Housing Crisis Upside: Bargains for Everyone

Known as Las Brisas, this South Florida luxury estate was sold for $11.5 million, more than $8 million less than its 2007 list price. "I was able to sell it at a shorter time than customary now," said real estate agent Brent Coetzee, who took over the listing from another agent in 2008. But, he added, these days "everything is kind of tough to sell." /Courtesy Brent Coetzee.

"When buying from the bank, maybe the price point is a little bit more to your advantage -- but you're dealing with a large institution," she said. "It may take a little longer."

Heavily discounted homes are often sold at auctions and, like bank-owned homes, they're typically purchased "as is."

Sharga said that, when possible, he recommends that would-be buyers have a contractor check out the home for problems before the auction -- it's a service, Sharga said, that a contractor may perform for free in hopes of getting the buyer's business later on.

How can you tell when a heavily discounted home is actually a good deal? Experts say there are a few things to watch for:

The Original Price Was Too High: Be wary of price reductions. Some are bargains and others are just marketing gimmicks.

"Maybe the person just overpriced it. Whoever was selling it might have just been an idiot. But nothing brings people into the store like a 30 percent discount, a 50 percent discount," Kelman said. "People tend to look at price reductions and overreact. To some extent, there are Realtors who are gaming the system. … They drop the price to generate more activity in the listings."

Overvalued Neighborhood: One of the reasons home prices in certain parts of the country -- like areas of California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona -- have seen such precipitous declines is because they were overvalued to begin with.

In certain places, Kelman said, prices will continue to fall.

"There are some markets where I think people should still wait" to buy, Kelman said, and that includes the San Francisco Bay area, Seattle and Miami.

The Prices of Neighboring Homes: "In some cases, a 50 percent discount isn't enough," Sharga said. "It's a great discount, but it may not be a good price because the surrounding properties may be valued at 45 percent."

How Much Has the Home's Value Depreciated: Kelman recommends learning how much the seller paid for the property and how much it was appraised at a year or two ago.

Some of these things are harder than others to find out, but he said consumers can start at their local or county tax assessor's offices. A good real estate agent should also be able to help and some online sites, like Redfin, include some of that data.

What You'll Pay Beyond Selling Price: The price of repairs -- if it's up to you to make them -- and what you'll pay in real estate taxes may amount to more than you expect. Lauroesch said it's also important to learn whether it will be up to you take care of any back taxes and liens on the property or whether the seller will handle those through a deed transfer.

The Price Per Square Foot: "Too many people don't really evaluate the value of the land," Kelman said. "The house is important, but not as important as the land. That's what holds value more than the house and more than the furnishings in the property."

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