Deal-Finding Strategies: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
In almost every seminar I've ever attended, a lot of time has been devoted to teaching attendees how to find good deals. Because deal-finding IS so crucial to one’s investing success, I recently decided to look back and see which methods have generated the most deals and the best deals for me. In reviewing the 150 properties I've bought or flipped over the last 5 years, I was surprised to find that many of the "traditional" sources of great deals haven't worked for me, while some less obvious methods have been great lead generators. I’d like to share with you the results of my little inventory.
Good: The Multiple Listing Service. The MLS is essentially a catalog of all the properties listed for sale by brokers. Needless to say, some of them are good deals for investors, and some aren’t. The trick is to ferret out which properties have motivated sellers without making offers on all of them. I've honed this skill through years of translating agent lingo like, "Handyman's special" (looks bad, smells bad, has at least one major system that doesn’t function), "needs TLC" (ugly, but not smelly, and everything works).
Why it works: Properties listed in the MLS are for sale. This may seem like an obvious statement, but some of the other methods touted as great ways to find deals involve locating owners, then finding out if they want to sell. Properties in the MLS also have the advantage that all of the information about the property is pretty much laid out for you - a major time saver. And, with the sophisticated, computerized access available to your agent, it's a matter of a few keystrokes to view all of the properties that are handyman's specials, or bank-owned, or in estate, or priced under a certain dollar figure - whatever you’d like to concentrate on.
Another reasons that the MLS has worked so well for me is that I am generally in the market for really ugly properties. Coincidentally, these are the same properties that most agents prefer not to spend a lot of time with. In many cases, they're downright cooperative - particularly when I'm offering all cash and a quick closing.
Bad: Direct mail to real estate agents. In 1994, I had the brilliant idea that I might be able to find MLS-listed properties even faster if I simply let agents know what I was looking for. So I purchased 1,200 agent names from the Board of Realtors and generated a 3-part mailing send to every agent in town.
The theme of this campaign was this: if you, Ms. Agent, have a property listed that fits my criteria, I’ll make an offer and you get to keep the entire commission. Out rolled my brilliant campaign -all mailed first class, incidentally - and in came the phone calls. All 7 of them. That’s right. The week after the first letters went out, we got 7 calls. We had already made offers on three of the properties; two were out of our price range; and two were overpriced listings about to expire.
The next mailing generated even more results - about 15 calls - all basically in the same categories. The final mailing, a postcard, received no notice at all. Basically, I wasted about $1400 on a campaign that generated absolutely nothing.
What went wrong: I still think that this idea has some merit, but if I do it again, I'll make some major changes. First, I'll target only the 200 or so agents who list the types of properties I buy. Second, I'll do a better job of writing the letters, emphasizing how the agent and his seller would benefit from working with me. Third, I'll make my campaign a continuous one throughout the year, testing different letters for response and mailing the best to the same agents over and over. And lastly, I'll personalize the campaign by following up with a phone call to the 50 or so best prospects. Oh well, live and learn.
Good: Ads in the Yellow Pages. For 8 years, I've had an ad in the "real estate" section of the Yellow Pages. Each year, the ad has had some variation of the wording, "I buy houses - all cash”. This ad only generates 3-4 calls a month, but for some reason the quality of the calls is better than those that are generated by any other method I've ever used. The sellers tend to be motivated, cooperative, and have unlisted properties.
Why it's worked for me: I love that you deal with these ads once a year, then forget ‘em. While they’re pricey - up to $3500 per year - the phone company will generally bill you monthly for the cost. In addition, as one of the very few ads in the phonebook that promise to buy houses, I haven’t got much competition.
Bad: Advertised FSBOs. Properties For Sale By Owner, a.k.a. FSBOs, are a favorite for some real estate investors. I, on the other hand, have never purchased a property from an owner who advertised his property for sale rather than calling me.
I've found several problems with trying to buy FSBOs. The first is that some are not actually for sale. Some FSBOs are just “testing the market to see what kind of offer’s he’ll get. Other FSBO sellers are very motivated to sell, but don’t list because they want to keep all of the money from the sale. They don't want to pay a commission - but they don't want to take a lower price, either. And sometimes a seller chooses to try to sell their property by themselves because they owe too much to pay a 5%-7% commission, even if he sells it at full price.
If you are buying expensive homes creatively, these sellers are ripe for the kind of solution you offer. My strategy is to buy ugly houses cheaply and for cash, and I just don't find this type of deal in advertised FSBOs.
Good: Flyers to Targeted Neighborhoods. Last year, I had 10,000 double-sided "I buy houses" flyers printed. I hired someone to put this flyer in the door of every one, two, or three family property they saw in my “farm”. Every 3 weeks, 3,000 of these flyers were delivered, and the response from qualified sellers was excellent. For a cost of less than $500, I made two deals that netted over $6,000.
Bad: Billboards in the same neighborhood. Here's a lesson in messing up a good thing: hot on the heels of my massively successful flyer campaign, I decided to spring for four large billboards in the same neighborhood. The problem was that my marketing budget is only so big, and buying the billboards meant stopping the flyers. Still, I figured that the billboards would get more attention anyway, so I forked over the $1,800 and got...
Absolutely nothing. Not one single phone call. Not even from an unqualified seller. Not even a wrong number. Nothing.
Good: Flapping my gums. Luckily, talking - a lot - is something I have little problem with. Laugh if you will, but my willingness to talk about what I do to anyone who will listen - or even pretend to listen - has made me a lot of money.
For instance, when my new hairdresser asked me what I did for a living, I responded that I buy and sell houses. His immediate reaction was, "really? How pretty do they have to be?" Long story short: I bought his unwanted junker house for $4,000 and sold it for $7,000 the same day. When my attorney wanted to know what type of assets I wanted to protect, I told him about my house-buying business. Four months later, he referred a client to me who sold me a $35,000 property for $12,000. You get the picture.
Bad: Using only one lead generator at a time. In my experience, it’s best to use at least 3 different ways of finding deals at the same time: preferably two you’ve used before with some success, plus one that you’re testing. Which brings us to
Ugly: Not knowing which of your deal-finding strategies are working, and which aren’t! If you’re going to spend money on flyers or ads or telephone pole signs or whatever, it’s very important that you pay attention to which methods are generating good leads, and which are duds. In looking over my own deals was very surprised to discover how many great deals came from attorney referrals - a strategy that I haven’t pursued aggressively, but will in the future. If you aren’t tracking your lead generators to discover which are working and which you should give up, you’re wasting time and money that could be put to use making you deals.
About the Author
Vena Jones-Cox is a past president of the Real Estate Investor’s Association of Cincinnati, the Ohio Real Estate Investor’s Association, and the National Real Estate Investor’s Association. Vena has been featured in publications such as The Cincinnati Enquirer, Smart Money Magazine, Money Magazine and Reader’s Digest in articles about successful real estate entrepreneurs.
Vena Jones-Cox’s real estate business focuses on finding great deals on 1-3 family homes, and then lease/optioning them to homeowners or wholesaling them to investors and renovators. All told, she buys and sells about 50 properties per year.
Vena is a frequent guest lecturer at real estate investment groups throughout the country, and particularly enjoys working with new investors. Vena frequently authors articles on real estate investment and the regulatory environment for various newsletters and publications, including her own monthly newsletter. She has been a guest speaker at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., lecturing on the effects of lead-based paint regulation on small investors. And in her spare time, Vena Jones-Cox hosts a popular weekly call-in radio program on public radio.