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How to find homes before they hit the market

Ask the Expert
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. Associated Press

The number of single-family homes listed for sale in Massachusetts was the lowest on record for the month of September, according to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, and although there are signs that the market is cooling, open houses remain mobbed and prices are still climbing.

At the National Association of Realtors convention in Boston last week, two industry experts divulged their secrets for finding homes before they hit the market.

Some methods are free. Some cost money. All of them are available to consumers and real estate agents alike.

Pamela Ermen of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Towne Realty in Virginia told a packed room of real estate agents that to remain relevant and vital to consumers, they have to find new ways to be of value to them, like hunting for  — and finding — hidden inventory. Realtor, coach, and syndicated columnist Bernice Ross later sat down with me for an interview. Here are their tips:

For sale by owner and expired listings

Many agents have spent time searching for new listings among “FSBOs” and sifting through ones that expired using sites like Red X and LandVoice. Ermen said agents should go through three years of expired listings; an owner may have been burned out by the process and needed time to recover. 

Buyers should tour neighborhoods and write down the addresses of the homes they like, Ermen recommended. She takes those addresses and lets the owners know she has a potential buyer if they are interested in selling.

Pocket listings

These are properties that an agent represents for sale but are specifically kept off the Multiple Listing Service. Often, the owners are either very wealthy, well-known, private, or all three. They don’t want curious people traipsing through their home either out of curiosity or with bad intentions, like scoping it out for a burglary.

To find out about these properties, you have to be in the right network. “If an agent is well connected, they can access these properties,” Ermen said.

Check Zillow’s ‘Make me move’

This program allows homeowners to upload information about their properties to the site for free and set a “dream price.” Interested buyers can find the home using the “Make me move” filter and contact the seller directly. 

“At the very least, these people have some interest in selling their homes,” Ermen said. “Why not reach out to the ones in your market and schedule a listing appointment?”

Tax records

Checking the municipal tax record can also yield results. Was the bill sent to a different address? Ermen said absentee owners are often eager to speak with interested, qualified buyers.

Web resources

Ross said anyone can use property information services like Cole Information and RedX to search for properties with very specific characteristics and contact the owners directly. The costs vary, depending on the information you’re looking for, but generally run less than $200 a month.

“For example, you can search for owners over 62 years old, with 2,500 square feet or more, and who have been in the house for 20 years or more,” Ross said in an interview. “Owners of two-story homes are particularly likely to be considering a move. Particularly in the fall, when the last kid goes off to college is a time when they’re likely to downsize.”

Homes in pre-foreclosure or foreclosure

Ross said services like CoreLogic’s RealQuest express ($49 -$149 a month) or RealtyTrac (about $50 a month) can help you find properties in which the owners are delinquent on their mortgages. She said Auction.com (free) also lists homes in foreclosure and bank-owned properties and can be a great resource — especially for developers and investors.  

The winter market is slow and it’s historically when inventory is at its lowest. Whether you’re working with an agent or going it alone, if you want to find your dream home, it helps to search where no one else is looking.

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