|Issue #54 • November/December, 1998
While looking for your place in the country, you’ve probably been researching real estate books, newspaper ads, and maybe even using the Internet. You may have even considered getting land based on the country’s old Homesteading Act. While the Homesteading Act has been repealed, that doesn’t mean you cannot get land from the government. What it does mean, however, is that you’ll have to pay for it. It is worth looking into, though, because you can get some very good deals, and have access to some properties that you simply cannot buy through a private party.
This article shows you which agencies sell real property, how it is sold, where you can get information about sales, how to buy real property from the government, how to complain if you have a problem, and how to contact the various selling agencies.
Which agencies sell real property
Not every government agency sells real property. Some Federal agencies turn over any real property they have to the General Services Administra-tion (GSA) which sells the property for them. The Federal Property Resources Service (FPRS) of the GSA sells a significant amount of surplus Federal Government real property. The GSA is the government’s largest disposer of real property, so it might be the first place you want to look.
If you are looking primarily for undeveloped land, another agency you will want to contact is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). If you are looking to buy a farm, the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) of the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sells this type of real property.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) also sells real property which once belonged to failed banks. Of primary interest to the homesteader would be the FDIC’s offers of undeveloped land and single-family homes.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has foreclosed single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums, and “fixer-uppers” available for purchase, most of which are sold for fair market value, but you can sometimes pick up a pretty good deal.
Other Federal agencies which sell single family homes, vacant land, farms, and commercial property include the U. S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Small Business Administra-tion (SBA), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), U.S. Customs (a division of the Treasury Department), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the U. S. Army Corp of engineers.
State and some local government agencies also sell real property. For example, the state of Nevada sells state lands, as does the state of Utah, and others. Many states and government agencies even have Internet web sites where you can see what lands are currently available for sale, and where you can also get the information you need regarding the process of buying these lands.
How real property is sold
Government agencies use many different methods to sell the real properties within their possession. One of the most common methods, and often the easiest for the buyer, is the sealed bid method.
Other methods include the public auction, sealed bid auctions, spot bids, fixed price sales, negotiation, broker/individual sales, and portfolio sales. Not all of these methods are commonly used for real property, however, nor are all of these methods particularly useful to the buyer looking for a piece of real estate. The sales methods you should become familiar with if you are looking to purchase real property from the government are: sealed bid, auction, and broker/individual sale.
During the sealed-bid process, the agency wanting to sell the property may prepare a formal document called an “Invitation for Bid.” This document describes the property and explains the procedure for placing a bid. Interested individuals then submit a bid on the property. When the bid-opening date occurs, the bids are read publicly, and the sale of the property is awarded to the highest bidder who correctly followed the bidding procedures. Bids which have not properly followed the bidding procedures are disqualified, even if they are the highest bid. Thus, it’s important to note and follow the specific bidding instructions for any property on which you want to bid.
The main drawback to the sealed bid method is that you may find yourself outbid by only a few dollars: Thus, while you don’t want to pay more for a property than it is worth or than you can afford, you must bid as high as you feel reasonably comfortable doing if you really want the property.
Auctions for real property are held the same way that auctions for personal property are held. Real property auctions are often held at the courthouse in the county in which the property is located, but can be held on the property itself, or any other place the auctioning agency deems appropriate. A real property auction works just like other auctions. On the day of the auction, people bid for the property until no higher bid is offered. The property is then sold to the highest bidder.
The main drawback to a public auction is that you can get-carried away with the spirit of the bidding process and end up paying more for the property than you would have paid for a similar piece offered by a private party. Of course, having to be present during the bid, or having to provide an authorized proxy can also be a drawback, particularly if you live any distance from where the auction is being held.
Real property is also often sold through private real estate brokers. These brokers negotiate the sale of these properties on the government’s behalf, however, so make sure you are getting a good deal before you buy. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) sell property by this method.
How do you find out about real property sales
The government advertises and promotes available properties in several ways. Most government agencies list properties for sale in advertisements in local, regional, and national papers. Specialty publications such as the Commerce business Daily also carry announcements for government property sales, as do various trade publications. Agencies also post notices in various government buildings including local post offices and county courthouses. Some government agencies also advertise property sales through radio advertisements and even local flyers. Other government agencies will put your name on a mailing list and notify you when properties are coming up for sale. (Sometimes a small fee is charged for this service.)
With the explosion of the use of the Internet, many government agencies also use various web sites to advertise available properties. Many federal as well as state agencies have their own internet home page. (See the inset on this page for a list of some useful web sites.)
Local real estate brokers have lists of properties for sale, particularly HUD and VA properties. Some local auctioneers also receive notice of upcoming government property auctions, so you may be able to get information from a local auctioneer in your area or in the area where the property you are looking for is located.
How to buy real property from the government
Although there are often very specific procedures you must follow in order to participate in the sale of real property by the government, here are some general guidelines you should follow.
First, before you attend a government auction or submit a sealed bid for a piece of property, do your homework. Contact the appropriate agency and find out basic information about the property and the auction. Get a copy of the “invitation for Bid” or similar document if it is available. Make sure you understand what it tells you as most sales are final.
Specifically ask when the sale or auction will take place and where, what sales method will be used, if there are any special restrictions or requirements, and how payment is to be made. Although some agencies such as HUD and the VA assist the buyer with financing, most agencies expect you to pay for your purchase with a money order, certified check, or cash. If you are hoping to finance your purchase, be sure to ask if that is allowed, and how soon your lender will need to provide the agency with the full funds. Then make sure you have already qualified for the loan and received permission from the lender to make a bid for the property.
Next, visit the property. Walk its property line noting flaws or problems you may have to pay to correct. If the property has buildings on it, inspect them carefully. If appropriate, pay a professional, certified inspector to look at the property for you. Also, if there’s a possibility that part or all of the property is considered to be wet lands or other protected lands for which you may have to have specific government approval to build or live on, find this out ahead of time.
As with private property for sale by owner or through a broker, you may need permission to enter and inspect the property. If so, be sure to get that permission. You can ask the agency selling the property whether you need permission, and if so, who to get it from if it isn’t them.
As part of your homework, don’t jump right into the first auction or sealed bid opportunity you find. If possible, attend a few auctions to see how the process works and to get a feeling for what property in the area is worth. If you are going to be submitting a sealed bid, try to find out what similar properties have sold for at past sealed bid sales. Some government agencies will give you this information.
You should also compare the price of private property sold in the surrounding area. Any licensed real estate agent should be able to tell you what similar properties have sold for in the recent past, or you can check county records.
Finally, before bidding on property, try to find out whether it has been appraised, and if so, try to find out the amount of the appraisal. If it isn’t public knowledge, try to at least find out what appraisal company or individual the agency uses to appraise their real property. You may then be able to get a hypothetical value from this agency for a property similar to that on which you wish to bid or make an offer.
If you visited these parcels, researched restrictions and other relevant information, watched the auction if one was conducted, then compared the final sales prices, you’ll have a pretty good feel for the process and potential of properties. However, as with all purchases, remember the saying “caveat emptor.” Be a wary buyer. Carefully check out every aspect of a property before you prepare to put up your hard earned cash to buy it.
How to complain if you have problems
If you have a complaint or problem, for whatever reason, the first step is to contact the agency that sponsored the sale. Again, caveat emptor. Don’t expect the agency to be sympathetic if you simply aren’t happy with the property you bought after you bought it. Unless fraud or deception was involved, it was your responsibility to ensure the property was what you wanted before you participated in the sale.
On the other hand, if you found out that the price for which the property sold was less than your bid, you may have reason to question the sale. If the problem is with the sealed bid or offer you submitted, the agency may be able to tell you what it was about your bid or offer that caused it to not be accepted. Doing so isn’t likely to change the sale process as sales are almost always final. However, knowing what went wrong this time may help insure it doesn’t happen again.
If you were following information about a sale that you received from a non-governmental organization, and you believe it was misleading or inaccurate, you can complain to the government about it. In most cases, the government agency collects information and tracks these problems, but does not take immediate action on your behalf. The agencies are mostly interested in seeing any pattern of illegal activity, and finding out if there are any violations of Federal regulations.
Agencies to contact when you believe that fraud or illegal activity may have taken place include the Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Postal Service (if the activity involved the mails or anything sent through the mails), the state Attorney General office, state and local consumer offices, and local Better Business Bureaus.
Where to get more information
Contact these agencies for more information about real property for sale from the government.
For FmHA sales, contact the Farmers Home Administration county office in the county where the property is located. Look under Federal Government, Farmers Home Administration in the government pages of the phone book for the area. If the property you are looking for is not in the area covered by your local phone book, you often can find phone books for other cities and states at your local library.
To contact some of the other federal government agencies which sell real property, you also find the local office in the government pages of the phone book for the area in which the property is located. Look under Federal Government, and then for the office’s name such as the U. S. Army Corp of Engineers (look for Army, Corps of Engineers), U.S. Marshals Service (look for U.S. Marshals Service of the Department of Justice), or the V.A. (look for Veteran’s Administration).
For V.A. and HUD properties, check with licensed real estate brokers in the area where the property is located. You can also contact HUD directly at 1-800-767-4483.
By writing to the Consumer Information Center, you can also receive a free or low-cost copies of various related booklets, and be added to the list to receive their quarterly publication of the U.S. Real Properties Sales List.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has three regional offices that handle real property sales depending on where the property is located. These offices are: the Northeast Service Center, 101 E River Dr. East Hartford, CT 06108 (1-800-873-7785), the Western Service Center, 4 Park Place, Newport Beach, CA 92714 (1-800-234-0867), and the Field Operations Branch, 1910 Pacific Avenue, Dallas, TX 75201(1-800-568-9161).
For information concerning state lands available for sale, contact the Division of State Lands (or similar department) for the state in which the property is located. Also, see if the state has a web site. A search of the Internet for the state, then for “land sales” or similar topic may help you find the home page for that state.
From there, look for a page containing information about real property sales.
You can also use your computer to contact the web sites also listed in the inset above.