The New Way to Market to Probates

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I have been marketing to probates using direct mail for a long time now. Over the past 6 months or so, I have noticed a change that will directly impact how I market to these folks in the future. In fact, I would say this will be my new way to market to probates.

My procedure has always been to add these folks to my database each month when the list comes out. As soon as they are entered, I send them the first in a series of direct mail letters. I then mail to these folks every 4 to 6 weeks continuously for about 15-18 months.

Over the past few weeks, I have been looking at the 2010 probate database. Previously about 10% of the houses on the original list would remain after 12 months. What I have discovered is that somewhere between 60% and 75% of those properties are still not sold. The percentage varies by month, but that is a huge difference!

Don’t you think these folks might be a lot more motivated than they were 9-12 months ago? I know I do. Winter heating bills will be arriving soon, the property tax bills just went out in my area, and these folks will be looking at another premium for homeowners insurance.

Why 15 -18 months?

Because in the past, most of the houses would have been sold by that time.  

The probate people seem to fall into two categories; those that are actively looking for an investor to buy their property, and those that think they will get a quick sale for more money by listing them on the MLS. The folks that are “investor minded” will generally respond much sooner to your marketing than those people who list their properties. However, there are some that will not even begin to think about selling the house until a year or more has passed.

A lot of these houses will be listed on the MLS right from the start. I know this, but I mail to them anyway. Not all of these houses that are listed will be sold by conventional means. It is those folks that still have an unwanted house after 9 months or a year that I want to capture with my marketing.

Updating your list

I have good intentions when it comes to keeping my list updated on a quarterly basis. But in reality, it’s usually updated about 3 times a year at most. One critical time to look at updating your list is at the 1 year mark. As I said, typically l would have only about 10% of the original names on the list that I started with. The majority of those houses would be sold on the MLS, to family members, to ME or to another investor. The ones that remain are still good viable leads.

My New Normal

The fact that houses are sitting on the market longer and longer, has definitely changed the way I will market to probates. Looking at my list, the numbers started to change in March and April of 2010 or just over 18 months ago. I have been watching them ever since. It’s almost the end of 2011 now. Given the large amount of houses from 2010 that still haven’t sold, I believe that investors will be seeing more and more motivated sellers if not “desperate” sellers in the upcoming months. These “additional” houses come with expenses that folks can no longer afford.

My new normal will be to market to these folks for probably 24 months as long as this trend continues. Once again, this all goes back to updating your list. As boring as it is, it’s a necessity.

A Perfect Example

I just got a call today from someone I spoke to about 6 months ago. At that time he told me the house was listed, but they hadn’t had a lot of activity. It had been listed for about 6 months at that time, and they had just renewed the listing. Now it is almost one year later, the listing is up in just under 2 weeks, and they want the house sold before they have to pay the taxes and the homeowners insurance. I will let you know how this turns out. I have an appointment tomorrow to look at the house.

About Author

Sharon Vornholt

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.


    • Michael – Probates are published in my city once a month at the same time. In some areas, they are online. Sadly, in some small towns you have to actually go to the court house. Call your local probate court and ask them how they are published. They will be happy to tell you.

    • Mike G. – You can always check your local tax assessors office (called the PVA in my area) to see if the house is sold. Here in Louisville, I pay $25.00 per month for access to the site so that I can view the entire record for the property. The free listings don’t tell you much. Access to the PVA is a must for a real estate investor.

      Follow up is the key to success. Direct mail does that for you. Every month those folks get another letter reminding them that you want to buy the property. That’s why direct mail campaigns are so good.

  1. Repeat marketing is always the key. Usually the heir’s of the property have totally unrealistic expectations of what the property is worth and they want to get full retail from the start even though the property needs work. When nobody is biting on the price they are usually brought back down to reality and the investor who has been sending them direct mail all of these months is going to be the first guy they call.

  2. Somewhat misleading title. A new way to market to probates would be to actually do something new. Instead of mailing a card or letter you might send flowers with a note card that says “Sorry for your loss. Now, about that house…” Extending the length of time you market to them and titling it as ‘new’ is like saying Tide (washing liquid) is new and improved. It can’t be ‘new’ if it is improved and it can’t be ‘improved’ if it is new.

    My question is, why would you ever stop marketing to a house that hasn’t sold? Dropping them off the list after 12 or 18 months doesn’t make any sense. They are not mobile homes. They didn’t drag the property to another city or state! Switch them to a longer cycle (once every 6 months) and mail an inexpensive piece (post card) allows you to inexpensively keep touching them. Because we all know, time and circumstances changes all situations.

    • Aaron –

      The big thing that I find that has changed is that so many of the houses are still not sold after close to 2 years. It used to be that only about 10% remained on the list after 1 year, and even less at 18 months. I continue to mail to those folks as long as the house isn’t sold. I probably have about 1400-1600 probates I am mailing to at any given time. The numbers change monthly, because some are added and some are removed.

  3. Hi Sharon,

    Could you clarify something for me? You said that you used to only market to probates for 15-18 months, but have changed it to 24 months. But I’ve read other articles you wrote that say that you keep marketing and only take them off if it sells, you buy it, or they ask you to remove them.

    Could you explain which it is for your probates?

    • Sharon Vornholt


      They used to be sold pretty much by the time 15-18 months had passed. Now I am still finding houses on the list at 2 years and a few even longer. Part of it is the market. Some of those houses are listed and haven’t sold. Others are waiting for the market to go up. Whatever the different reasons are, the estates aren’t being settled as quickly. You just have to do the “painful” job of looking them up every few months. Probates are a great group to market to.

  4. I am marketing to probates by taking the name of the PR from the Notice to Creditors. This doesn’t tell me if they own property though. Should I be looking up the decedent in the assessor site to see if they actually own property or just assume they do and mail anyway?

    • Erica –

      Yes that’s exactly what you need to do.

      In our newspaper, it lists the name of the decedent, the address of the place they lived (this could be a nursing home but it doesn’t mean they don’t own a house), and the name and address of the executor. This is all the information you need to move forward. (I have a little give away on my blog about working with probates and absentee owners.)

      We then go to the PVA (tax assessor’s site) and see if they still own the property. Sometimes you can tell it’s been transferred to the executor, it may say “estate of”, or something else. You can generally tell if the property has been sold.

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