Real Estate Buying

Buyer Beware: 9 Real Estate Scams to Watch Out For

A competitive housing market may require fast action, but buyers, sellers, and renters still need to proceed with extreme caution. Home-purchase and rental transactions both involve large amounts of cash, and cash attracts scammers. Before you start your hunt for a new home, read up on 9 common real estate swindles and how to avoid them.

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The Wire Fraud

The scam: When you’re ready to close on your new home, an email arrives, citing all the correct details about the title and instructing you to wire the cash to an account at a distant bank. The account probably belongs to criminals who have hacked the title information, and if you fall for their scam, you’ll be out your money and your home.

How to Avoid It: Never release payments until you’ve read all the fine print and followed the instructions in the escrow packet provided by your title company. Be sure to call the number on your printed packet (and your agent and lawyer) if you receive any emails about changes. 

Related: 10 Surprising Reasons to Start House Hunting in Fall

The Invisible Home

The scam: An apartment in a super-hot building becomes available at a great price. The catch? Your “agent” tells you that it’s not officially on the market, so you can see it only via photos and a drive-by. Eager to nab a deal, you wire deposit money—and suddenly, when it’s time for the key exchange, he’s no longer answering his phone, because he never had the keys—or the listing.

How to Avoid It: Obviously, don’t rent or buy a place without touring it first. But even more important, check out your agent carefully, get references, and visit his or her office.

Related: Find the Right Realtor: 9 Tips from Happy Homeowners

The Cover-Up

The scam: To disguise a major problem with a home—think toxic mold in the bedrooms or sinkholes under the garage—the owner will do a cosmetic fix, then lie on the property disclosure statement. She may even get the real estate agent and inspector in on the game. 

How to Avoid It: Get references for a trusted inspector, and hire him to tour the property. Look carefully at fresh paint jobs and flooring. Ask to see a home’s repair records, and if any questions crop up, call the repair companies to get more details.

Related: 9 Age-Old Real Estate Tips to Ignore Completely

The Lousy Loan

The scam: After you’ve purchased your home, a “mortgage agency” contacts you and makes big promises, such as reduced monthly payments, in exchange for a fee and access to your bank account. If you hand over the money or information, you’re in for some financial pain and no gain.

How to Avoid It: Never respond to unsolicited offers of loan modification. If you’re interested in refinancing or changing your monthly payments in other ways, deal directly with a reputable bank or broker by phone or in person.

Related: 10 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Realtor

The Foreclosure Fiasco

The scam: In desperate financial straits, a homeowner faced with foreclosure lists his place for rent or for sale. You bite and, when the owner’s bank comes calling to claim the property, the deal bites you back.

How to Avoid It: Do your due diligence on the owner and the property, and be very suspicious if the owner doesn’t examine you and your finances very thoroughly. You can also contact the County Recorder to find out if any notices have been filed on the home.

Related: Moving? 5 Ways to Minimize Surprise Costs

The Vacation Switcheroo

The scam: With the help of a burglar or locksmith, a scam artist gains access to the apartment or house whose occupant is away on holiday or extended travel. You’re offered the place as a lovely furnished rental, often with the condition that you pay the first few months in advance. The homeowners return only to find you living in their pad.

How to Avoid It: Again, do your homework on the agent, and look up records on the property to see who is paying taxes on the place.

Related: 10 Simple Mistakes That Could Cost You Your Dream Home

The Secret Superhighway

The scam: You arrive in a strange city eager to nab a good deal on your new home. You find the perfect spot, sign the papers, pay your money, and move in. On your second day in your new bedroom, construction on a new interstate exit begins, just beyond your back fence.

How to Avoid It: When you’re new in town, it’s extra important to educate yourself about a neighborhood—its past, present, and future. Talk to the local city councillor, do Internet searches for news on the location, and talk to as many potential neighbors as possible before you buy.

Related: 10 Things to Know About Being Your Own Real Estate Agent

The Cash Launderette

The scam: A foreign buyer in a big hurry offers to purchase your home in cash on the spot without asking for the usual information and inspections. You can’t believe your luck, and say yes.

How to Avoid It: In this case, you shouldn’t believe your luck. That all-cash deal may very well attract the attention of law enforcement agents, suspicious that the buyers may be using your house to launder ill-gotten gains. Do extra background work on an all-cash buyer.

Related: Selling Your Home? 7 Things to Know Right Off the Bat

The Pressure Cooker

The scam: You like the place, and then you’re told that if you want it, you need to act immediately—no time to bring in your mom, your contractor, or even your spouse. You sign on the dotted line and hand over a check, only to find out later that the place has major problems
or, even worse, the so-called seller doesn’t own the title.

How to Avoid It: If you’re ever being pressured or being given an extreme hard sell, take it as a major red flag. Even in a hot market, a sound real estate transaction needs to be carried out in a reasonably measured, orderly fashion. If the selling agent or owner is rushing things along too much, be very suspicious—and prepare to walk (or run!) away.

Related: Don’t Let Emotions Cloud Your Real Estate Judgment