Working with Probates: Overcoming the Challenges

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I love the niche of probates, but there are definitely some challenges when working with probates. I can tell you this; if you are willing to do the work to get the leads you will have a great source of business. Unlike some of the other niches and lead sources that tend to dry up from time to time, this will never be a problem with probates (No pun intended).

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How do I Get a List?

Getting a list can be challenging to say the least. I am really lucky to be in a state where that isn’t a problem. But that isn’t the case in most areas. Sadly, there is no “one answer that fits everyone”.

Why Is It Such a Problem?

There are over 3300 counties in the United States and each one of those counties has a different procedure for getting the information that you need to work in this niche. When I was first starting out, I just picked up the phone and called my local probate court and asked the question, “How can I get a list of probates for my county”? The person I spoke with was able to give me that information.

If you are just getting started working with probates this is exactly what I would encourage you to do. Just make the call. I have a little disclaimer to make here; you may not get the person that knows the answer on your first call, so be prepared to try again or to ask to speak with someone else in the department.

Also, be sure you have called the probate court. I have had folks email me on numerous occasions to tell me that no one knew what they were talking about only to figure out they had called circuit court, family court or even the county clerk’s office. You must specifically call the probate court.

What Information Do I Need?

There are just 4 pieces of information that you need. They are:

  • The name and address of the deceased
  • The name and address of the Executor or PR (Personal Representative)

That’s it. Once you have these four things you are good to go.

Be Prepared To Do Some “Legwork”

You might find that a list is printed in a legal publication or even your local newspaper. These are the easy ways of getting the information. At the other end of the spectrum there are counties that require you to come to the courthouse and pull the files. This is probably the hardest way of all to get the leads.

You will find many different procedures across the country in all the different counties, but I can promise you that it will be worth the work. These folks are some of the most motivated sellers of all.

They don’t want the house; they just want the money sitting in the house.

One thing that I found out about my area when I first got started is that after the initial publication of the names they are transferred to microfiche that is located at the public library. That might be worth looking into in your area.

How Do I Know If They Own Real Property?

This is where most of the legwork comes in. You are going to have to look each one of them up to be sure if there is real property in the estate.

You can find that information on your local tax assessor’s site. Some information is free on our site. But to get all of the information I generally want I need a subscription which costs $30 a month I can tell you that it’s worth every penny of it. I use that site just about every day.

Look up the address of the deceased first. If nothing comes up under the address then search by name. I mention doing this only if the property doesn’t come up when searching by address, because the name of the deceased could be listed many ways. For instance Charles Warren Smith could be listed as:

  • Charles Warren Smith
  • Charles W. Smith
  • C.W. Smith
  • C. Warren Smith

There are also times when the name has just been put in completely wrong and it can’t be found by the name. Be prepared to do a little detective work.

The Payoff

The payoff is that once you get your system in place, you will have a steady stream of leads forever. It doesn’t matter which niches you currently work in or the strategies you have chosen, probates will fit perfectly into any business.

Sound off; are you currently working in the niche of probates? What special challenges do you have in your area?

Photo Credit: MyTudut

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.

50 Comments

  1. Hi Sharon. I’m curious if you’ve split-tested professional letterhead letters versus the standard yellow letters for your probate marketing.

    Also whether you outright mention the probate/loss or ignore it completely in your letter…. ?

    • Michael
      Michael –

      I did not. It is a personal decision to use white, computer generated letters for probates. These folks are in a situation where I believe they should be shown the utmost respect. For that reason, I send a more professional letter. I also want to project a certain image for my business.

      I have used the condolences letter on the first letter in the series for a long time with almost no complaints. I like to address the issue right up front and get it out of the way. The death of their loved one is bound to come up. There is no way not to address that.

      In the end, it is more of a personal decision.

      Sharon

  2. When I mail off my introduction letter I always remember that there’s dynamics involved in probate as well as the array of mixed emotions…

    Mark
    N. CA (Sac/Placer counties)

  3. Glenn Schworm

    Sharon,

    We hired a new marketing director about a month ago and yesterday we were discussing the courthouses and how to proceed, the viola! your blog appears. Did you write it just for us? 🙂 Thanks for writing we are beginning today! Let you know what we find in our area.

    Glenn

  4. I must have Glenn. Probates are a great source of leads.

    I wish there was an easy answer for the questions of how to get the information. If it gets to be too troublesome, email me and I do have a paid source for probate leads. They aren’t cheap though. I will probably start using them for one nearby county after the first of the year. I can’t seem to get the information for that area any other way.

    I will warn you about this; I don’t mail probates after the first week in December because of the holidays. Anytime I have done a mailing before the last week or so of January, I have gotten terrible results. Just don’t mail during that time period. It is a difficult time for most folks. Let me know what you find out in your area.

    Sharon

  5. Hi Sharon – Thanks again for another meaningful blog posting.

    The biggest challenge I run into is working with the sellers, we get to a good negotiation place and then they say “I think I’m going to list it with a realtor”.

    Ouch….I think its time to get my realtors license!

    Another challenge if I can call it that is when after establishing a rapport with the seller and getting to a place where we can have a conversation about selling…the seller says “well when I’m ready to sell I’ll contact you.

    There is a property like that I’m working with now worth almost $600K distressed…1.1M ARV, the suspense is killing me!

    Question : Do you ever ask the sellers “Has anyone else contacted you about this property or are you working with anyone else on this property?” Just so you can guage your competition or do you care?

    • Mike –

      They are either motivated or they are not. I can tell you this, the longer that they delay the greater chance you have of losing them. If they say they will call you when they are ready to sell, they aren’t motivated.

      I always try to find out what else they want; what do they want other than the cash? And there is always something else. it might be that they want you to clean out the house or there may be something else. Just ask them; in a perfect world what do you need to make this deal work for you? Sometimes they will just tell you. It isn’t always about the money.

      You have to be careful with that “let me buy your house” strategy, then putting your Realtor hat on when they turn down your offer. That can be a slippery slope.

      I think it’s OK to ask if they are working with any other investors.

      Sharon

  6. Hi Sharon,

    I’m in one of those areas where it’s really difficult to access these leads. 1 of my 3 county probate courthouses is easy to pull files but the other 2 aren’t worth the time as they only allow 10 files per day to be pulled.

    Do you know how these national probate lead providers are able to access this information? There is a company in CA and TX and they both access probates in my state of MA. I could use them but they’re pretty expensive. But knowing that they’re able to access this information while across the country means that I should be able to do the same locally, I just don’t know how they are doing it.

    Thanks,
    Mike

  7. Sharon –

    A couple other questions…
    On average, how many mailings is it taking you to get call backs?

    And, when you pull your leads, are you finding that many of the houses are already listed on the MLS?

    I’m finding that to be the case in my area. The courts take several months following the decedent’s death to put together the file and make it available to the public. I’ve found that in that time, many houses get listed for sale.

    Do you mail to the houses that are listed for sale on the MLS?

    Thanks,
    Mike

    • Sharon Vornholt

      There is no way to know how long it will take for them to call you. But I did a post here on BP that had some statistics in there. Most of your deals will come at the 5th mailing and beyond. That doesn’t mean you won’t get any deals, but people have to see your mail piece a number of times before they typically take action.

      I mail everyone that has a property I would be interested in. Some houses that are listed will be sold. Many will not. I buy a few every year after they have been listed unsuccessfully on the MLS.

      The thing to remember is that a whole lot of folks don’t sell for a year or more, so you just have to hang in there.

      Sharon

  8. Sharon
    I have wondered about estate sales. My wife loves to go to them. They make me sad because you can see someone’s lifelong possesions be placed for “public veiw” so to speak. But, I have always wondered if I was missing someway to approach who ever decided to hire the estate broker about buying the house.
    Don

  9. Hi Sharon – Bill has been handling most of our acquisitions and has been starting on Probates. I agree the process can be complicated but can be fruitful for your efforts. Is it ok if I have him contact you about this and maybe get the contact person you refer to. You can email be directly or inbox me on FB.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Shaun-

      PITA – Now I had to think about that for a minute, but I will definitely remember that. It is a lot better than saying it out loud.

      They are really pretty easy here. They print all the information you need once a month in the newspaper so I can’t complain. But in general they really are for a lot of folks. And most people send a few letters then quit. I love those folks!

      I am trying to get my course on probates and absentee owners out before the end of the year. I expect to get a kick in the butt from my mastermind peeps on Tuesday night about that. Oh well….

      Sharon

      • I wish I could take the credit for making up the PITA thing.
        Pretty common acronym with the apparently foul mouthed circles I run in. 🙂

        The best that I can tell is that locally you do have to go to the courts to get the basic info.
        I assume it will all be there but have to find a free day to go to one and see how to get it all and if there are any restrictions on how many files you can pull.

        On the positive side I would imagine if I can figure it out this would be the first thing I would feel super motivated to develop a system for and outsource it! 🙂

  10. Hey Sharon, I really like this niche… The issue I’m having here in SoCal is that the attorneys have their go to agents to list with. Yes, I’m an investor friendly agent always looking to help my numerous investors. I have the leads, send the drip campaign, etc… Any advice on how to get out of State PR’s not to go with their local attorneys recommendations? Thanks, Alex

    • Alex –

      I am not a Realtor so I am not looking to list the properties. Since I work directly with the executor or PR there are no other Realtors or attorneys involved. I have found that every time an attorney gets involved there are nothing but problems.

      I have never heard of a Realtor doing direct mail campaigns to pass on to their investor buyers so this too is new to me.

      Sharon

      • This actually sounds ingenious to me.

        Really Alex you are doing what a wholesaler will do but you bring the credibility of being an agent. If you have a list of hungry investor buyers you get the listing, send it to them and double end the commission with little work after getting the listing, then hopefully back end the resale (assuming a flip) listing too.

        Unlike a wholesaler though if your investors don’t like it you just put it on the MLS for retail buyers and in 6 months when the sellers realize it aint happening tell your investors to bring offers again.

        I also have never heard of a Realtor doing this, which is why it is such a great idea!!!!

        • Thanks Shaun,

          Yea, I work with a lot of investors, wholesalers, etc… I’m in the trenches daily getting dirty… Love it… I believe I know more than they average agent so it keeps it real interesting for me. You definitely have the opportunity to make 6-9-12% although I have never tripled or quadrupled and deals…

          Thanks again for the comment.

          Best, Alex

  11. Hi Sharon,

    Thanks for the response.

    I do try to get the listing either way for my investors so we can liquidate the estate quickly, or sell it retail on the MLS.
    Here in California most cases are handled by probate attorneys and they have their go to agents. Are you working with PR & executors in Pro Per?

    Thanks again,
    Alex

    • Alex –

      I am dealing directly with the sellers. Most folks will have an attorney, but selling the property is generally left up to the individual.

      If it is a nice property it will generally be listed. The properties that need work are the ones I get in most cases. Although, I just picked one up that really was rent ready so you never know. Like any other motivated seller, they just want to be done and move on.

      I’m sure there are some attorneys that have their own “thing” going on with agents where they make referrals. What you might do is start marketing to the probate attorneys. You have two solutions to offer them in your case. It’s a great idea.

      Sharon

      Sharon

  12. Sharon,
    How many probates are you mailing to with each mailing? I would imagine only so many people could pass away in a matter of a month, and properties be inherited and the likes. This leads me to believe that I could do this along with my general direct mailing campaign and send out less than 100 letters a month directly to probates.

    • Jason –

      You need to read some of the posts on marketing. That will help you to understand.

      Each month you add the new probates to your database. In time you will have 600-1200 names depending on your population. You mail to them every month until the house is sold; not just a couple of times.

      Sharon

  13. I’m a new realtor but also looking for wholesale deals. I can get probates online where I live in south FL. Before I was a realtor I was just looking for wholesale deals but most properties I found in the probates were too fancy! Mostly golf club communities and other upmarket condos/houses. I did not feel I could wholesale those. So now I’m thinking when I find the nicer properties in my area I will send a realtor letter, hoping to get the listing. And if it’s a house that seems to be more of a wholesale property, I will send a “we buy houses” type of letter. It seems like a good plan but for some reason I’m scared to try! I felt slightly encouraged by what I’ve read on here. Thanks for a great post and all the comments!

  14. Hi Sharon,

    Nice post. 🙂

    Don’t know if you are still monitoring this post because it’s been a while. My question
    if you should kindly answer is how soon do you send your letter? I heard it may not
    be ideal to send it too soon since all the emotion if still running strong?

    Thanks ahead of time.

  15. Uyenchi Ho

    Hello Sharon,

    My county tax assessor’s office does not allow you to pull up property/tax information on a property using the owner’s name. I can only pull it up using property address and/or APN. The public notices I’ve accumulated only have the name of the deceased and their attorney’s name and address. How do I determine whether the deceased owned any real property? Although not preferred (since I’m working a full-time job until my REI takes off), I can go to the court’s records division to pull the files. If I pull the files from the court, what document should I look for to determined if real property is involved? Thank you.

    • Sharon Vornholt

      Hi Uyenchi –

      Many of these sites have limited access unless you have a subscription. In my area that costs $30 a month. You can only get a few pieces of information free.

      The 4 pieces of info you need are in the newspaper in my area.

      Each person has to be looked up no matter what. You need to determine if they had property, and if it’s something you or other investors would want to buy. The information should be in the will and those can often be found online.

      Sharon

      Sharon

  16. Erin Elam

    Hi Sharon ,

    Would you happen to have any insight on how to retrieve probate information in GA or TX?
    I have been searching the legals but only find the name of the deceased. With it being the holidays I just wondered if you had any information since it’ll be about a week before I can contact any courthouse.

    Thanks,
    Erin

    • Sharon Vornholt

      I don’t Erin. There are over 3300 counties in the US and each one is different. I would suggest calling your local probate court and asking. That’s how I found out. Have you tried Googling “Probate information your county”?

      Merry Christmas
      Sharon

  17. Nick Luongo

    Why do you need the deceased’s address and how do you get it? In my county you just look up probates on a website and it will list the deceased and the petitioner. To get any other info you have to go to the courthouse. So all I’ve been doing is looking up deceased on the assessor’s site to confirm they may have real estate then going and pulling the file. The probate office is also difficult and will only give me a few files each time I go, then I might be lucky to end up with 1 or 2 leads. Is there a better way I’m missing? Thank you

  18. Sharon Vornholt

    Nick – You need the address for the deceased to know if this is a property you might be interested in. You won’t want all of them.

    It is published in the newspaper here, but you can try looking up the deceased on the tax assessor’s site. You can always mail to the petitioner who may very likely be the PR. When you get a call from someone about a probate, always ask if they are the executor or administrator. You have to deal with the “decision maker”.

    Sharon

    • Darryl Gallardo on

      Thanks for all the amazing info on Probate. I am a new Wholesaler and accessing probate files via the county clerks website. My two questions are what is a good time to contact them after they have filed for probate and also how to know what cases are the best to look into. There are several cases in the probate files. And would that be how to specify which files have real property?

      Thank you in advance
      Darryl Gallardo

      • Sharon Vornholt

        Darryl –

        They will open the estate when they are ready to move forward with settling it. The actual death might have been many months ago so start when the probate is filed and mail monthly.

        There is no shortcut for the second part. You have to look up each file on the tax assessor’s site. You can hire a virtual assistant to do that for you once you have a procedure in place.

        Sharon

  19. Sharon Vornholt

    Jenny – each state has a little different rules. I most states you simply make the offer and the executor presents the contract to the probate attorney or court whichever might be applicable.

    Check with a closing attorney in your state and they will be able to clarify the exact procedure for your state.

    Sharon

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