Buying a House That’s Not For Sale

Amy Hamilton Chadwick

If you’re driving around your suburb and seeing lots of builders’ utes but few ‘for sale’ signs, chances are you’re in a tight market. The hotly sought-after parts of our major centres can be extremely difficult to buy into – you need to move quickly and decisively. Listings are down around 25% across New Zealand, with numbers of available properties particularly low in Auckland, Wellington, Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Otago.


Homeowners are reluctant to sell when they don’t know if they’ll be able to find a new house or they’re renovating because they can’t find what they want in their suburb. When you’re looking for a new home, this can be extremely frustrating. In many cases you’ll want to buy in a specific area. For instance, if your children are already attending their local school, you’ll want to be in that school’s zone, and those zones can be surprisingly small.


With listings limited, is it possible to find a house that’s not currently on the market? It takes a certain amount of time and effort, but for the right home you could make it work.


Spotting the house you want


When you’re struggling to find the right house in a specific area, you need to go beyond the usual real estate listings. Once you’ve got your alerts set up on and TradeMe Property, cast your net around further. Homesell managing director Chris Caldwell says new listings go out to your saved searches before they appear on TradeMe, “giving buyers a small head start.”


In addition, Caldwell recommends you utilise your social media contacts: “Let people know you’re searching for a home and to pass your details to anyone that may have a friend or family member looking to sell.” Sites like Neighbourly may also be useful – let people know you’re genuinely trying to find a family home, rather than being an investor, developer or trader looking to make a quick profit.


Researching a house online


Walking around your neighbourhood, you may have already spotted a house that seems to be exactly what you want. Your first step should be to find out what you can about it.


  • Check it out on Google Earth so you can see the house and section from above.
  • Look up the council (rating) valuation on your local council website – this should also give you the size of the land and the type of title.
  • Get an e-valuation for the property using a site like QV.
  • Look at the last sale price for the house, and the ones around it, using the Trade Me Property app.
  • Can you afford the house? Make sure you know what you can afford to buy and how much you can definitely borrow before you start house-hunting.


Approaching the owner


Still think it’s the right house and in your price range? It’s worth knocking on the door and talking to the owner. Introduce yourself and explain you’re looking for a house like theirs to live in. Leave your details. Remember, says MBIE’s Consumer Protection manager Mark Hollingsworth, that the homeowner is within their rights to tell you to go away.


You can also put a flyer in the letterbox of a house you would like to buy. Property investors and real estate agents often use this approach to target the types of houses they want – but they usually cast a wider net. Your flyer could be specific to the house itself. Be respectful of the owner’s privacy: “In principle, delivering a flyer or leaflet into another person’s letterbox could constitute trespass,” says Hollingsworth, “especially if there is a sign that asks for unauthorised mail or promotional flyers not to be delivered.”


Buying privately


Provided you can strike up a good relationship with the homeowner, it may be possible to buy the house privately. This has its pros and cons – both you and the vendor can save money on the agent’s fee, but you’ll need to do all the negotiation yourself. A major stumbling block can be a vendor’s unrealistic expectation of the home’s value. Be prepared to show your research as to how you’ve come up with your sales figure. This could include a valuation, sales data for similar properties and specifics about the house itself.


“A person who sells their own house privately has less protection under consumer laws than a person who sells through an intermediary, such as a real estate agent. This is because under consumer protection laws, such as the Consumer Guarantees Act and Fair Trading Act, one party must be in trade (ie a business),” says Hollingsworth. “However the Contractual Remedies Act still applies to contracts between private buyers and sellers, such as those that concern house sales.”


Remember that the owner of the house, unlike a real estate agent, isn’t following a code of conduct or bound by the Real Estate Agents Act 2008. The vendor should still give you any relevant information about weathertightness or unconsented work – they can’t mislead you about the property. The Citizens Advice Bureau has more information here.


Working with an agent


Even if the homeowner thinks you’re lovely, it’s possible he or she would still prefer to work with an agent. Vendors would often prefer to have an agent do the open houses and negotiation, particularly if they’re new to the process or feeling nervous. This doesn’t mean you won’t get the house – make a reasonable offer and tailor the conditions to suit the vendor’s needs and the vendor will hopefully choose you over the other buyers. You cannot buy a house privately if it is under an exclusive contract with an agent already – you will need to wait until the contract expires, assuming you spotted the house independently of the agent.


Can’t get the house you want? Don’t despair, keep looking. Taking a break from the market might mean you miss a great property, or prices rise and leave you with less buying power. (They could drop, too, but it’s less likely.) Stay focused on your target area and “hassle real estate agents,” says Caldwell. “In a hot market with limited supply of homes, there is very little chance an agent will call you back, so you need to be chasing them to be in with a chance of previewing any new properties before they hit the market.”