Driving for Dollars Bible: Finding Distressed Properties and Marketing

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Driving for dollars, for those of you who are unaware, is simply the process of driving targeted subdivisions with the intent of locating distressed and or abandoned properties. This is a guide intended to help aid investors in locating distressed properties by “driving for dollars” from steps A to Z, from locating properties to marketing. This method can be utilized by real estate investors, wholesalers and bird dogs alike.

Defining a Market Area:

Before stepping foot in your car, it’s a good idea to establish an area to drive. This will depend on your target market area, exit strategy and multiple other factors such as: tax assessed value, house age, zip codes, crime rates etc. Whatever your criteria the same concept applies. Once you have your target area defined, make a list of subdivisions within that area you would like to drive.

In my example below I am targeting subdivisions within a certain tax assessed value.

map.8__1

What You Will Need

  • Camera
  • Print out worksheet
  • Pen or pencil

Once your list of subdivisions is complete make a simple excel file to print out for use in the field (as shown in the image below). Alternatively, make a grid on paper. In addition, bring a camera to take pictures of any distressed and or vacant properties you may find. Note in your print out worksheet which camera pictures are associated with a given house.

excel_sheet2

Street Scene Analysis

The key component when driving for dollars it to be vigilant and observant at all times. In general, the best time to drive is from 10 am to early afternoon during the weekday. At this time people are typically at work and it makes it easier to take your time driving through the subdivision.

This process becomes easier if you are driving for dollars during Halloween, Christmas or a trash pickup day. Why? When Christmas or Halloween is approaching a good portion of the neighborhood will have decorations of some sort on display. Likewise, during trash pickup day, garbage canisters will be out on the streets. Vacant properties stand out like a sore thumb, as they won’t have decorations during the holidays or a trash can out front on pick up day.

examples3

Red Flags to Look For

When driving for dollars there are several “red flags” you should pay attention to. For Example:

  • Tall Grass
  • Boarded up or broken Windows
  • Mailboxes filled to the brim
  • Code Enforcement taped to the door
  • Piled up newspapers
  • Overgrown vegetation
  • Deferred maintenance

Record & Research

As you drive the neighborhoods and locate distressed properties record the address and any additional notes in your print out work sheet. Take a picture or two of the property as well. Try and take the “best” worst picture of the property as possible, this will come in handy later.

After you finish your drive, return home and research the properties you located on your counties local Central Appraisal District (CAD). Now go through the list of distressed properties you jotted down in your print out worksheet. During the research phase you will want to filter out properties that do not fit your criteria. For instance, if you are looking for high equity properties you need to look for deed dates 15+ years back. Once you have selected all the properties that fit your criteria, create a final list. This list will be used in your marketing. Make certain that the current owner is not a bank, if so you will likely need to discard it.

If you are unsure how to find your local CAD try google searching “[your county name]central appraisal district” or “[your county name]tax  assessor.” Alternatively, you can research properties in the field with your smart phone or other wireless device on the CAD website.

Central Appraisal District Examples

Below is an illustrated example of what you will find when researching properties on your local CAD, although the format and presentation will vary from one county to another. When researching some investors like to delineate between absentee owners (land lords or inherited properties) and owner occupied homes (personal residence). It is very simple to check which category a property falls under when researching  on the CAD. If the owner address and property address match, it is a owner occupied home. If the owner address and property address are a mismatch, it is an absentee owner. Personally I mail to absentee owners and owner occupied homes alike.

AA

OO

Market to your Leads

Once you have finalized your list its simply a matter of selecting your marketing piece of choice, whether that’s a yellow letter or post card. In my business I receive the best response rate by using custom invitation style envelopes and a letter template specifically designed for this lead source. Select one camera shot from in the field. You will use two versions of this picture. One copy will be inserted into the body of the letter, the other will be re-sized as a thumbnail to print on the envelope itself. This gets my response rate incredibly high, since before they even open the contents of the letter they can clearly see an image of their house in the upper left hand section of the envelope.

Make certain to use the owner address for your mailing address. If the property is owner occupied the mail will go to their personal residence, and if its an absentee owner it will go to wherever there primary residence is located. Continue to mail any leads you find in this manner every 2 to 3 months. Remember the key to success is to be consistent and persistent with your marketing campaign. You will yield the best results with repeat mailings.

letter_and_envelope

What If You are Unable to Find the Owner?

Not to worry, read my follow up post  which covers this in-depth and includes some additional driving for dollars tips, click here to read it. 

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About Author

Chris discovered his passion for real estate early on working for a land developer. In addition to flipping houses, Chris operates as a licensed Realtor in the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex. Come hang out with him on Twitter!

70 Comments

  1. There I a lot if goo ideas in this post. Now work. I might add a couple other items to look for. The has company may leave a door hanger if they are going to turn of the gas and the city may mark the curb or street if they turn if the water. Our city spray paints the curb with an arrow showing where the water meter is and sometimes try even write “off” if they recently shut off the water.

    • Chris Feltus

      Thanks for the nice comment and taking the time to read Mark.

      Yes, door hangers are an excellent idea as well. In addition, I would suggest bringing business cards with you and some simple notes to tape on the front door and garage of any vacant properties you find.

      The post you tape to the door could be simply read “We buy houses for cash as is, if you are interested in selling please contact me [name/ business/ phone number/email here]“. The business cards can be used when talking to neighbors if you are unable to track down the owner of the home. Often times, neighbors are very willing to divulge information as they don’t want a ugly vacant property sitting next door dragging their property value down with it. I will be touching on this in much more depth in the second part of this series.

    • Chris Feltus

      Thanks Glenn, I appreciate it. Hopefully you will be able to incorporate some of these ideas and generate additional leads for yourself. The second part in this series should be up next week.

  2. Brandon Turner

    Awesome Post, Chris! This is really an awesome post with a ton of actionable tips that I hope to incorporate. I’m going to use your idea of the picture on the envelope! Thanks, and I look forward to your stuff!

    • Chris Feltus

      Thanks for the kind words Brandon! I wish you the best of luck in your business and hopefully a few of these tips will help yield some additional investment properties for you.

      Another tip, that’s not included in this post, anytime your out on the road you can be driving for dollars. When I am driving comps for an appointment I keep my eyes peeled for vacant homes in the same subdivision. When I am showing houses I keep on the look out for distressed properties. Sometimes I will go off my planned route if I see a distressed property from the road side (ask my wife I have done this on date night on a few occasions).

  3. Where do you put your return address? On the back? Does the post office accept this style? Great attention getter! And great ideas.

    • Chris Feltus

      Yes I put the return address on the back with a stamp I made. I have not had any issue with the post office in regards to this style. Thanks for the nice comments Ron.

  4. Ron Ridgway on

    I’ve seen a good amount of these properties around but currently I’m not in the postion to make a move on them. That really kills me to see those possible deals just sitting.

    • Chris Feltus

      Simply open up Microsoft Word. Take the re-sized thumbnail version of the picture you would like to use and insert it into the word document.

      On the top menu bar of word (File, Home, Insert, Page Layout etc.) select Mailings. From here select envelopes -> options-> and depending on the letter size you are using select the appropriate fit, I use A2 the format for invitation style envelopes. Once you have done this position the image roughly where you want it on the final envelope (upper left hand corner in this case). Now insert a blank envelope into your printer (assuming your printer can print on envelopes, most should) and print out a copy.

      I put together a quick illustration to help you navigate through Word.
      http://www.biggerpockets.com/renewsblog/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/envelope_example.jpg

      • Thank you for looking into that. I have a couple that I have come across in my neighborhood and was thinking about sending a letter when I saw this post. Thank you for the tips!

        I see you are in the Fort Worth area. Would love to connect some time.

    • Chris Feltus

      Thanks for the compliment Jerry, means a lot. Three so far, but there will be plenty more where that came from. Several more that have the potential to be deals, but require follow-up.

      I also want to stress the properties I got under contract in this manner were from repeat mailings. In addition, I believe the format I presented in this blog post will only help increase your response rate. Compared to the standard yellow letter or postcard this is very distinct by comparison. Even if they are already receiving mail on the property, they will remember yours.

  5. Very practical and helpful. Thank you!

    Question: Who do you send the letter to if the person listed is a trust or someone c/o someone else?

  6. Shaine Cobb on

    Super post! Lots of useful information. I am excited to see the rest of the series. Thanks for taking the time to share.

  7. I really love it when I learn something new in a blog. The picture idea is very cool. Have oyu used the picture idea with any other target such as 60/90 day lates?

    • Chris Feltus

      Yes the BP Blog is a great way to learn some new tricks. I have learned a lot from BP and figured it was time to pay it forward and contribute some articles of my own. In regards to the 60/90 day lates, no I have not, but I see no reason why you couldn’t adapt this method to suit your needs.

  8. Derek Tyler on

    Chris thanks for the article, I like the picture idea you presented. I have just started driving for dollars but one issue that I have come across is that in the state of MD, most of these properties seem to still be on record with the previous owner however it is actually owned by the bank. The property will be on file with the previous owner however they have bank maintenance papers, etc on the doors. It gets a little hard to distinguish between bank owned or not. Do you run into this problem at all and do you have any advice?

    • Chris Feltus

      Hey Derek, thanks for taking the time to read through my guide.

      Yes, you will run into properties that show the previous owner on file but are currently bank owned. The reason why is typically the county clerk’s office that inputs the data lags a few months behind, which is why the information has not yet updated in the CAD.

      When you see bank maintenance or property preservation papers on a distressed property its bank owned at that point, and for my intents and purposes I discard the lead. I hope that helps clarify. Please let me know if you have any additional questions.

  9. michael watts on

    Thank you for all the information. I kind of being doing the same driving for dollars but I’m a beginner in tax lien and tax deed investing. So when I run across a vacant house, I do the research to see if the property tax have been paid on the house.

  10. Hi Chris,
    Nice tips. Much appreciated. How did you come up with the image above of the subdivisions based on tax assessed values? Is that something your county provides via their website?
    Also, you mentioned ‘make a simple excel file…’. Is that from data your county provides?
    I guess I am at a lost as to how you come up with the initial excel file of potential properties.

    Thanks

    • Chris Feltus

      Thanks for the nice comments.

      To produce the map shown in the blog post is actually a fairly involved process. You need to be able to query and manage databases from your local CAD. It allows me to produce helpful maps, but it is by no means required to conduct market research or needed when driving for dollars.

      In regards to the excel file, no this is not something the county provides. You create it BEFORE driving for dollars. It is simply a list you will create and print out to help keep track of the properties you encounter WHILE driving for dollars. For instance, if I am going to drive for dollars I will print out a copy or two of my excel template and take it with me to my car. As I am driving I will write down the address and notes of any distressed and or abandoned properties I come across. As I noted in the blog post you do not NEED to create this list in excel. You can just bring some notebook paper and jot down notes that way as well.

      This comes in handy later when researching the properties you found on the CAD, and allows you to stay organized.

      I hope that clarifies, let me know if you have any additional questions. Thanks for reading!

  11. Looking forward to the next post. What a great article. Love the step-by-step along with pictures.

  12. Very good information . I drive for dollars at least once a week . The week days works best for me also . Try driving on weekends didn’t work so well .

    • Chris Feltus

      Thanks Clayton,

      Yes I speak from experience when I suggest driving during the work week if possible. As I am sure you discovered, driving during the weekend can be an exercise in frustration. You need to be able to take your time driving through the subdivisions and analyzing the street scene. During the weekend cars will pull in behind you and it makes the process more difficult for certain.

  13. Nice post Chris!

    I do a lot of driving myself. You might want to look into using Evernote. It works pretty great for vacant properties.

    I have a notebook called ‘Vacant’s’, and when I come across a property, I create a new note, title it the property address, snap some pics and take some notes. Also, Evernote automatically geocodes the location of where you take the picture. I do this all from my iPhone (takes less then a minute), then when I get back to my computer, I have all my vacants on there, and can research at the office, or take my ipad to the country clerks and research the deeds, mortgages, taxes, etc…

    • Chris Feltus

      Great suggestions Ryan,

      I do occasionally use Evernote. In regards to geocoding, I was unaware of that feature. I actually use geocoding quite extensively in my day to day business operations, but that’s another subject entirely. It is a very powerful feature, especially with targeted lists such as vacant properties.

      Thanks for your comment, I am sure it will help benefit some of the readers here.

  14. Great article, Chris. I’ve been collecting rundown/vacant properties while out looking at open houses. I have a couple of other direct mail campaigns going on but this will be my first that came from driving for $$$. I’m kicking myself for not having pictures of the other houses right now! I’ll be stealing your picture idea and using it often. Thanks!

    • Chris Feltus

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Brandon. It’s not stealing when the information is given freely :). Best of luck with your driving for dollars marketing campaign!

    • Chris Feltus

      Tax assessed value is used when determining subdivisions to drive. It gives a broad ballpark range of the neighborhoods value. For instance if I am looking for properties that have an ARV of 120k it makes no sense to drive a subdivision with an average tax assessed value of 65k.

      As you can see in my original post, I map out all the subdivisions within the cities/counties I am interested in and I can very easily target my specific demographic.

      • Working from tax assessed values may be helpful to some, but for many that is just not a good enough indicator of true ARV. I have rehabbed three properties that had a tax assessed value of around $50K. I sold them for 104K, 108K and 115K.

        • Chris Feltus

          Andy, I think you misunderstood me.

          I use tax assessed value as a ballpark range ONLY for creating a map of target subdivisions to drive. The tax assessed value can be averaged out for the ENTIRE subdivision, and I can then color code the subdivisions on my map based on tax assessed value. For instance 80-100k brown, 101-120k yellow etc.

          I literally have every single subdivision within Dallas Fort Worth color coded by tax assessed value, and this allows me to do quick market research and gauge which subdivisions to drive. As shown in the image in the link below

          http://www.biggerpockets.com/renewsblog/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/overview.jpg

          When it comes to determining the ARV of a given subject property, yes absolutely used comps off the MLS.

  15. Thanks for the new strategy, Chris. I really like the idea of having a picture of the house on the envelope…who wouldn’t open after seeing that?

    On a side note, you mentioned you stay away from banked owned (REO) properties – is this because the banks are not allowing you to assign or double-close on these properties? Or do you believe there’s just too much competition from other investors, making it difficult to have offers accepted? Thanks for the post.

  16. Shari Posey on

    Do you use blank perforated cards in your own printer or send them to a service? I’m wondering how to print the photos on a small envelop?

    It seems really labor intensive compared to a letter. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea and I’ve already been out collecting photos and addresses but I’m wondering how to simplify it and still get results.

    • Chris Feltus

      Shari,

      You can outsource it or do it yourself. If you are wanting to use small envelopes, such as the invitation envelope, you will need to use the A2 template in your printer and word. Not every printer is able to do this. If your printer does not have the ability to print on small letters (or its becoming frustrating) just use the standard No. 10 business letter envelope size. Its just as effective and any printer should be able to accommodate this size.

      There may be a little bit of learning initially, but once you get the hang of it the process is very simple and easily repeatable.

  17. Thank you Chris for this valuable post. I have one question about banked owned properties, if we find one can we short sale it? And also are there other assumptions to verify that its a banke owned property?

  18. Hi Chris,

    I am coming to this a little late, but I am just trying to learn about everything. Thank you for being so clear. Even this post about one part of the process is the first time I am beginning to understand what wholesaling is and the efforts it may entail. I’m going to find the rest of your articles that are referred to in the comments.

    Thanks

  19. Hi Chris,
    I’ve found your information very helpful, but I was wondering if you could release a little more information on using queries on the TAD website, with respect to neighborhood tax rates?
    Tom

  20. Michelle Moore on

    On the weekends, “walking for dollars” works great too. Get your exercise and possibly get paid to do it!

  21. Chris this is amazing post you sent out highly helpfull i am new and getting all what you said together i will be doing some serious walking and find me some properties thank you chris can i ask you any question regarding wholesaling is okay

  22. Chris,

    Do you have any experience or knowledge whether this strategy can directly be applied in Canada as well? I am not sure if we have a database like the local Central Appraisal District (CAD).
    Regardless, great post. Loved it.

    Aj

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