Kevin and Patti Silva needed to buy a house – fast.
Along with their two children, three dogs and a cat, they had sold their house in Atlanta and were all packed, with the moving truck scheduled for late May, ready to move to the Bay Area for a job transfer.
When conventional house hunting with a real estate agent didn’t work out, Kevin Silva placed a detailed Craigslist ad describing their target neighborhood, price and house size. He netted five responses, one of which led to making a deal to buy a San Anselmo house directly from the owner.
While having all the stars and planets align so perfectly is rare, the Silvas’ story illustrates how many house hunters are coloring outside the lines to land a place in the overheated real estate market. Whether it be cold-calling homeowners with offers or placing ads in search of potential houses for sale, being creative is key, experts say.
Of course, the top strategy is both the simplest and the hardest – pay way over asking, in all cash.
Short of that, there are a variety of ways prospective buyers can find a house as well as rise to the top of the offer pile:
Placing an ad: Swooping in with an offer before a home is officially posted for sale is a top tactic, and it worked for the Silvas.
After being consistently outbid, they considered renting, but that market was too competitive. “I realized unless we got really aggressive, we would end up in my parents’ basement in San Mateo with the kids, the dogs, the cat and a really unhappy wife,” Kevin Silva said. In the end, a simple online ad labeled “Wanted to buy: House in San Anselmo or Fairfax” did the trick. A $1 million budget undoubtedly helped. He got one response from a man who, like Silva, was of Portuguese ancestry. They quickly bonded on the phone. Silva visited the three-bedroom house and liked it, and returned with a real estate agent friend who advised him that $1 million was a reasonable price. Attorneys helped draw up the paperwork in an amicable deal.
Both parties agreed that if the sale fell through, the Silva family would rent the house. “That took off a huge amount of stress, knowing we had a place to land,” Silva said.
Pocket listings: Many buyers are taking advantage of “pocket listings” – a heads-up within a brokerage or an informal notification network of an upcoming sale – that have been growing in popularity in recent months.
“We see pocket listings more especially in the upper end,” said Patrick Leaper of Red Oak Realty in the East Bay. “Generally, it’s someone across the aisle (in a real estate brokerage) who says, ‘Look, I have a three-bedroom house in the hills for $1.2 million and the owners don’t want the hassle of publicly marketing it.’ “
Such tips are generally within bigger brokerages, but agents at smaller firms can call friends at the larger brokerages to seek them out.
“I got my buyers in because we responded to a pocket listing e-mail within our own company,” said Simon Shue of Zephyr Real Estate in San Francisco. “We were able to negotiate and save the seller money through not staging, painting and (refinishing) floors.” Located north of the Panhandle, the property sold in March for $760,000.
Zillow’s Make Me Move feature: Real estate site Zillow.com has a feature called Make Me Move for homeowners to post what price they’d accept to sell their house.
That’s how one couple from Newark finessed their move to the Peninsula. Doris and Charles (they asked to withhold their last name for privacy reasons) faced the usual discouraging situation of being consistently outbid – in their case, five times.
That’s when Doris decided to check out Make Me Move. She saw a house in San Carlos asking $950,000.
“If we hadn’t gone through those bids, I would have thought that was crazy,” she said. “The house is not quite 1,500 square feet, one story, an old house, nothing spectacular like you’d expect for almost a million bucks.”
They contacted the owners and visited the house several times. While it had some deferred maintenance issues, it met their needs, and the price was in line with similar properties.
“We thought, ‘Do we want to keep being outbid by other people or take this house?’ ” Doris said. They ended up buying it for $925,000, negotiating money off for a new roof.
Both Doris and Charles are attorneys, so they prepared the paperwork themselves. The sellers were real estate savvy as well, she said.
“We were happy with each other. I gave them a good deal – they lived there rent free for two months after the sale – but they gave me a good deal, too,” Doris said. “If they’d put the house on the market, they probably could have gotten a little bit more, but paying the real estate commission would have eaten that up.”
Target a neighborhood: Real estate agents and would-be home buyers sometimes contact owners in target areas directly.
Randy Brase, who owns a modest two-bedroom bungalow in San Bruno’s Huntington Park neighborhood, said he was surprised to receive unsolicited calls and letters from Realtors and house hunters expressing interest in buying his house. At the time, he was in the midst of some repairs and remodeling so the house appeared run-down.
“A man and his wife wrote me a letter saying they wanted to relocate from San Francisco and wanted to buy my house,” he said. “They said that they’re not afraid of doing work to fix up the house; they’ve done stuff like that to their house they live in now.”
While representing clients hoping to buy in the Eureka Valley/Castro area, Scott Yarmack and Dan Bunker of Zephyr wrote to local property owners looking for potential sellers. They got one response, and after viewing the house decided to pursue it. Yarmack lined up a contractor for an informal inspection before the house hit the multiple listing service.
As soon as it was listed, he convinced the listing agent to present his client’s offer immediately after the first Sunday open house, rather than waiting to market the house for several weeks. The all-cash offer with no contingencies and a 14-day close was accepted.
Getting an offer accepted: Finding a suitable house is only part of the hunt. Getting an offer accepted is the next big hurdle.
Prospective buyers often write a heartfelt “love letter” describing their family and their positive feelings about the house. While that alone won’t land a place, it can keep the buyers in the game.
“The personal component has an impact,” Leaper said. “If the letter paints a sweet picture of a buyer who (the seller) feels more attracted to, but their offer isn’t as good, often sellers will give the buyers a chance to improve their offer to match a better offer.”
Offers with as few contingencies as possible are more attractive to buyers. Getting inspections in advance to forestall an inspection contingency and having enough cash to avoid either financing or appraisal contingencies are ways to ensure a deal will close quickly.
“Do your homework,” said Red Oak’s Larry Benedetto. “My clients closed in late July. For every property they considered purchasing, they went to the city to check out permits, they got disclosures from the listing agent and they read everything. When there were any unknowns, they would get an engineer to check things out. Only then, when they were confident they fully understood the property, were they able to write clean offers with a quick close.”
Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @csaid