Buying & Selling Houses

5 Steps for Building Your First Foreclosure List

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Are you eager for the next auction now that you’ve found the perfect property to bid on? Don’t get too excited; the home you’re hoping to buy may not make it to auction, even if it’s already scheduled for sale.

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After attending our first few auctions, we realized that many of the homes scheduled to sell (including several homes we were planning to buy) were never mentioned. We’d often show up on auction day with a small list of potential properties only to find we couldn’t bid on a single one!

Over time, we discovered that only 20 percent or so of properties set to sell at auction are actually auctioned off as scheduled. This is due to the fact that foreclosure sales can be (and often are) delayed or canceled for a variety of reasons, including:

  • The homeowner paid the outstanding amount
  • The bank decided to give the homeowner more time, either to pay up or to sell the home
  • The owner filed for bankruptcy
  • The owner filed a lawsuit to slow or cancel the foreclosure
  • The home sold before the auction

And that’s not the only challenge when it comes to buying property at auction. Of the homes that do sell as scheduled, less than 50 percent go for what we’d consider an acceptable price.

That’s why, these days, we never attend auction without a large list of potential properties. If you’re planning to buy property at auction, my advice is to build a large, well-researched list of foreclosures first.

While it might seem like a lot of extra work, it often makes the difference between getting a great deal and walking away empty-handed. Besides, building an adequate list doesn’t take that much work.

Below, I cover how to build your first foreclosure list in five simple steps.

Related: How to Buy a Foreclosure: A Guide for Finding & Landing Foreclosed Deals

Step 1: Find Your County Clerk’s Website

Every home scheduled for foreclosure has a legal notice filed on it, and that notice is recorded with the county clerk. In your state, the title may be something slightly different, like county recorder or recorder of deeds.

Regardless of what the official is called, finding their website is the first step in building your list.

To find your county clerk’s website, simply search for your county in Google together with the word “recorder.” That’s usually all it takes, but you can also call your county government’s office for information if necessary.

couple on laptop, on holding gavel, online auction concept

Step 2: Search for Foreclosure Notices

After you’ve found the website for your county clerk, the next step is to start looking for foreclosure notices.

Most states post these notices online. However, if online foreclosure notices aren’t available in your county, you’ll need to visit the county clerk’s office in person. While this is less convenient, the extra work required may mean less competition for you come auction day.

Assuming you’re able to search for documents via your county clerk’s website, you can usually find relevant foreclosure notices with one of the following search terms:

  • Notice of sale
  • Notice of trustee sale
  • Notice of foreclosure

Keep in mind that each county is different and that these websites change regularly. Not all counties make things easy, but it’s always worth checking for foreclosure notices online first.

When you find a notice, you should be able to click on it to view the details of the foreclosure document.

Related: The 5 Biggest Risks of Buying Foreclosures at Auction

Step 3: Capture the Foreclosure Notice Data

Once you’ve figured out how to find foreclosure notices for your county, it’s time to start recording data. The documents you find will contain a wide range of information, and most of it you’ll want to have on hand later. At this stage, the goal is to capture as much data as possible; you can always analyze and filter it later.

Here’s some of the information you may find in a foreclosure notice:

  • Legal description of the property
  • Property address
  • Lender's name
  • Loan document name/number
  • Scheduled sale (auction) date

To make your life easier when the time comes to analyze this data, I recommend compiling it in a spreadsheet. You’ll add to this spreadsheet later as foreclosure notices don’t have all of the information you’ll need.

In fact, most notices won’t even have a full property address. To get that and other required data, you’ll have to dig a bit deeper.

Related: Buying Foreclosures at Auction: How to Avoid Overpaying

Row of Foreclosure Home For Sale Real Estate Signs in Front of Houses.

Step 4: Find and Search Your County Tax Records

Unlike most foreclosure notices, county tax records are complete when it comes to property address and owner data. It’s public information, and in most counties, it’s available online.

So now, the next step is to find tax records for properties with foreclosure notices. It might take some experimentation, but you can usually find relevant records using the information added to your spreadsheet in the previous step.

Once you find tax records for the properties in your list, you’ll want to transfer the information in them to your spreadsheet. Here are some examples of data you’ll want to capture:

  • Complete street address and legal description
  • Property tax status, including any outstanding taxes
  • Year of construction
  • Assessment information, such as assessed/market value
  • Square footage and number/type of rooms

Related: How to Find Foreclosure and Pre-Foreclosure Listings

Step 5: Search Real Estate Data Sources

Once you have what you need from the county tax records, it’s time to use sites like Zillow to complete your spreadsheet.

There are numerous online sources for property data, so you can start with the database of your choice. However, keep in mind that some sites may offer more complete information than others when it comes to properties in your county.

Redfin, for instance, might be best for your county. In others, Zillow might be better. Experiment a bit and find the site that will work best for your purposes.

In most any of the real estate data sites, you can find an abundance of extra information to add to your spreadsheet, including:

  • Estimated value
  • Estimated rent
  • Square footage, number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, etc.
  • Construction date
  • Neighborhood data, such as schools, local amenities
  • Interior and exterior photos
  • Mechanical and HVAC info
  • Price and tax history

At this point, it’s also a good idea to pull each property up on Google Maps to view the surrounding area. Sometimes, you can even see lot divisions to identify property boundaries. Use the “share” feature in Google Maps to copy a link to the map. Finish out your spreadsheet by adding these links for each of your properties.

After building and filtering your foreclosure list, the next step is to perform a series of drive-by inspections. Seeing potential foreclosure purchases in person gives vital information that you just can’t get any other way.

We cover drive-by inspections in detail in our upcoming BiggerPockets book, Bidding to Buy, so be sure to keep an eye out for that if you’re interested in learning more about the process we follow to find and buy foreclosures at auction.

In the meantime, you can check out this BiggerPockets article written by my co-author, Aaron Amuchastegui. In it, he shares two experiences that illustrate why investors should always do drive-by inspections before bidding on foreclosures.

Questions? Comments?

Let’s talk in the comments below.

David Osborn has completed more than 1,000 real estate deals over the course of 25 years, including single-family, multifamily, development, and private equity investments. He is The New York Times...
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    Luke R. Real Estate Broker from Tampa, FL
    Replied 8 days ago
    Great article, David. Nice to have a play by play to help guide when doing research on foreclosures.
    David Osborn Investor from Texas
    Replied 7 days ago
    Thx Luke
    Rebecca Fox Real Estate Agent from St Louis
    Replied 7 days ago
    Dave, I am a realtor is St. Louis, and getting that far I think I can handle, and I even have tax records included with My MLS package. I get lost on whether or not the deal is worth chasing if they owe to much. I have some experience reading the tax record at the bottom with mortgage history, or looking up past sales, but something there are liens, or people refi and it doesn't show up. In your opinion, what is the most efficient way to find out the mortgage amount or reserve I guess you would say? Also, are their companies that you can buy into that gather all of the data above and have that foreclosure list for you to save time for busy realtors and parents? Thank you for the information.....