How to find off-market properties

Written by Steven PorrelloSeptember 14th, 20229 minute read

Off-market properties are homes that are for sale but aren’t listed on a local multiple listing service (MLS). Because they’re not advertised publicly, off-market listings present investors with a rare opportunity to scoop up potentially lucrative deals in otherwise competitive and high-valued markets.

Exclusivity is a benefit, but it’s also a challenge. These properties aren’t listed on the MLS for a reason. It might take some determination, patience, and grit to bring you in contact with the homeowners.

But given how good the deals can be, the extra effort required to find and acquire off-market properties is often well worth it. In this guide, I’ll lay out the top eight methods for finding off-market properties.

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The 8 best ways to find off-market properties

  1. Team up with a good real estate agent or broker
  2. Hunt for off-market properties online
  3. Go driving for dollars
  4. Create a direct marketing campaign
  5. Network with real estate investors
  6. Build relationships with contractors and builders
  7. Search public records
  8. Attend live auctions

1. Team up with a good real estate agent or broker

While most realtors live and breathe open-market MLS listings, many agents and brokers also have (or hear about) private, non-listed properties, which they reserve for their inner circle of investors and highly qualified buyers.

These listings are sometimes called “pocket listings,” or properties that agents have the exclusive right to sell but keep on the down-low (it’s in their “pocket”). Agents will often get pocket listings when the property seller wants the sale to be private or “under the radar.” This can be for any number of reasons: they could be a high-profile individual or selling for sensitive reasons (death, divorce, debt).

The bottom line: Agents and brokers are all about networking, which makes them ideally positioned to help you find good, under-the-radar deals in your area. Just be sure you clarify exactly what you want. The more specific you are, the more likely the agent will match you with a property you actually want to buy.

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2. Hunt for off-market properties online

You don’t have to look far to find off-market properties online. Even general real estate websites like Zillow can plug you into non-MLS deals. The problem, of course, is that the internet isn’t exactly “off the beaten path.” You can easily find yourself in a large pool of buyers, all scrambling for the same small inventory of off-market deals.

Even so, it’s worth keeping tabs on certain websites, especially those dedicated to off-market listings. Here are four sites to check regularly:

  • House Cashin is the largest online platform for off-market properties. Once you join the site’s network of “preferred buyers,” House Cashin will match you with properties and send you offers when new properties get listed. The platform offers free access to MLS listings and wholesaler leads, but distressed seller listings are pay per lead.
  • Homeqt is another great off-market listings site. When you sign up as a buyer, Homeqt’s algorithm aims to match you with your ideal investment properties. As you accept and reject properties, Homeqt becomes smarter, until it’s only sending you properties in your niche. Buyers pay a $29.99 monthly fee for access.
  • Zillow syndicates open-market listings from the MLS, but it also has for sale by owner (FSBO) listings, which are technically “off market” and always worth a look. Zillow also has a “coming soon” listing status, which allows agents to post homes up to 30 days in advance of the public listing. Generally, this is to drum up more competition when the listing does go live – but it never hurts to reach out to the listing broker and initiate a conversation.
  • Roofstock is a real estate investing site that has its own inventory of “exclusive” properties. Called “Roofstock Exclusives,” these properties are only available to Roofstock members. It’s free to browse properties, but you’ll pay 0.5% of the purchase price if you end up buying a home through the platform.

In addition to the sites listed above, you might also want to check Craigslist or the Facebook Marketplace, as these sites can have off-market real estate deals, too. Some sellers will post homes on these non-traditional sites simply because they don’t want to deal with the real estate process, or they’re trying to sell as quickly as possible.

3. Go driving for dollars

Driving for dollars is exactly what it sounds like: You drive around neighborhoods and look for potential off-market deals. Sometimes these homes are actively for sale – usually listed “for sale by owner,” with a sign in the yard. Other times, they’re not actively for sale, but the homeowner or landlord might be willing to part with the property anyhow for the right pitch and price.

In addition to handwritten “for sale by owner” and “for rent” signs, look for common signals that a property may be distressed: Overgrown yards, boarded-up windows, roof damage, peeling paint, and so on. Often these owners don’t have the money to fix and maintain their property, and they might be interested in selling just to offload the financial responsibility.

Once you identify these properties, you contact the owners about a potential sale: this could involve tracking down their phone number and cold calling, sending them offers in the mail, or even just walking up and knocking on the door. Oftentimes the response is a flat “no” — or even a door slammed in your face — but many investors say some of their best deals come from driving for dollars. The key is persistence and tact (and thick skin doesn’t hurt).

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4. Create a direct marketing campaign

Direct marketing involves compiling lists of homeowners who might be willing to sell their properties (even if they haven’t considered it yet), then contacting them through direct mail, phone calls, email, or even in person. It doesn’t matter if the property is distressed or in perfect condition. Your goal is to simply “jolt” them with an offer, then take them to the closing table when they contact you back.

To get leads, you could start by targeting neighborhoods or zip codes that have recently experienced a major property boom. Homeowners here could be sitting on high-equity property, and they could be easily persuaded to cash it in. Alternatively, you could always build a lead list through software like DealMachine, which is a pretty affordable way to save a HUGE amount of time and energy.

Once you have a list, you’ll need to reach out to each one. The three most popular forms of contact include:

  • Direct mail: Send a letter or postcard that expresses your interest in buying their property.
  • Phone call: Find the homeowner’s phone number and pitch your offer directly over the phone or through voicemail.
  • Door-to-door: Reach the owners at home and express your interest in person.

The secret to becoming successful at direct marketing is experimentation and perseverance. If a handwritten letter doesn’t work, try a postcard. If a postcard doesn’t work, try a letter with a different colored envelope. If that doesn’t work, try putting the envelope on their door, rather than in the mailbox, and if that doesn’t work, change your message.

5. Network with real estate investors

The key to finding successful deals as a real estate investor is volume.Usually, you need to sift through a huge number of bad deals to find one good one. And for many investors, the most efficient way to source a huge volume of prospective deals is networking. The more people you know and talk to, the more you’re going to hear about potential investment properties.

Like agents and brokers, real estate investors are immersed in local markets and the first to know about fresh new deals. When other investors know what you’re looking for, they might toss a prospective deal your way, especially if they’re not interested in the kinds of properties you want to buy (e.g. they’re in the turnkey rental game, you’re looking for flips).

Even if they are interested in the same kinds of properties, they could help you in another way: Selling properties from their own portfolios. Many investors, in fact, are far more inclined to sell property to people they know rather than find a buyer themselves or through an agent. If you’re in their network, you could get priority access to good deals before they hit the market.

How to build your professional investor network

To build a large and diverse network, start connecting with investors online. Use popular real estate forums, like BiggerPockets, to target investors with whom you’d like to work, or join groups on and social media.

Offline events and conferences can also super-size your network, as you can meet hundreds of people within the same day. If you can’t find real estate meetups near you, consider hosting your own: If you’re looking for a group that doesn’t exist yet, it’s likely others are looking for one, too.

🤝 What about real estate wholesalers?

Real estate wholesalers buy property to turn around and sell to other investors. Though they might seem like a fast and efficient way to find off-market listings, they’re usually a dead end. They’ll often sell properties to investors at or above market value, even though they bought them for bargain prices. Some wholesalers can introduce you to great deals, but consider them a supplemental source, rather than a substitute for actual networking.

6. Build relationships with contractors and builders

Contractors and builders often have insider’s knowledge on new properties for the simple fact that they’re in charge of building them (or they know someone who is). They might even know about properties that were started but never finished, which could be a win-win for both of you, as you could snatch up the property then hire the contractor to finish the job.

If you really want to motivate contractors to bring you leads, set up a bird dog program. Offer them a bonus for every lead they bring that results in a closed deal — and perhaps even agree to hire their company if you need work or renovations done on the property.

7. Search public records

Many properties on the brink of foreclosure can be found through public records. Though these homes may not actually be for sale, the homeowners could be willing to sell, especially if it helps them get out of a bad situation.

To find these properties, you’ll have to comb through local newspapers, state or local government websites, and websites dedicated to foreclosures, such as HUD Home Store. You could also look on country accessor websites for tax and mortgage payment delinquencies, both common signs of distressed homeownership.

8. Attend live auctions

Though not always the best method to scoop up deals, property auctions can nevertheless introduce you to properties you can find nowhere else.

Property auctions sell homes that have already passed through probate or been repossessed by lenders. You can sometimes get a good deal here (though some states have limits on how far below appraised value these homes can actually sell for), but there are some major risks and drawbacks, too. Auctions are usually all-cash, you’re buying the home “as is,” with little or no time to conduct a thorough inspection, and they may have liens or title issues that can make a potentially good deal sour.

Auctions themselves can be challenging. They move fast and require quick thinking. Before you start bidding on homes at auctions, consider attending one first. Each one works differently, and it’s wise to learn the ropes before you start competing with other auctioneers.

» LEARN: What Is Skip Tracing in Real Estate?

Article Summary

  • Off-market properties are properties that are for sale but aren’t listed publicly on the MLS.
  • Because of their limited visibility, they attract fewer buyers and investors, though finding them can be difficult.
  • The best way to locate numerous off-market properties is to create multiple channels of deal flow.
  • Try teaming up with agents and brokers, contractors and builders, and other real estate investors to increase your visibility.
  • You can also try hunting for off-market properties online, drive for dollars, directly market to potential sellers, search public records, and attend public auctions.
  • Most importantly don’t go it alone: work with real estate agents who can help you find more unlisted deals, then submit offers and negotiate the best price with them.

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FAQ about how to find off-market properties

What does the term off-market mean in real estate?

An off-market property is one that’s for sale but isn’t advertised through traditional public listing sites or a local multiple listing service (MLS).

How do I find properties that are off the market?

The eight best ways to find off-market properties are:

1. Team up with a good real estate agent or broker

2. Hunt for off-market properties online

3. Go driving for dollars

4. Create a direct marketing campaign

5. Network with other investors

6. Build relationships with contractors and property managers

7. Search public records

8. Attend real estate auctions

Why do investors want off-market properties?

Off-market properties appeal to investors primarily because they’re not publicized through traditional listing sites and the MLS. This not only helps investors avoid stiff competition but can also open them to lucrative opportunities that homebuyers or other investors know nothing about.

What is a pocket listing in real estate?

A pocking listing refers to property that an agent is selling through their own private connections, rather than on public markets.