Auctions: What Are They and How Do I Get One?

There is constant discussion about auctions in real estate.  Basically, there are two main types to be aware of:

1.  Notice of Trustee’s Sale Auction: this is the type of auction when a short sale becomes a foreclosure.  After receiving a Notice of Default (after 3 months on non-payment) the owner has 6 months to cure the default.  If the default isn’t cured within time specified, the property goes to auction where it is sold on the courthouse steps.  If no one buys the house at a price the bank deems reasonable, the bank will take the house back and put it on the market as a foreclosure.  Notice of Trustee (NOT) auctions are common these days because of the high volume of short sales.  I’ve been to several in San Diego and the houses are auctioned literally on the courthouse steps with auctioneer going quickly through each house.  A representative for the bank is in attendance and it’s his/her job to ensure that the house is being bought above the bank’s bottom dollar.  The challenge with these types of sales is that they are usually cash only purchases and are done in “As Is” fashion.

2.  Auction-Style Regular Sale: this is a relatively rare type of auction for normal housing.  It’s a creative way to try and sell a house quickly and create a lot of buzz about the property within a short time period.  They usually don’t limit based on financing or length of escrow, but will take those factors into consideration before moving forward with the buyer.  Also, usually everyone is aware of what the highest bid is.  I’ve seen them done via phone and they ask you if you want to proceed to the next level of bidding.  If not, they thank you for your time and you are disconnected from the call.

In my opinion, it’s a gimmick that doesn’t do the best thing for the seller.  Perhaps you’ve seen the recent raffle for houses.  People can buy a $50 ticket and the house is given to the lucky winner.  The hope is that if the house is worth $500,000 the agent sells more than 10,000 tickets and makes the seller a decent profit.  On the other side, the buyer’s hope is to get into a house for a significant discount (say, $250 for 5 tickets).  The problem is that it’s a game of chance.  The agent hopes that they sell enough tickets to justify the sale.  The buyer hopes they are lucky enough to beat the 1 in 3,000 odds.

To me, auctions are a great opportunity for a buyer but another gimmick that hurts the seller.  Here’s why:

– usually there is a weekend where the buyers must attend a viewing of the house before being eligible for the auction.  This is usually a specific time on a weekend (Saturday and Sunday).  The problem is that that doesn’t always make sense for every buyer.  A four hour time slot (let’s say 2 hours each day) is typical and to make that window limits getting all qualified buyers in the door to be eligible to bid.  This limits the potential auctioneers.  It also means that people who think their bid won’t be enough may or may not go.  My advice: if you’re within $100,000 of what the house is worth, go.  You’ve got nothing to lose.  Another bit of advice: take your Realtor.  Get good advice about the value of the house and let him/her read through the obligations of the auction contract (i.e. is it being purchased “As Is”?  Is there an escape clause for the seller if they don’t get enough?  Will there still be a contingency period to get inspections done? etc).

-opening bids are usually about 50% of value in order to get everyone interested.  That means a $600,000 house might have an opening bid of $300,000.  That’s nice at the beginning but for most buyers not doing their homework on the auction and the true value of the house, they are set up with unrealistic expectations.  The thought is that someone who can afford more but only wants to pay $550,000 gets caught up in the “game” of the auction and outbids someone else for $585,000 and the house gets sold in a weekend.  My advice to buyers is to pick a number before seeing the house and stick to it.  Many times in traditional negotiations I’ll recommend to the buyer that we go take another look in between Counter Offer #1 and #2.  I do this because I want them to make sure they like the place and are excited about moving forward.  Looking at houses is fun; buying a house is a whole different animal.  With an auction you won’t have the luxury of going back to view the house again after the last bid.  It’s easy to say “just one more bid” over and over again until you end up $35,000 above where you wanted.  Consult a Realtor, find a number, stick with it.