Understanding Probate Real Estate: Investing Tips, Marketing Advice

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Probate real estate investing is one of my favorite strategies. I have found the folks in probate to be one of the most motivated groups of sellers, as they almost always want to sell the property in the estate. This group of people is what I like to call a “captive audience” for your direct mail; in addition, probate investing is a much less crowded field than some of the other strategies like foreclosures.

Like most other investing strategies, they key to success is having an ongoing marketing campaign.  A lot of real estate investors send out one or two letters to the executor (or personal representative as it is called in some places), and then throw in the towel. Their excuse is often that they don’t want to continue to bother these people.

Understanding the Probate Process

The truth of the matter is that family members begin the probate process at different times.  Sometimes the process is started almost immediately. Other times the family members just cannot deal with settling the estate until some time has passed. They need time to grieve. In so many cases, it is just an overwhelming task for those left behind.

Not only does the executor have to have to sell any property that is in the estate, but they typically have to sort through a lifetime of personal belongings. I know from experience — this is a very difficult job. These are items that were valued by the deceased. Often the family members have a sense of guilt over disposing of things that played such an important part of this person’s life, so they just put off the whole process. It’s not at all unusual for someone to contact me about selling property in an estate after a year or more has passed.

When should you begin marketing to them?

In my area, the probate information comes out in the local newspaper at the same time each month.  I always begin working on getting these folks in my database when the information becomes available to me. Other real estate investors always ask me this question, “Shouldn’t we wait a while before contacting them?”  I don’t believe you should.

First of all, it takes about 30 days for the information to become available in my area. And as I said before, in many cases a considerable amount of time has already passed before the probate process is even started. By the time I have done my research to confirm that there is indeed property in the estate, these people are entered into my database, and the letters are printed and mailed, several more weeks have generally passed.

What makes these sellers so motivated?

  • Often times they have inherited a house in need of a lot of repairs. In most cases, they either don’t have the money to spend on the house, or they just don’t want to invest their cash fixing up this (inherited) house so it can be sold. These folks will be your best leads.
  • There may be an existing mortgage on the property.
  • It may be a “pretty house” and they just don’t want or need another house. Often these properties will ultimately be listed on the MLS.

What exactly do they want?

What they want can usually be summed up in two thoughts. “They just want the cash that is sitting in the house, and they want to be rid of the problem of selling the house to get the cash.” In other words, a quick solution with a payday is what they are looking for. If you can provide this, then you have just found yourself a motivated seller.

5 Tips for Marketing to Probate Executors

1. I always send a white professional  looking letter that expresses my condolences, and I acknowledge that I understand this is a difficult time for them. I never call these folks unless they have first contacted me.

2. Be mindful in everything you say and do, that these folks are grieving.

3. Understand that if they are not ready to sell the property at this time, it doesn’t mean that you need stop your marketing efforts. Continue to check in with these folks to see how settling the estate is progressing. Let them know that you will be there to assist them at any time in the future when the time is right for them.

4. If they have furniture that they need to dispose of, provide the seller with a list of local charities that will gladly accept donations of this type.

5. If they have gotten to a point where they just can’t seem to move on, help them get “unstuck”. Offer to finish cleaning out the house if this is the problem. Many times they will get to a certain point in the process and just find that they cannot seem to get the job finished. Find out what the problem is and offer to help.

Probates more than any other group of motivated sellers, need extra hand holding.

For the best success with this investing strategy, think of ways to be of assistance to the executor and the heirs, especially how you can make this process easier for them. Then just be there when they are finally ready to take the step of selling the property.

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About Author

Sharon has been investing in real estate since 1998. She owned and operated a successful home inspection company for 17 years. In January of 2008 she took the leap of closing her business to become a full time real estate investor.

88 Comments

  1. Probate is a great strategy for acquiring real estate. As Sharon indicates, it does take persistence and patience but the pay-off can be well worth the time and effort. One way you can make yourself a little more compassionate to the executor is to include a picture of yourself on the letterhead. In the body of the letter you can also explain how you have established your real estate investing business for the future of your family and how you have helped other folks in the same predicament.

  2. I’ve seen many people who get nice deals out of these probates. The most important thing as Rob said, is trying to be as personal as you can be.

    Thanks Sharon;
    M Mark

  3. Nicely done! I have always loved probate and find that they are indeed some of the most motivated sellers. I like the way you encourage readers to remember they are grieving as well.

    Nice job

    Jim

    • Jim –

      I really like probates. I think that sometimes real estate investors have a hard time delving into that whole niche, but it is very profitable and if done correctly a win-win for everyone.

      • Where to get this probate ?I do not c in my local newspaper anything like that at the county office they probate everything.
        So how to find RE PROBATE?

        • Zee-

          You will have to call your local probate court and ask how you get the information. I have another post on probates coming out today on BP that will shed some light on this.

          Sharon

    • Michael –

      Each city has a different procedure. They are published in the newspaper once a month here. Call your local probate court and ask what their procedure. They will be happy to tell you. I can’t wait until ours get online like they are in some areas.

  4. Kim Wennerberg on

    Great tips, Sharon! I have not delved into probate as of yet, and would’ve likely fallen into the group of sending 1 or 2 letters & subsequently throwing in the towel. Thanks for reminding us that probate can be lengthy & families choose when to begin the process at different times.

    @ Rob, love the idea of including a pic! No matter that it might be our business, it will always be largely personal to a seller, and so should be to us as well. Nothing like that personal connection to make it more personal, while at the same time, setting you apart from your competition. To expound on that thought, you might consider putting a picture of your family, or you with a pet. Yes, kids & animals sell.

    • Kim-

      Whatever group of folks you send direct mail to whether it is probates, absentee owners or another group, you have to have an ongoing direct mail program. You have to be in it for the long haul to make it work. Don’t waste your money just sending a couple of letters.

    • what I’ve learned is to get a firm understanding of the probate timelines. Most states follow this 30,60.90 day timeline.
      30 days – not much happening other than waiting for letters testimentary and getting the paperwork in order. not a lot of pressure going on. less motivation
      60 days – now the PR is most likely able to sell the property, provided there are restrictions
      90 days – usually around this time a lot of creditors have submitted their claims, uncle sam wants his taxes, hospital bills become due, etc. this is when the motivation is the highest.

      The PR (personal representative) is a regular private citizen like you and I. He/She is looking for clarity and help. This is most likely a one-in-a-lifetime kind of event and they just want to get through with it. See how you can align yourself and help them.

      • quick note to clarify my reply from yesterday. I am referring to the timeline of when the case was filed, not from when the person passed. Like Sharon pointed out to me, sometimes the PR files within a short period time and sometimes they wait for years. we see it all the time in our probatedata.com databases.

  5. Kandace Price on

    My mother just passed in early August, leaving me everything as I am an only child. At first I was going to sell her home, but after much consideration, I decided to fix it up and assume her mortgage. I am currently looking for a suitable tenant because I already have my own home and another investment property.

    Having just gone through this, I only have one thing to say. If someone had approached me about purchasing my mother’s home within the first month of her passing, I would have been beyond furious.

    • Kandace –

      For all the investors that work with estates, each and every one of those folks knows that this is a difficult time for the family. For each person like you that has the abiltiy to keep the property, there are so many more that are left with a home that they must sell quickly.

      It is those folks that find themselves with a mortgage they cannot pay, or a home that needs tens of thousands of dollars in repairs that they cannot afford to do, that investors are able to help. These people are grateful to find a solution.

      I’m very sorry about the loss of your mother.

  6. Great post Sharon! Thanks for sharing you information. I had not considered probate before, I think I will learn a little more about it.

  7. Newest reader here – just subscribed to the feed.

    The way you present dealing with homeowners going through probate makes it sound much less complicated than most people think. Probate Properties was always something I was going to look in to, but just never did.

    Great tips here.

    • Absolutely Rachel.

      The one thing you might do is “practice” talking with sellers a bit before tackling probates. The only thing you have to remember is to be very mindful that they are often grieving. I always acknowledge that I know that they are in a tough situation.

  8. Thanks Sharon,
    My other question is can you flip/wholesale these probate properties as well? Also, I was listening to your vid where you were interviewed with Lolita. You mentioned you had forms to download. Do you have still have these available?

    • Rachel – you can wholesale these just like any other property. I still have the forms, in fact I have added 2 more. There are 5 forms total in my “Real Estate Investor’s Toolbox”. I am working on them as we speak because they weren’t being delivered properly. You will find them on my blog.

      There is a pop up where you can subscribe, and there is also a “subscribe” box at the right. If for some reason you don’t get them tonight, try back tomorrow. I think I have the problem fixed, but I want to make sure. Go ahead and subscribe anyway. I will send out a broadcast message tomorrow with the forms in case anyone hasn’t gotten them.

      Sharon

  9. Hi Sharon, I’m new to wholesaling and considering concentrating on probate leads, but when I look at my local public notices I see that the executor of the estate is (9 times out of 10) a lawyer. Is it effective to market to them? I would imagine they would have their own resources and any correspondence from me would be wasted. Any thoughts or insights on this situation would be greatly appreciated!

    • Ephraim –

      That is very different than it is here. Could it just be the probate leads from that month?
      There are some attorney’s that come up over and over each month, and you can market to them. In general, I have much better luck with the executors.

      If you want to market to those attorneys, I would probably send them a letter of introduction telling them what you do. Be sure to include a business card. I would follow up with them quarterly.

  10. Sharon,

    I am curious as to what the most popular strategy is when dealing with probates? I realize rehabbing would be the most profitable, but if we were not quite at that stage yet, Sharon, would the majority of these be straight wholesales, seller-financing deals or other non-wholesale deals such as lease options, etc? Many of the probate properties I have come across are still in pretty good shape to imagine the sellers would be motivated enough to lower their price to wholesale standards. I’ve been doing direct mail for probates but I haven’t done enough yet to get a bead as to the best strategy in this arena. But I do find it quite fascinating, and I do enjoy conversing with the families.

  11. Rich –

    I am a wholesaler so I am always looking for wholesale deals. If you are a buy and hold landlord, you can take advantage of many different strategies. Executors want to get rid of these properties so they won’t,to do seller financing, LO etc. You would have to close on the property first. Then you would have a lot of options from then on.

  12. Thanks, Sharon. That bolsters my confidence that I am doing things the right way. I’m sending out letters on probates filed within the last few months and following up on 1st and 2nd letters sent during 2012. I will concentrate fully on wholesaling rather than be distracted by the other strategies at this time.

  13. Rich –

    I think that is a good place to start. Once you move into rehabbing or buy and hold, you can decide what to do with each property. Buy and hold landlords that are also wholesalers are in a great place. They are positioned to get great deals for themselves.

    Here’s the thing; it doesn’t have to be an “either or thing”. As your business grows, you will have choices if you are a wholesaler. You can keep the best properties for yourself, and wholesale the rest. I hope this helps.

    Sharon

  14. Hi Sharon,
    I really enjoyed your post. I think you touched on all the major points and it motivates one to get started. You made it less intimidating :)
    thanks again
    Jonathan

    • Jonathan –

      I’m glad it doesn’t seem intimidating, because it really isn’t once you understand the process. Feel free to ask if you come across questions or concerns. Good luck.

      Sharon

  15. “By the time I have done my research to confirm that there is indeed property in the estate, these people are entered into my database, and the letters are printed and mailed, several more weeks have generally passed.”-SV

    What do you do to confirm there is property in the estate?
    I know that this article is a little old, I appreciate your help.

    Thanks

  16. Gary –

    I have a subscription to the PVA or tax assessor’s site for my county. It is $25 per month. You can look up houses free, but you only get a tiny bit of information on them. In other areas you get more information free.

    You have to look up the property address and see who the owner is. Then you also have to look up the deceased to see if they have other property.

    Just google: tax assessor’s site (your county) (your city). I hope this helps.

    Sharon

    • Some believe that those with a loss could be offended by being marketed to, which is reasonable, but so is your point that this is a necessary part of the process. I know that your mailings acknowledge the loss of a loved one, but what is your opinion of sending a standard mailing. My thought is that the recipient may not consider that it was sent because of the loss but just a serendipitous event.

      BTW I went to my first REI meeting last week, and when we were networking I asked if anyone had marketed to probates. Nobody I talked to used that angle nor did they know anyone who was doing it. Which is great but, there was no one there that would know about the local probate process. I’m sure that I can figure it out, I’ll just have to hold my own hand.

      • Gary –

        It has been my experience that one of the first questions the selller will ask is how you found out about the property, and you are going to have to tell them the truth. What I do is just address the “elephant in the room” right away. You can choose what feels right for you though.

        Give your local probate court a call and just ask if they put out a list. That’s what they do in my area, but not everyone is so lucky.

        There is a lot of information on this site about probate investing so just dive in.

        Sharon

  17. Sharon,
    How can I find the information on probates and absentee owners, addresses and owner information to start a direct marketing program?

    thanks,
    Nicolas

    • I agree with Sharon when she suggests to read some of her articles. Direct Marketing to properties in probate can be a good start but Nicholas you need to ask the question on how can you help these people with their problems. The personal representative can contact you from direct market but you need to have an exit strategy on place to help them resolve their problems by providing solutions.

  18. Sharon Vornholt

    Nicholas –

    Look at my posts here on BP. If you click beside my picture, it will take you to my posts.

    Basically you purchase a list of absentee owners, then you set up a direct mail campaign. For probates, you will have to figure out how you can get those names in your area. Here, they are published in the newspaper. In some areas they are online, and still in other areas you have to go to the courthouse. I have a ton of information on this subject here and on my site.

    I hope this helps.
    Sharon

  19. Hi Nicholas,
    I am not familiar with absentee lists and I like what Sharon recommends. As for probate lists, we offer online direct access in CA, NV, NM, AZ and OK. You get the attorney information, the administrator of the estate, heirs and also a good idea of what real estate is included. Full disclosure: I am a part owner of the company.
    As for other states you can try http://www.usprobateleads.com. I don’t think they offer direct downloads and searchability, but they seem to have a good grip on lists.

    Be well,
    Jonathan

    • Sharon Vornholt

      Jonathan –

      Thanks for the info on your company. I am trying to put together a comprehensive list of companies for the country to help folks out. Why don’t you send me a message. I would like to chat sometime.

      Sharon

  20. Hi Sharon,

    How often do you follow up with the Probates and Absentee Owners? Once a quarter or once a month?

    thanks
    Eve

  21. Jason Brooks on

    LOL…Once again I have asked a question that was answered in another post. I think I’ll stop commenting for a while and read everything I can find first…then ask my questions. Great info Sharon!

    • Sharon Vornholt

      Jason –

      It’s OK to ask. It’s almost impossible to read and retain everything that is written here; there is just so much information. And, much what you read about you won’t be in the right stage in your business or in the position to implement all of it at that time.

      Every time I re-read a book, a post or listen to an audio I get something new out of it. I do try to look up previous posts when I have a question usually. However, some times you just need a quick answer. I’m glad you found this post helpful.

      Sharon

  22. Hi Sharon,

    What kind of response rate are you getting from your probate mailings? Also how many prospects should one mail to monthly in order for it to be worth the cost? I contacted a list provider and they told me that my county has only an average of 25 probate listings a month. I will add another county which will bring it up to 60 a month. Plus they are not able to tell if decedant has real estate or not. The list is expensive but so small I was wondering if it was worth it.

  23. Sharon Vornholt

    I get anywhere from 50-85 a month; it just depends. This is what I have after we have determined they have property that I might want to buy. There are more names on that list.

    What is your population where you are?

    Some of those probate lists are so expensive they aren’t worth it. I would keep looking for another list provider. I just spoke to one company that was really expensive myself to ask about getting a county that isn’t published in the newspaper.

    Sharon

  24. Michael Gavitt on

    Sharon,

    I’m looking to get into probates starting out as a way to generate cash assigning to a buyer no money or credit. I was wondering if you do this nationwide? I live in a more rural state (WV) and know some people who had great success doing this in other states. Any thoughts on that?

    Are you familiar with Mark Van Dike’s system for this? I think i’d rather learn about it on here rather than pay $497 that I dont have.

    • Michael –

      I only invest in my city. If you are new, I don’t recommend that you invest in another city. It’s hard to make money even if you know the area, and it’s a whole different ballgame if you don’t know the areas where you will be investing.

      Don’t buy anyone’s system to invest virtually until you have a lot of experience. It’s a recipe for disaster. I buy houses all the time from people that did this. They paid too much and they lose a ton of money in the end.

      Those guys make it sound like a piece of cake which it isn’t.

      Sharon

  25. You need to have an exit strategy and a database of buyers/investors ready to loan you money to buy/fix/rent the property or just pay you an assignment fee for bringing them a deal based on the probate lead. Probates is not a strategy to go through the school of hard knocks when a family is going through would could be a tough time. Don’t waste their time if its a hope and a prayer to maybe find someone to assign that propert to.

    Keep in mind there is only so much you get it out of something without bringing something to the table.

    I agree with Katen with people paying way too much for properties because they just don’t have a clue. There is a lot of free info on the Internet for real estate. Remember you get what you pay for.

  26. You need to have an exit strategy and a database of buyers/investors ready to loan you money to buy/fix/rent the property or just pay you an assignment fee for bringing them a deal based on the probate lead. Probates is not a strategy to go through the school of hard knocks when a family is going through would could be a tough time. Don’t waste their time if its a hope and a prayer to maybe find someone to assign that propert to.

    Keep in mind there is only so much you get it out of something without bringing something to the table.

    I agree with Sharon, with people paying way too much for properties because they just don’t have a clue. There is a lot of free info on the Internet for real estate. Remember you get what you pay for.

    • Melvin –

      That’s a great point to bring up again. Don’t go into a probate deal unless you are sure you can close either yourself or you have a solid buyers list. Those folks really need a solution.

      Sharon

  27. I think in Sharon’s podcast she said 80% after the 5th contact.

    I know you are a big fan of postcards, I am wondering what size of the postcard do you find effective, Sharon? Do you use yellow postcards?

    • Cortez –

      I don’t have that information in front of me, but I have put some statistics in my direct mail posts both here and on my blog that refer to the % of deals that come after each mailing. And Eve is right, about 85% of your DEALS will come after the 5th mailing.

      Sharon

    • Eve –

      I have typically used smaller postcards, but I am going to use some larger ones. I think in general the larger cards will stand out better. Yellow does work well.

      Sharon

  28. Hi Sharon,

    Thanks for the post…great information!

    I started my probate campaign in Jan this year. Where I am, the files are not published online or in magazines or newspapers, so I have to physically go to the county probate court to manually pull files.

    I grab all of the necessary info but my issue is properly qualifying these leads. I search the address in the assessor’s database (many times no docs come up). If that’s the case, I search the decedent’s name. I look at deeds and mortgages to determine the last time it was sold, for how much it was sold, who the current owner is, and the equity position.

    I feel like I’m doing the right qualifying process but my call backs have not been very good at all. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve only received 2 calls from executors that are interested in selling and one of which was only interested in selling an out of state property. That’s mailing 30-50 new probates each month so I’m up to about 200+ letters a month.

    My question is to what extent do you qualify these leads? If you can’t find recorded RE related docs pertaining to the decedent’s address or name, do you still send mailers? Or do you only send to those that you’re able to find real estate attached to the decedent’s address/name?

    Also, do you mail to executors that are surviving spouses or children that list the decedent’s address as their own (meaning they live in the house as well)?

    I think I’m on the right track but would like to further qualify and hone in on quality leads. Hearing your qualifying process and call back rates would very helpful to tweak my process.

    Thanks in advance!
    Mike

  29. You need the address of the deceased. If that is a house, then you just look up the address. If they were somewhere like a nursing home, then you can look them up on by name (both ways on the tax assessor’s site).

    We do not mail to surviving spouses.

    We only mail to folks that have property. You should be able to look these people up on the tax assessor’s site. Here I pay $25 a month for a subscription. You call back rate is too low.

    Sharon

    • Mike – it just depends on where I am in the cycle, It also depends on a lot of other factors such as the quality of your leads. I can’t tell anyone they will get a particular number of calls off of 100 letters. That is really a small sample. When you send out your mailing you will get your averages. You will also get an idea of whether or not something needs to be tweaked.

      Sharon

  30. Ok, thanks.
    I’m in the process of tweaking my mailers right now. I also need to improve screening to improve my lead quality. Hopefully those improvements will result in increasing my call in numbers.

    Thanks for your feedback!
    Mike

  31. Sharon
    I have been reading your various blogs and watching your YouTubes for over a year now. Thank you for your valuable insights!
    I have bought and flipped … but haven’t always made a profit. I now have a new real estate license and would like to help people with their probate properties. I don’t have a list of investors yet but I do have knowledge of the market and what it can cost to rehab a property as well as contractor contacts.
    In your opinion- in my initial letter- should I offer “to BUY or help them SELL the property” since I can do both …. or is that too confusing?
    thanks again,
    Irene

  32. Irene –

    You should pick one, but never put both of those in the same letter. It’s a conflict of interest in most states. You need to see what the laws are in your state with regards to this and with disclosure issues.

    If you are still not consistently making a profit on your deals, I think you are being premature trying to coach others on this process. You should be making a profit every single time. Either you are paying too much, your comps aren’t right or your initial rehab costs aren’t accurate. You have to figure this out before attempting to help others.

    Your safest bet might be to work as an agent for a while. These two business models are two very different animals. What a real estate agent considers to be a good deal, rarely resembles what an investor considers to be a good deal.

    Sharon

    • thanks- that’s very helpful!

      I noticed that you don’t talk about calling any of your prospects directly. I know your list is large – but I was wondering if you have any particular philosophy about that?

      • Sharon Vornholt

        I never call probates unless they have first contacted me. I personally wouldn’t do it.

        There is nothing wrong with contacting absentee owners or calling folks from other niches if that’s what you want to do.

        Sharon

        • Great post Sharon!

          I just purchased Ron Meads probate book. Have you ever read it or heard of it? I ask because after tons of time searching the web Ron and yourself seem to be the only ones focusing on this niche. Not to say their isn’t more. There just isnt many talking about it right now.

  33. Hi Sharon,

    When you work with Absentee owners, how do you arrange to see the property? Does the owner have to trust you and mail you a key?

    • Sharon Vornholt

      Eve –

      They will always figure out a way for you to look at the house. Many times someone like a relative or a neighbor has a key.

      I have even had cases where they no longer had a key, and I have met the locksmith. They would pay for a key to be made, I would meet the locksmith and look at the property then mail them a key.

      I have never had a problem getting in. This is one more reason to have a web presence. They can look you up and see that you are a real business.

      Sharon

  34. Hi Sharon,

    Great content. Just got a hold of my first probate list. Do you share any of the language you use in your letters?

    Thanks,
    Danny

  35. Hi Sharon,

    You’ve shared some real jems in here. I appreciate the help. I’m about to start my own marketing to probates here shortly.

    Quick question, do you use a answering service, like Patlive, to take all the calls from your letters, or do you use your personal number or work number and answer yourself? Clearly, we’re dealing w/ a delicate subject, so the personal touch helps when they call, I’m sure. I’m just trying to get a feel for the best system.

    Thanks again!

    – Zach

    • Zach –

      I still answer my phone.

      I may look at a service in the future just to take the initial call and get the name, phone number and address of the property. I don’t want anyone going any further than that with the “interview/screening”. The will most likely muck it up.

      I think Pat Live is expensive. I may have some information coming up soon on another similar company that will be cheaper. Check back after the first of the year.

      Sharon

  36. Sharon, I have Ron Mead’s Probate course and to me it is one of the truly outstanding RE courses. First, it is inexpensive for the outstanding content. Second, Ron teaches probate investing in plain language easy to implement steps.. What I like most is how he explains how to go to the court records department. For all the people complaining that the records are not online – Wake Up. That is exactly what we want, difficulty in getting information. Then only the serious and committed investors will profit, not the wanna-bes who want everything easy. Here in California we have to go to the courthouse. Only the most bare information is published in the papers. In three years I have only seen one other investor searching the probate files.
    Bob

    • Bob –

      That is what makes probates such a good niche. Most people just won’t do the work necessary to get the leads. Some other investors might do it once or twice, but the tend to quit after just a couple of tries. They are looking for the “easy button to success”.

      Probate investing is not harder than any other niche. You just need to learn the basics.

      Sharon

      Sharon

  37. Probate is the Best Kept Secret in Real Estate. I’ve been working probate for over 25 years. If you’re not….you should. Great Post! =)

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