motivated seller one among many

If you want to succeed in real estate, the number one priority is to find motivated sellers and lots of them.

If you can’t do this, then the rest of this process isn’t even worth talking about because this whole game begins and ends with your ability to find sellers who will accept your low offers and play by your terms.

What’s a “Motivated Seller” Anyway?

In my mind, a “motivated seller” is a property owner who is willing to do at least one of the following things:

  • Sell their property for a very low price (I mean REALLY low… think somewhere in the neighborhood of 10% – 30% of market value).
  • Sell their property with very flexible terms (i.e., sellers who will basically finance the property for you, require no money down, and charge 0% interest).

two parties close a deal over a table

Obviously, these types of sellers will have to agree to a pretty ridiculous offer. They’ll have to sell their property almost entirely on your terms and in your interests. Things that, in theory, no sane person would ever be willing to do.

If you want to make your next real estate investment a “sure thing,” you need to be in a position where you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. On the other hand, the seller needs to be in a position where they are willing to lose everything and walk away from their property with little (if anything) to show for it.

I know it sounds crazy. Heck, it might even sound impossible… but I’m going to explain exactly how I find these sellers regularly and get them calling ME, asking me to buy their property for whatever price I feel like paying.

If you’re skeptical, I understand. I realize this may sound too good to be true. After all, who would ever agree to such outrageous terms like this? Are there really deals like this to be had out there?  Are there actual property owners who will sell their property for next to nothing?

The answer is a resounding YES. Now let’s talk about how you can find them!

How to Get the List

It all starts with your ability to find a targeted list of property owners who are highly motivated to sell.

We are NOT looking for just any list of property owners. We are looking for a very specific demographic of people who (statistically speaking) are much more likely to sell their property than the average property owner.

There are several different ways to go about getting these lists. Depending on what areas of the United States you’re working in, some methods can work better than others.

Method 1: Working With the County

In most of the markets where I’ve worked, my preferred method is to get this list directly from the county.

Specifically, I’m looking for the county’s delinquent tax list. Every county has this list, and it’s an absolute GOLD MINE of information that can help you track down some of the most highly motivated sellers in a given area. For more information on how to get your hands on this list, I explain it in great detail in this blog post.

Working directly with the county has its pros and cons.

The biggest benefit is that the data is as fresh and as accurate as it will ever be because it’s coming directly from the county’s database in real-time. This is important because working with current and accurate data is CRUCIAL when doing a direct mail campaign. Without it, you could end up wasting a lot of time and money on mail that doesn’t reach the right people, which can be detrimental to your results in every subsequent step in this process.

The downside is that many counties can be difficult to work with. Some of the lists these counties provide (assuming you can get them at all) can present some MAJOR hassles when sorting and organizing them. It’s not impossible to get the job done, but some counties make this a very cumbersome, time-consuming process.

Method 2: Working With a Data Service

Another way to get this list is to order your list from a real estate data service.

MANY different companies can provide these lists in a clean, workable format. Some are expensive; others are relatively cheap. Some are great at generating certain types of lists, others at lists for other purposes.

None of them are perfect in every way, but if you know exactly what types of property owners you’re looking for, the data you need is probably out there somewhere.

I put together a comprehensive comparison of several of the data services in this blog post, so check it out if you’re not sure where to start.

These days, I use a service called DataTree.

The primary benefit of a service like this is that it’s relatively inexpensive to get these lists, and they’re both a great resource for property research.

Here’s a quick overview of how DataTree works:

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Keep in mind—all this information is of public record. If you know exactly where to go, you can probably look up any of these properties in minutes and find most of this basic information on the county’s website.

The downside to these kinds of data services is that some of the counties (particularly the more rural ones) will have outdated and/or incomplete databases. For this reason, I’ve found that even though most data services are far more convenient, they aren’t always the best solution in every county. That said, where it does work, it can work wonders.

As you can imagine, many different people and companies use this data to create bulk mailings. If you’ve ever gotten junk mail before, chances are they found your name and information from this kind of public information database.

RELATED: How I Find Motivated Sellers (and Get Them Calling Me). Step 2: Sorting the List

Why Direct Mail Works

Most direct mail campaigns are not very effective. Why? Because a lot of direct mail marketers don’t do a great job at narrowing down their target audience. They send out mail to a WIDE range of people (most of whom don’t need what they have to offer) and as a result, they waste an obscene amount of money.

Most direct mail marketers people consider a 1% response rate as “successful.”

I consider it “pathetic.”

traditional mailbox in front of suburban home

When we send out mail, we are going to be much smarter about who we’re trying to reach.

The goal isn’t to send out a massive volume of mail. The goal is to send our message to the appropriate people. If we want to get a higher response rate (thus making our mail campaign more worthwhile), this will only happen by obtaining a quality list.

As mentioned in the video above, DataTree allows us to pick out specific types of properties and owners on a number of different levels. By doing so, we can put together a direct mail campaign that will get a MUCH better response rate than 1% because we’re targeting the right kinds of people who need what we’re offering them. On average, my response rates are usually in the 5-10% range (and even higher on occasion).

It is essential to have current information and the right recipients on your list. If you don’t filter your list appropriately and/or you’re working with outdated information, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time and money.

With this in mind, I like to target my lists based on a few key characteristics:

1. Property owners who live out-of-county (or out-of-state).

People who live out-of-state (and even out-of-county) tend to be much more disengaged from their investment properties. Many of these people had to move away unexpectedly, and for whatever reason, they just don’t care about their property. It’s an “out of sight, out of mind” situation. These people have a vested interest in liquidating as soon as possible because the property has become a drag on their finances.

2. Property owners who don’t live at their property (absentee owners).

For obvious reasons, absentee owners are much more likely to part with an investment property than they are with their personal residence. Don’t expect people to sell you the roof over their head for pennies on the dollar; it usually won’t happen.

3. Property owners who have owned their property for ten years or longer.

On occasion, I like to sort my lists with this criteria because properties that have been owned for a longer period are much more likely to be owned free and clear. With these properties, the owner has more equity to play with, which gives them more freedom to sell their property at a HUGE discount.

4. Property owners who have delinquent taxes.

Many of these owners are at the end of their rope financially. They literally don’t have the time or money to wait for a higher offer. If they don’t sell the property to you, they will lose everything to tax foreclosure. Of course, you’ll have to take care of the taxes once you buy it, but these delinquencies will often give you a lot of leverage to make a low-ball offer.

5. Properties that are in the right price range.

If you’re not interested in buying a million-dollar property, then don’t solicit people who own these properties. It’s that simple. If you can screen the properties that are clearly out of your price range to begin with, then do it! You’ll only be wasting postage if you mail to property owners that you never intend to purchase from.

As you can imagine, you can sort your lists using other philosophies and methods (and I encourage you to test out some of your own as you see fit), but these are the most common sorting methods that I’ve seen used throughout the industry.

Direct mail certainly isn’t free, but when it’s done right—it works. There is no better way that I know of to reach a targeted audience in such a short time. If you haven’t tried direct mail yet, I urge you to give it a shot. You may be pleasantly surprised.

RELATED: How I Find Motivated Sellers (and Get Them Calling Me). Step 3: Sending the Mail

When Direct Mail Disappoints

From time to time, I’ve heard from investors who have tried this list-pulling method, and they haven’t gotten a good response rate.

first-class mail USPS envelope

Unfortunately, this risk is inherent in any direct mail campaign. There can be a lot of reasons why this happens. The success of a campaign depends on at least two key factors:

Problem #1: The Source of Your List

It’s important to understand that some counties do a very poor job of maintaining their public records, and an even worse job of making that data available for these third-party data services to pull from. I’ve found this usually happens in counties that are VERY rural and sparsely populated. This is probably because they don’t have the tax revenue to keep a solid public records system.

When a county doesn’t provide good data, this means the data available from services like DataTree won’t be any better. When the data in our list isn’t current or accurate, it usually translates into a much lower response rate (because at the end of the day, no matter how well we filter our lists, our mailers aren’t reaching the right people).

Luckily, some (though, not all) data services will give you the option of verifying how current the data is in their database and DataTree has this capability.

Generally speaking, it’s not a bad idea to do a test with every direct mail campaign, and especially when you’re trying to break into a new market. Try sending out 100-200 mail pieces in the new area you’re trying to work in and see what kind of response rate you get. Do this BEFORE you blast out of the gate with 1,000+ mailers.

If your response rate is terrible, you can quickly determine the lists you’re pulling aren’t performing adequately in this area. You can start diagnosing the problem (or getting your list from another source) before you invest a fortune into a campaign that’s bound to fail.

Problem #2: Your Filtering Criteria

Another problem could simply be the way you filter your list.

  • Do you filter out the owner-occupied properties?
  • How specific are you about the property types you’re looking for?
  • Have you selected the right market value of the properties you’re looking for?
  • Do you eliminate all the duplicates on your list?
  • Are you getting rid of the properties without addresses?
  • Do you filter all the junk out of your list?
  • Have you specified the property sizes you’re looking for?

I’m not exaggerating—there’s an INFINITE number of ways to filter your list. The clearer you are about the types of properties (and property owners) you don’t want to send mail to, the more legitimate, targeted responses you’ll get from the people you actually want to do business with.

When you blast out mail to anybody and everybody, most of them won’t be in a position where they need to sell now. This means many won’t call you, and the ones who do won’t be willing to play by your terms.

It all starts with specifying whom you’re trying to go after because those are the people you’ll end up doing business with.

Here are some other potential issues that are usually less significant but can still hurt your response rate:

  • What kind of mail are you sending out (is it the optimal color, size, type, etc.)?
  • What are you saying in your postcard/letter? Do your words move the recipient to respond?
  • How are you fielding your responses? Are you answering calls directly, routing them to a voicemail message, or directing them to a website?
  • If you’re routing them to a voicemail system, what does your voicemail message say?

If you’re experiencing a consistently BAD response rate, it’s probably because of one or more of the things listed above.

Getting a Good Response Rate From Your List

Without knowing the specifics of your situation, my initial suggestion would be to make sure you’re working with current data (no more than a month old). Try sending mail to a few different areas and/or tweaking your list filtering criteria a bit (see problems #1 and #2 above).

If you think you’ve done everything perfectly and you’re still not getting the response rate you want (and if you don’t want to target a different county or state), you may have to go directly to the county to get your lists.

Getting your lists directly from the county is usually more expensive and cumbersome to do. BUT if you’re finding that services like DataTree simply aren’t cutting it in your area, you can usually circumvent this problem altogether if you get this information directly from the county. And it’s usually worth the trouble in the end.

About the author

Seth Williams is the Founder of - an online community that offers real-world guidance for real estate investors.

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