How to avoid paying for costly surveys, foreclosure listings and appraisals

Posted5/30/2013 11:57 AM

Savvy homeowners and buyers often can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars in real-estate-related fees, provided they know where to look for the free information that realty pros use on a daily basis.

Q. I was interested in the column you recently wrote regarding a homeowner who is disputing a neighbor's claim that a fence is "encroaching" about two feet over the neighbor's property line. I have a similar problem, but I don't want to pay the $350 or even $600 that the three local surveyors that I have called say they would charge for a formal report. Is there a place where I can find this information for free?

A. Yes. Start by checking the documents you received when you originally purchased the house. There's a good chance that the deed, title-insurance policy or other documents include a legal description of the boundary lines, perhaps based on a government surveyor's report or a local landmark.

If you can't find the information in your purchase paperwork, you might have to make a trip to the local recorder's or assessor's office and ask the clerk for help in looking it up. It's worth noting, though, that some of those agencies have websites with free maps or other info that can help a homeowner quickly establish a property's boundary lines without spending hours searching for the data in a local government office.

Q. How can I get free information about foreclosures in my neighborhood?

A. Your best bet is to call a local real estate salesperson or broker. Most realty licensees have access to the Multiple Listing Service. The MLS includes nearly all properties that are currently for sale, including those that have been foreclosed by a bank after the homeowner didn't make the monthly mortgage payments.

Even better, the agent may be able to find "pre-foreclosure" homes -- properties that are owned by folks who can't pay their monthly mortgage bills but want to sell at a discounted price today rather than spending thousands of dollars to fight their lender in court and risk a seriously bad mark on their credit history if they lose.

Several private companies offer listings of foreclosed homes for free or for a nominal fee. But I'm not impressed by many of them: I paid $20 for a report of foreclosures last week in my area that listed a nearby two-bedroom condominium with about 1,200 square feet of living space, supposedly on a lot with a staggering 110,000 square feet (nearly three acres) in the best part of town.

The costly report didn't note that there are about 50 other condos on the same parcel, so a buyer wouldn't actually be acquiring three acres of land.

Three government or quasi-government agencies -- the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (, Fannie Mae ( and Freddie Mac ( -- own about half of all foreclosures in the nation. Their websites have free links to their listings, and contain valuable information about the buying process.

Q. How can I find out how much I could sell my home for, without having to pay for an appraisal?

A. Again, start by contacting a licensed real-estate agent or broker who you trust and ask for a Comparative Market Analysis of your home. Most agents will provide such a report, typically referred to as a "CMA," for free in the hope that you'll list your property with them when you eventually decide to sell.

The best agents who offer free CMAs will visit your property first to note its amenities, condition and other factors that may affect its market value. Then they'll do a computerized search to find what properties in the area that are similar to yours have sold for in the past few months.

The report also should include a list of comparable properties in the neighborhood that are currently up for sale, and how much sellers are asking for them.

Don't be surprised if the representative's CMA gives you a range of values, such as "$100,000 to $115,000" or even "$520,000 to $600,000." Home values in many parts of the nation are rising again at a fast clip, so there's no way that even the smartest agent can guarantee what your property would exactly fetch today -- much less months or years from now.

REAL ESTATE TRIVIA: May is "National Egg Month," twice the cause for celebration for residents of quaint Two Egg, Fla. But it's not such a big deal in rural Hot Coffee, Miss.; Lakeside Sandwich, N.H.; or the roughly 20 Southeast communities called Lickskillet.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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