Many banks are starting to use online auctions for the sales of REO (Real Estate Owned) This is the term commonly used to describe real estate that is owned by a bank, obtained in foreclosure. HUD has been doing auctions for years on its FHA inventory but their auctions are not run live. HUD auctions use sealed bids. REO managers have a different idea. They want to market the house in a classic Ebay style environment. They want to drive the price up as high as possible with a bidding frenzy. This can be a great way for REO sellers to sell, but can have pitfalls for buyers which I will discuss a bit later.
One of the real areas of concern I have is short sales. I see this movement towards online auctions with short sales. Many banks are having their debtors sign an auction agreement along with the other short sale documents. The house is then placed up for auction terms and often the auctioneer does not even notify the listing agent. It seems that banks are going to continue to push ethical boundaries on short sales and in some cases take advantage of the American people while cashing in on federal programs like HAFA (Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives).
I have had some positive experiences with one loan short sales under auction terms. It seems the first lien holder often pre-negotiates the deal with the auction house and the short sale can move ahead with efficiency. The problem is that there is sometimes a second lien and the auction house either fails to disclose to the buyer or discloses in a fashion that is difficult to find. This can cause allot of grief for the buyer and the home owner.
People that are bidding on these auction homes should have a real estate professional aid them in the process. Typically the homes are listed on the local MLS and your real estate agent will get paid by the listing broker under the terms of the listing agreement. By all means a buyer should always have representation in a transaction involving large amounts of money.
In general the auction houses appear to be decent business operators. The problem is that another party to the transaction is now involved. The more parties in a real estate transaction the more likely it is to fail. Buyers and sellers can be taken for a long and uncomfortable ride when there is two banks and auction house involved in the deal.
If a buyer decides to bid on an online real estate auction, they should consult their trusted local real estate professional. That agent can do some quick research to help the buyer decide whether or not the home is viable. The agent can also help determine a good bidding range. It is paramount to remember that auction terms are designed to get an emotional response by the bidders. The emotion that screams, "I want to win" so as to drive up the price. Some auctions even have disclosures that suggest overbidding will result in mandated payment even if the property does not appraise. This could be a problem for a buyer using a loan to purchase.
In my experience dealing with the short sale departments at most banks is akin to getting a root canal without Novocaine. So adding the auction element on these sales is surfing in dangerous seas. Caution is heavily advised.
Finally, there are some banks now taking their REO inventory directly to auction without listing on the local MLS. They hire a local licensed agent to make the sale legal under state law, but offer no representation for the buyer. I believe that American banks are already about as ethical as your average mugger, now they are trying to engage the direct home buying public in a "dark alley deal" that will almost certainly take advantage of the buyer. If the auction house is listing a property that is not listed on the local MLS, I would tell most buyers to run away. Seasoned investors may feel compelled to bid, but inexperienced buyers really should not take the risk of engaging in a transaction without a buyers agent involved.