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Buy a House for a Buck? The Real Story Behind $1 Listings

By January 21, 2016No Comments


Hidden deep within the bowels of real estate listings are a few head-scratchers that would no doubt catch any bargain hunter’s eye. They’re homes for sale for the grand total of one crisp American dollar. So what’s the deal? Are they for real?

I decided to find out by actually clicking, and calling, and learning the stories behind these tempting facades. And it turns out, $1 listings can mean many things. Here’s what this lowball price is actually all about.

Possibility No. 1: It’s a ploy to bring in business

There was a sweet house in Las Vegas that was listed for $1. The tile-roofed, single-family home has five bedrooms, five bathrooms, three palm trees, and one kidney-shaped pool. I called the agent listed and put in an offer for a whopping $1.25. How could they resist?

A home for a buck? It’s too good to be true.

Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors

A home for a buck? Too good to be true.

But my dreams of buying a sweet Vegas spread are dashed when the agent tells me this house is actually worth closer to $700,000 than it is to four (or five) quarters. So why the ridiculously low-priced listing? According to the agent—who emphatically won’t let me use his name for this article—it’s a marketing ploy that “makes people curious.”

Though the agent claims to have received 10 calls so far, none was a qualified buyer (for the $700,000 price, not $1). After checking back days later, I see that the listing price has mysteriously zoomed up to $650,000.

Possibility No. 2: It’s a call for investors

The next $1 property I examine is in Boston: a nice commercial opportunity with 90,000+ square feet of development potential on Mission Hill. When I chat with the agent—who, yet again, wants to remain anonymous—I learn that this $1 listing is legit.

This property is listed for $1, but the developers are hoping to get $13 million.

The Carucci Group

The price for this property went up by $929,504 from its original $1 listing.

The reason: This ad is “a call for offers” on investment partners for a new development. And it’s a common, and perfectly ethical, practice that’s used mainly to satisfy multiple listing service, or MLS, criteria that require a price above $0 to be entered for a property.

Think of it this way: Much like an auction, prices can only go up from $1. Putting an actual price on a development opportunity sends the wrong message—that there is a set figure the developers will immediately settle for.

So what kind of offer are they really looking for? These particular developers told me they are hoping a magic number will roll in that’s about, oh, $12,999,999 more than one dollar.

Possibility No. 3: It truly is for sale for $1, but…

The next four places for $1 that I check out are all rundown properties in Detroit. They range in description from “fire damage sold as is” (translation: a charred pile of lumber—pic below) to “bungalow with three bedrooms, one bathroom, basement and much more” (translation: “more” means plywood for windows and doors).

A $1 fixer-upper in Detroit


A $1 fixer-upper in Detroit.

Still, some houses sit on decent lot sizes of 3,000+ square feet in neighborhoods that seem habitable at first glance. The listing agent won’t return my call, but I track down an agent willing to show me the various rundown homes. Though back taxes or liens on the property may jack up the price, I ask whether the house will really sell for $1. “Sure,” he says. “This is Detroit.”

Now that I’ve found a true $1 listing, should I hand over a George Washington for one of these fixer-uppers?

“When a house is being sold for a dollar, it means that the local real estate market has cratered,” says David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School who focuses on real estate issues and community development. “Land has no value. Or even worse, it has negative value and buyers of $1 homes will end up getting snookered. Owning land comes with various mandatory expenses like real property taxes. It’s possible the true value is even lower than a dollar. In that case, you will see a lot of $1 houses staying on the market, as hard as that is to believe.”

Reiss further explains how the Motor City’s market cratered so deeply: “Real estate’s value typically comes down to location. If jobs have disappeared, if residents have disappeared, if services have disappeared—then value disappears.”

Beyond having zero worth, a $1 home is likely a gaping money pit. When the New York Times ran a piece on the subject in 2007, it found that “the houses often require hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations.”

Though my search for $1 properties was a bust in the end, there once were $1 homes worth buying. “Think of New York City,” says Reiss. “Homes that were abandoned in the 1970s are now selling for seven figures.”

Bottom line? One-dollar listings may be a risky gamble, but, hey, you never know.



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