How to Buy a Foreclosure or REO

Tips for Purchasing a Bank-Owned Home

“Bank-owned open house” sign in front of a home

DIPA / Getty Images 

Homebuyers can find themselves a discount by buying a foreclosure. This process typically entails looking for a home that's been foreclosed on by the bank because the owner had financial issues.

There are several ways to locate these properties and several things you'll want to know about finding the right agent to help you. First, we'll share how homes end up in this state.

What Are Foreclosures and REO Properties?

Banks own real estate because they have acquired the homes through foreclosure. A foreclosure occurs when a homeowner is unable or refuses to pay their mortgage payments. When that happens, the lender that backed the mortgage repossesses the home since the property is collateral for the loan.

Once repossessed, the lender—typically a bank—will auction off the property in hopes of recouping losses it incurred from the homeowner missing payments.

If the home fails to sell in the auction, the property goes on the bank's books and is referred to as a real estate owned (REO) property. Homes may fail to sell because no one showed up to bid the minimum amount of the existing mortgages, or the bank started the minimum bid so high that nobody would touch it.

Why Buy Bank-Owned Homes?

If a bank is looking to recoup its losses on the foreclosed properties, why would there be good deals? There are two reasons why an REO home can be profitable for you:

First, if two loans were secured to the property (which is common these days), the second lender sometimes does not foreclose. If the second lender does not make up the back payments to the first lender and commences its foreclosure proceedings, the second lender gets wiped out in the foreclosure.

Secondly, the bank often does not want to sit on its inventory.

Since it did not receive its minimum bid from an investor or home buyer during the foreclosure sale at the courthouse, there's a decent chance that the bank might price that REO home for a significant discount to get rid of it.

How to Find Foreclosures and REOs

To find foreclosures and REOs, you can take on the task and find them on your own. Alternatively, you can hire a buyer's agent.

Locate REO Listing Agents on Your Own

There are many places available online to find foreclosures. One of the best places to find them is on a Multiple Listing Service (MLS). This service helps connect buyers, sellers, and brokers. Search the MLS for "REOs" to find agents in your area that specialize in REOs.

Once you identify some high-potential listings, it's time to start reaching out.

There are a few things you'll want to know about REO listing agents:

  • Focused activity: Most REO listing agents list only REOs, not other types of property.
  • Dual agency: REO listing agents make money by either selling a lot of REOs or operating as a dual agent. Under dual agency, the REO listing agent will earn both the listing commission and the buyer's agent's commission.
  • Commission: To attract buyer's agents, many banks offer a larger commission percentage to the buyer's agent while discounting the listing agent's commission.
  • Representation: REO listing agents generally represent the seller, not the buyer. Consider whether you want your representation to serve as your advocate.
  • Relationship: REO listing agents are typically top-producing agents because of the volume of business they conduct. They typically do not spend a lot of time working with buyers and will probably not engage in much hand-holding.
  • Communication: Some REO listing agents are so busy that they hire assistants to field calls. Many do not give out their private cell phone number, which can make communication difficult.

A Better Option: Hire a Buyer’s Agent to Represent You

Unless you have direct experience negotiating with banks, you may receive better representation by hiring your own buyer's agent. Before selecting an agent, choose several and interview the real estate agents to find a good fit.

Here are a few things you'll want to know about buyer's agents:

  • Fiduciary duty: Buyer's agents have a fiduciary responsibility to protect your interests.
  • Representation: The buyer's agents do not represent the seller, even when the seller is paying their commission.
  • Costs to you: The seller generally pays the buyer's agents. So, it does not cost you to hire a buyer's agent.
  • Broker agreement: The buyer's agents may ask you to sign a buyer's broker agreement, which will specify the agent's duties and designate who pays the commission.
  • Agent experience: Consider working with a buyer's agent who has experience working with REOs.

Negotiating Tips for Buying a Bank-Owned Home

Once you've located some listings of interest and found yourself a buyer's agent, you're ready to move to the next step, contacting the bank.

If the home listing is relatively new to the market, it is possible that the bank will not deviate much from its asking price. You will have greater negotiating power if you make offers on homes that have been on the market for longer than 30 days.

After 30 days, you have more leverage.

If you are aiming for a certain price that will make the REO a great deal, don't be afraid to ask for it. You have substantial leverage. On top of the home being foreclosed on, the home also failed to sell at the auction. The representative or agent you are dealing with is there to get the sale done.

During this process, you should expect the following:

  • As-is purchase: You will likely be asked to buy the home "as is," and it may or may not be in good shape. Make your offer subject to a home inspection.
  • A waiting game: You could find yourself waiting a while when dealing with the bank. After prequalifying for a loan, you might be kept waiting 10 days for the bank to respond to your offer. If the bank won't budge and you receive an offer rejection, wait another 30 days. Then resubmit your original offer.

The Unexpected Costs of Buying a Bank-Owned Home

Beware that you may run into unexpected fees during the transaction.

Take note that the bank may also run the transaction differently than you would experience in a non-foreclosure home purchase.

Banks negotiate bulk-rate discounts with title and escrow companies. If you elect to use the bank's title/escrow company, check the fees those companies will charge you. Generally, fees not paid by the bank but paid by the buyer will be higher because title and escrow often make up those discounts by charging buyers more.

Expect the bank to draw up a purchase contract or addendum to your standard purchase contract. Read it thoroughly and ask a real estate lawyer for advice if you do not understand it. You can bet the bank's lawyer drew up that contract, and it's not likely in your favor.

Finally, some banks will not sign a counteroffer until all terms are mutually agreed upon between the parties verbally.