Editor’s note: The following article was created and uploaded by Inman Wiki user Bob Kelly. It appears on InmanWiki.com, a new online real estate encyclopedia from Inman News.

Editor’s note: The following article was created and uploaded by Inman Wiki user Bob Kelly. It appears on InmanWiki.com, a new online real estate encyclopedia from Inman News. You can find the article and join a discussion about it by clicking here.

Here’s a technique that worked for me last September 2006 to buy a house that was not on the market without commissions on either side of the sale (listing or buyer’s commissions). The tools on Zillow were the key.

First, you have to be familiar with a neighborhood you like where you can expect that the majority of the houses will be attractive to you. This is going to work best with a newer neighborhood, where all the houses are going to be in a similar condition. My target area was the Union Mills neighborhood in Lacey, Washington.

Now we begin with Zillow. Use its search tools to narrow the houses in your target neighborhood by number of bedrooms, square footage (“size” on Zillow), type of house (single-family, condo), price (i.e., the Zillow estimate), etc. In my example, I was looking for a 3+ bedroom, single-family house of 1,900 square feet or more. This gave me a list of about eight houses.

Next, you drill down on the details of each matching property. You may find some other factors that cause you to rule a house out, such as its location on a busy road. For those that still look attractive, on the “Public Facts” section of the “Home Facts” page, click on “Show all home facts.” Look toward the bottom of the page for the parcel number. This is the unique identifying number of this house in the county tax records. You will use this to find out who the owner is.

The next step depends on your county. At least in Washington state, the three counties that have interested me have all had their tax records available online (King, Snohomish, Thurston). Run a search on Google for “ county assessor”. For “Thurston County assessor”, this led me right to the property search page of Thurston County. Now, these county tax Web sites have you agree that you will not use their data for commercial purposes. I suppose that a real estate agent should not use it to troll for leads. In my case, I was using it for personal purposes to purchase a rental investment property.

On the county property search Web site, enter the parcel ID you found on Zillow and locate your property. This will tell you who the owners are, how much they paid for the house, and when they purchased the house. If they purchased very recently, you might remove them from the list.

The next step requires some luck and depends on how large your target property list is. You are trying to find somebody ready to sell their house. I had about eight properties on my list. The Union Mills neighborhood happens to be 90 percent military families (near Fort Lewis and McChord AFB), so there is a lot of turnover. Write a letter to the owners that explains:

  • Your interest in purchasing a house in their neighborhood.

  • How you found them: via Zillow and public tax records.

  • How you might both save money by splitting the real estate commissions.

  • Using the Zillow estimate (or perhaps other sources), show them how much money they will make based on the price you know they paid for the house versus a sale where they pay full commissions.

Suggesting the sale price in advance requires some research on your part. You should check the local MLS listings and Craigslist for prices of similar houses. Zillow was a close match for the Union Mills neighborhood at the time, but other people complain that Zillow is 10-20 percent too high or low for their areas.

I got lucky (or I made my luck?). I found a seller who had signed a listing agreement the month before, but backed out without the house coming on the market. They had wavered back and forth between the idea of buying a larger house in the area or moving the wife and kids into an apartment. The husband was going to be posted to Iraq for the third time. My letter made up their minds for them and they seized on the opportunity of a quick sale without commissions.

Contributed by Bob Kelly

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