed them a cute house on the east side of St. Paul, she fell in love.

“It had a built-in buffet and original woodwork, a nice backyard, and a two-car garage,” she says. It was even in a better neighborhood than their current home. But when they made an offer to Fannie Mae, another buyer came in higher. They moved on.

Until their phone rang two months later. “I was completely shocked when my agent told me that the other buyer’s financing had fallen through,” she says. They had an opportunity to get the house, but they had to make a decision that day. As well, Fannie Mae was only giving them two days to overnight mail the earnest money deposit.

Their agent took them through the house again, and they decided to jump on the opportunity. It was a scramble to transfer funds from an out-of-state bank, get a cashier’s check, and drop it in the mail, but by Friday night, they’d won the house.

When they arrived for the inspection, the home inspector told them that the house was in great shape cosmetically, but it needed a new roof. He asked if they wanted to go ahead with the purchase or walk away; since the house was already such a great deal a new roof was doable. But when he went into the basement, another problem emerged.

Sometime in the two months between when they’d originally walked through the house and when they’d had their offer accepted, someone had broken in and stolen all the copper plumbing. When buying a Fannie Mae house, there’s no way to negotiate for any repairs after a home inspection; it’s either buy the house or walk away.

“It was really frustrating dealing with them,” Marie explains.

“We tried talking to them and explaining that the house was now missing the copper, and that we’d made an offer on a house with the copper intact, so in our view they were responsible to fix it, but they wouldn’t budge.”

They wouldn’t drop the price, and they wouldn’t replace the stolen pipes.

Even so, at $60,000, they went forward with the purchase and rented their existing home. And then the first water bill came.

“In addition to stealing the copper, the thief had stolen the water meter. But the city had replaced it before the home inspection, so we didn’t know about it,” Marie sighs. “Fannie Mae hadn’t paid the bill, so now the city was billing us!” She remembers the bill being around $500.

Once again, Fannie Mae didn’t want to pay. But this time, Marie and her husband had some leverage.

“Because they’d received the bill two months before closing, and the city proved they’d billed them, our agent was able to force them to pay it. But it was a nerve-racking week waiting to hear back.”

Finally, all was set in their new home. When she sold it five years later, she realized an almost $100,000 profit, even after repairs. Her advice for foreclosure buyers?

“Be patient; things will go wrong, and it’s not easy to deal with Fannie Mae or a bank as owner. It won’t be like negotiating or working with an owner as a seller.”

a house that was bought as a foreclosure.
Source: (Aubrey Odom / Unsplash)

Buying a family home

While agent Annette Wilcox had hoped to find a foreclosure, it was a seller’s market in her area.

“It was more about looking at neighborhoods and the size of the house,” she explains, “but we’d hoped to find a house we knew we could do some fixing up and having instant equity.” As an experienced agent who works with 77% more single-family homes in Norwalk, Ohio than other agents, she knew the power of built-in equity.

When she found the perfect house, she bought it — twice. “We were the winning bid at auction,” she says, “but when I presented the offer, I realized I had been bidding against the bank!” She withdrew, irritated, and decided to wait. Sure enough, it came back on the market a few months later, and she began negotiating with the agent.

It took six months of bargaining with the bank — which she believes had over-priced the house by $60,000 because they’d compared it to non-distressed sales — to land it for $220,000. Her husband is a veteran, so they used a VA loan, and she selected a local title company she trusted to handle the closing.

The house only needed cosmetic repairs — like raising the floor in the sunken living room — and her husband and family members got them all done before they moved in.  She estimates the value of the repairs at about $25,000.

Even though it took months to finalize the deal, Annette is thankful with how things turned out. “With buying it cheaper than the neighboring houses and my husband doing the construction work, I had instant equity.” She now puts the home’s value around $325,000.

Should you buy a foreclosure?

Whether flipping the house, or living in it for a while before selling, all four homeowners made money when they sold. They also all had to deal with unexpected repairs, and not all of them were able to get estimates for the work before they closed on the house. But they’d all do it again.

If these stories have convinced you to look at foreclosures, you’ll need an experienced agent. Marie S. would have had to pay for a new water meter if her agent hadn’t known who to call at Fannie Mae! An agent who’s experienced in the neighborhoods and types of homes you want to buy will be one of your biggest assets when you buy a foreclosure.

Header Image Source: (Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock)