How We Bought a House That Wasn’t for Sale (and How You Can, Too)

While trying to buy a house this summer, I assumed our real estate options were limited to homes that were officially for sale.

Well, guess what? We ended up buying a house that wasn’t even listed—and learned that this home-buying strategy wasn’t just possible, but often preferable if you’re purchasing property in a competitive market.

Here’s how we pulled it off, and how you can, too.

How we bought an unlisted house

The backstory: My husband and I had been house hunting for months in Alabama, and had fallen in love with one particular property in the highly desirable historic district of Florence. We made an offer the same day we toured the house, only to be heartbroken upon learning that it went to another buyer (a relative of the seller).

Feeling at a loss, we scoured Florence for other options, but nothing else was for sale—which made sense, because it’s a coveted area of the Shoals region.

Disappointed and tired of waiting for listings that seemed to sell within days of their going live, we asked our real estate agent, Jody Lanier with MarMac Real Estate, if he had any ideas.

That’s when he introduced the idea of looking beyond what was available on real estate listings sites.

We were game to try it out. So our real estate agent put out feelers, and soon found a 1917-built home that was on our perfect street. My husband and I fell in love with it the moment we set foot on the front porch and felt giddy stepping inside.

Basically, the sellers had named their asking price, and if we were interested, we could put in an offer for that amount—take it or leave it. Since the price was within our budget, we went for it, signing and submitting a typical home buyer’s contract that evening.

In the morning, we had more good news: They’d accepted!

It was a thrill to know that we’d gone under contract without having to compete against other buyers, saving us a lot of worry and disappointment in the offer process.

How to buy a house that isn’t on the market

Buying an unlisted house appears to be a growing trend in heated markets. According to Pamela Ermen, president of Real Estate Guidance in Norfolk, VA, it’s called “going under the market,” which means digging into the housing inventory in a particular area to find unlisted gems where the owners might be up for selling if they receive the right offer.

It’s just smart to “introduce yourself as a buyer to [a home] before you have to compete with other people for it,” says Ermen, who specializes in such listings.

Here are a few tactics that will help make this needle-in-haystack process a success.

Find a real estate agent willing to do some digging

Buying a house that isn’t for sale takes more legwork on the agent’s end than usual.

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They think it’s their house even after we bought it

DEAR ABBY: Two years ago, my mother-in-law moved into a nursing home and was very sad to be leaving the house she had lived in for 50 years. My husband, devastated at the thought of someone else owning his childhood home, convinced me to sell our house and buy the house from my mother-in-law. We moved in and began renovating it with the intention that it would become our forever home.

Jeanne Phillips 

The problem is, everyone regards it as their home, not ours. His adult children, his brother and his nieces all come and go as they please. I have talked to my husband about locking the front door, but he often forgets.

His family members come into our house and make a mess or eat our food or sit out on our deck. Then they act like I need to accept it, as it’s their family house. I could maybe understand if we had inherited the house, but we pay the mortgage on it.

I’m out of patience. How do I get my in-laws to once and for all see that this house is not theirs but ours?


DEAR DESPERATE: I assume you have been hesitant to tell these in-laws that the names on the deed to the house are yours and your husband’s. If you haven’t said it plainly, the time to do it is now. You don’t have to be nasty, but you do have to convey that you would like guests to call before coming over to be sure it’s convenient. This is not too much to ask.

It goes without saying (I sincerely hope) that they shouldn’t mess the place up or help themselves to your food uninvited. Your husband should back you up on this. Because he sometimes forgets to lock the door, that responsibility is one you will have to assume. You have my sympathy.

DEAR ABBY: I have been married for 14 years to a man a lot of people in our town think has no flaws. He helps a lot of people, and he is also a pastor, but he ignores me and takes me for granted, personally, emotionally and sexually. He’d rather watch TV until he falls asleep on the couch.

He looks at pornography online, and I catch him often. Even if he’s busy at work, he finds time for everybody but me. He always has excuses.

Since I married him, I have supported him and have gone the extra mile in all aspects — his work, church activities. I have waited on him and made sure all his needs were met.

Now I have reached the end of the line, and I want to leave. But if I do, people who know him will make me the villain.

Although we still live under one roof for financial reasons, now I separate myself from him, look after him less and sleep in another room with my dog. Please, Abby, give me your views.


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Huge Palo Alto house is bought

PALO ALTO — A just-built house in a choice Palo Alto neighborhood has been bought for $20 million, signaling resilient market strength for luxury residences despite the coronavirus.

The deal suggests that residential investors still hunger for Silicon Valley properties despite the economic uncertainties that the coronavirus has unleashed.

The house, in the Professorville district of Palo Alto, totals 7,900 square feet, sits on one-third of an acre, and contains five bedrooms and eight bathrooms, the Zillow site shows.

Realty agents Michael Dreyfus, Noelle Queen, and Mary Jo McCarthy of The Dreyfus Group, a real estate firm within Sotheby’s International Realty, arranged the purchase of the house at 1500 Cowper St.

Despite plenty of economic uncertainties due to the coronavirus, top-notch residences in Silicon Valley continue to trade hands at a brisk pace, according to realty executive Michael Dreyfus.

“This area is doing very well for ultra-high-end real estate,” Dreyfus said. “We sold a house for $23 million in Woodside during the worst of the coronavirus problems in April.”

The Palo Alto house that was sold is at 1500 Cowper St., at the corner of Churchill Avenue, Santa Clara County real estate records filed on Sept. 3 show.

The seller tore down a residence that had been on the property and replaced it with a brand-new home, according to Dreyfus.

The buyer, operating as Tall Stick Properties, paid $20 million in cash for the Cowper Street house, according to county documents.

“The lookers at the house were varied,” Dreyfus said. “They were local, national, and international buyers.

Plenty of interest in properties within Palo Alto’s Professorville neighborhood has emerged in recent years.

Brian Acton, a co-founder of tech company WhatsApp, has been collecting a number of houses in the neighborhood, including a home a few blocks away at 1107 Cowper.

Through affiliates, Acton has collected enough sites on Cowper Street to potentially replace the residences with a large compound at some point. Acton-linked affiliates have spent $86.3 million in recent years to collect seven residences on the same block next to or near the 1107 Cowper St. house.

“We have a lot of local buyers who are looking at owning a much bigger house than what they have,” Dreyfus said.

The buyer in the deal at 1500 Cowper is linked to a California-based group. Dreyfus declined to discuss the identity of the buyer.



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