Shirley Pulawski is a freelance writer for MyBankTracker.com who bought a house on foreclosure in Buffalo, NY back in 2000 and has written about buying foreclosure properties. This multi-part series chronicles her experience with buying, fixing, renting, and eventually selling the house for three times her costs in 2003.

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I’m a bargain hound. I’m the kind of person who seeks out great deals on good quality items, and I light up when anyone compliments something I got at a ridiculously low price. I can quickly rattle off where I got it, exactly what I paid, and how much I saved, so it’s no wonder that when I was ready to buy my first house, I set out to get a dream deal on a foreclosure.

It helped that, at the time, I lived in a good place to do it. It was 2000 and I was living in Buffalo, NY. I was making pretty good money and my expenses were low. I had no debt, and home prices were notoriously low in Buffalo at that time, although they have inched up in some neighborhoods since then.

I was making enough to save about $5,000, but since most foreclosure properties need to be purchased with cash, I had to look at different ways to get funding. But first, I had to start scouring the databases for foreclosure properties to figure out how much I would need.

Looking for foreclosures

Every region has a network of realtors listing houses for sale, but finding properties in foreclosure is a bit tricky, especially back then when banks weren’t holding as many properties. First, there are plenty of sites that ask for money or registration access, and are often not linked to legitimate sources.

Many — and this is still true today — will even use terms like “HUD” in their company name or URL when they have absolutely no affiliation with HUD at all. They all claim to have the largest database, but they’re all using free HUD foreclosure home sales information while trying to charge you for it. As a general rule, if you need to register or pay to view the listings, walk away.

The HUD portal is a great place to start looking for homes on foreclosure as it links to several resources. Between those, it is still possible that there are homes in your area not listed, so some additional sniffing around is needed. Check with friends, relatives, any real estate connections you have, and don’t be afraid to walk into a realtor’s office and ask questions. You are under no obligations by asking, and you might get some helpful advice.

Working with an agent

How did I find mine? I met a smart and spunky real estate agent who was a client at my workplace. She struck up a friendship with a coworker so I talked to her about what I wanted to do. At the time, I wasn’t dead-set on a foreclosure, but I knew I wanted a really cheap fixer-upper. She came back to me a few days later with a big stack of low-priced properties she printed out.

I know many people are hesitant to work with a real estate agent because they get a fee (usually only from the seller), but a good real estate agent knows what they are doing, has access to a lot of information, and can facilitate a lot of pesky footwork, like obtaining keys to show properties.

I sorted through the listings my agent printed out for me, comparing features to my must-have list of features. Yes, I made that list, and you should, too. Among the highlights of my must-haves were that it be a two-family house so I could make extra income by renting out the lower floor apartment. I wanted hardwood floors, even if they were buried under layers of worn carpeting or linoleum. This was a realistic goal since Buffalo is full of late Victorian homes with hardwood floors, attractive wood trim, high ceilings, and bay windows.

A master list

The downside to older homes is that, often, they have very old and inefficient furnaces, no insulation, a roof in need of repair, old wiring, or other high-ticket fixes. I wanted to find a house that needed a lot of elbow grease and mostly cosmetic fixes. This makes it important to make a list of absolute needs, a secondary list of wants, and some absolute disqualifiers to avoid going into a money pit. It is key to know your budget, know your market, and be realistic about repairs.

An unusual story

But there is a question I haven’t answered yet: How did I find my house?

While I was out looking at properties with my agent, we noticed a for sale sign in front of a house a few doors down. That’s when things got really exciting…

Related Stories:

What to Know Before Buying a Foreclosure

4 Things Real Estate Agents Want You to Know

What to Do if Your Credit Score is Not Good Enough for a Mortgage

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