BOSTON (MainStreet) -- With more than 1 million U.S. homes in some phase of the foreclosure process, great deals abound -- if you know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.
"The No. 1 reason to buy a foreclosure is the potential for a good bargain," says Daren Blomquist of RealtyTrac.com, which follows the U.S. foreclosure market. "Distressed properties have always come with a built-in discount -- even before today's foreclosure crisis."
Would-be foreclosure buyers should tread carefully, since properties are typically sold "as is."
RealtyTrac figures show the average "short sale," or distressed property, sold at a deep discount by a homeowner at risk of foreclosure fetched just $192,129 in the second quarter. That's 20% less than the $241,715 the average nondistressed home sold for.
"Bank-owned" properties, or homes lenders have seized through foreclosure and have put up for resale, sold for even less. Also known as "real-estate-owned" properties ("REOs" for short), bank-owned homes went for only $145,211 on average during the second quarter -- 40% below the average for all housing sales.
"Foreclosures might not be for every buyer, but we believe they represent a great opportunity for many buyers," Blomquist says.
Still, he recommends would-be foreclosure buyers tread carefully.
After all, foreclosed homes are typically sold "as is," even though many fell into disrepair as their former owners struggled with money troubles.
Some ex-homeowners also damage homes on their way out the door, while other properties sit vacant for months or years -- attracting vandals or falling further into decay.
How can you tell the good from the bad and the ugly?
Here are five things Blomquist says smart foreclosure buyers should always do:
Tip No. 1: Focus on REOs if you're a novice
Blomquist says inexperienced buyers should probably steer clear of foreclosure auctions and possibly even short sales, focusing instead on REOs.
After all, short sales can involve lengthy negotiations with lenders for approval, while foreclosure auctions require all-cash payments (you can't take weeks to secure a mortgage). You also can't inspect a home that's facing foreclosure auction, as its current residents technically still own the property and don't have to let you in.
By contrast, REO deals are very similar to traditional home sales.
Lenders typically hire real estate agents to show REO properties to would-be buyers, and also allow home inspections and the use of mortgages to finance purchases.
At the same time, REOs generally offer the lowest prices of any distressed properties.
Blomquist says that because they're often in the poorest condition, while banks frequently heavily discount REOs to promote quick sales.
"A bank isn't emotionally attached to a REO -- it's just looking to recoup as much of its losses as possible," he says. "So the lender is often more willing to capitulate on price."
Tip No. 2: Inspect properties carefully
Assuming you follow Tip No. 1, you'll have a chance to have a home you're looking at professionally inspected.
That's key, because most short sales and REOs are sold "as is," even though their financially strapped former homeowners rarely kept up with the maintenance.
Blomquist recommends having a good home inspector go carefully over any foreclosure you're thinking about buying. Then present the seller with a list of all problems and estimates about how much they'll cost to fix, using this rundown as a tool to negotiate a lower price.
Tip No. 3: Set up financing in advance
Blomquist says many short sales and REOs are actually attracting multiple offers these days, so you should set up mortgage financing in advance.
"Having your financing in order in advance is crucial," he says.
He recommends getting pre-approved for a loan before looking at properties. You should also check your credit score, fix any credit problems and set aside enough cash for a down payment.
Tip No. 4: Hire a good buyer's agent
"An experienced buyer's agent -- particularly one who's familiar with foreclosures -- can really help you navigate the process," Blomquist says.
The National Association of Realtors offers a Short Sales & Foreclosure Resource certification to agents who take a special class on the subject. Similarly, the private Charfen Institute provides classwork leading to a Certified Distressed Property Expert designation.
also maintain online databases of buyer's agents who specialize in distressed deals.
Tip No. 5: Research your market
Study your local foreclosure scene carefully and understand how much properties are selling for, how quickly they're moving and how much a distressed home's value will likely rise in the future.
"It's important to not make the mistake of counting on any major price appreciation in the near term," Blomquist notes. "We're still in a depressed market, and we're probably not going to see home prices appreciate much for quite some time."
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