Buying a House at Foreclosure Auction is Risky Business

Sign in front of house up for auctionBefore attending a foreclosure auction, learn the rules for your area. Several processes are set by individual state and local governments. Image: Comstock Images/Getty Images

You can buy a home at a significant discount at a foreclosure auction, but you’ll face a host of challenges. Don’t get burned; be solutions-ready.

If you want to get a good deal at a foreclosure auction, know what you’re buying and how you’ll be expected to pay for it.

Start by understanding the foreclosure auction rules for your area. State and local governments set their own rules for such factors as:

  • Bidding process 
  • Amount of deposit 
  • Where the auction is held 
  • Whether the home owners can get their properties back after the sale

You can learn about the process in your area by talking to officials at your county tax department or to a REALTOR®.

Although foreclosure auctions follow local rules, there are some universal challenges you’ll face no matter where you shop for foreclosed properties. Here’s how to solve them.

Solutions to 6 common foreclosure auction challenges

1. Challenge: Getting reliable information about foreclosure sales. Many companies charge fees to send you lists of foreclosures that may not be current, or sell expensive foreclosure-buying “systems” that promise to teach you how to make millions in real estate.

Solution: Most foreclosure sales are still announced in local newspapers. And you can get accurate information about buying foreclosures from reliable book publishers:

Foreclosure Investing For Dummies(For Dummies, 2007)

Keys To Buying Foreclosed and Bargain Homes (Barron’s Educational Series, 2008)

2. Challenge: You can’t get inside the property before the auction to inspect it for structural problems and repairs. Many foreclosure auction properties are in bad shape because the owners couldn’t afford the upkeep. And sometimes angry home owners purposely damage the property to punish the foreclosing lender.

Solution: Walk around the home to check its exterior condition. If it’s vacant, look through the windows. Ask the neighbors what they know about the property. If it was a rental, check the inspection records on file with the local government.

You can safely assume there’s something wrong with any house sold at a foreclosure auction, so cover yourself by bidding no more than 70% of the home’s market value.

3. Challenge: You need to figure out the market value of the house to prepare your bid. Some foreclosure auction announcements include information about the size of the original mortgage. That’s not how much the house is worth or even what the owners owe now. If the current owners bought at the top of the market, their mortgage may be more than the home is worth in today’s market and they could owe even more if there’s a second mortgage on the house.

Solution:Commission your real estate agent to do a broker’s price opinion (BPO) on the home you want to bid on. The BPO will show you comparable sales, telling you what similar, nearby homes that weren’t foreclosure sales have recently sold for.

Bid well below those comparable sales to leave yourself room to pay for repairs and unexpected problems. Ask the agency that runs the auction how to find winning bid amounts from recent auctions. Use that information to guide your current bid, too. A look at local tax and assessment records will tell you more about previous and current auction properties, like square footage and lot size.

4. Challenge: You don’t know if there are liens on the home. Some auctions don’t give you clean title to the property, meaning liens from the federal government or other entities may not be removed during the foreclosure auction process. You’d have to pay off those liens if you won the property. 

Solution: Focus your efforts on two or three homes in desirable locations. To find out about any liens, pay a real estate attorney to run a title search on each property and issue a commitment to insure the title after purchase. Ask how the policy treats liens filed between the time of the search and the time you close.

A less-expensive option: Hire an independent title search professional called an abstracter or an online company. Both search options should be under $200, title insurance costs vary by state.

5. Challenge: You have to pay cash and pay it quickly. Most auctions require bidders to come up with the full purchase price in cash within 30 days.

Solution: Don’t count on getting a mortgage that fast. Look for other sources of cash that make financial sense for you.

  • Tap retirement accounts, provided it makes sense for you from a tax perspective.
  • Work with other investors to fund a partnership to invest in foreclosed homes.

6. Challenge: You’re in love with a house that you’re aware is headed to foreclosure, but you’re afraid to bid on it at the foreclosure auction because you know nothing about the process.

Solution #1: Contact the owners and offer to purchase the home as a short sale. That’s where the bank agrees to let the owners sell for less than what they owe on the mortgage.

Solution #2: You may be able to buy the house after the foreclosure sale. Foreclosure sales are run by a government agency (often the sheriff), which collects the money from the highest bidder and gives it to the bank to pay off the mortgage.

Banks will often bid at the sale to make sure someone doesn’t pay less than the house is worth (translation: not giving the bank enough money to satisfy the mortgage).

If the bank is the high bidder, it’ll take title to the house and put it up for sale. Then, buying the home is just like buying any other house. You can buy an owner’s title insurance policy so you know the house is free of liens; you can get a home inspection to check for needed repairs; and you’ll have plenty of time to line up your financing.

A real estate agent can alert you the day the bank puts the home on the market, so you can submit your purchase offer.

Since the bank pays the real estate agent’s fees, you likely won’t pay more than you’d have bid at the foreclosure auction to outbid the bank, and you’ll avoid most of the risks and unknowns of buying at the auction.

More from HouseLogic

How to Assess the Real Cost of a Fixer-Upper House

6 Tips for Buying a Home in Short Sale

Foreclosure Resource Guide

Other web resources

Auction Guides: Not so Hot Properties

Marcia Jedd, who covers a range of home and real estate issues, dreams of stumbling upon a foreclosure sale where a vacation lake cabin in northern Minnesota is being sold free and clear at a deep discount. Her bylines include many local and national publications, including,, Kitchen & Bath Ideas, and Professional Builder.