As the housing market heats up, eager buyers are refusing to wait until the for-sale signs appear.
Instead, they are knocking on the doors of attractive properties, leaving letters in strangers' mailboxes, scanning foreclosure listings and surfing the Web for prospects.
The direct approach worked for contractor Jerry Spring, 56, and his wife Kathryn, 62, who found themselves drawn to a house on a large corner lot in Richmond, Virginia, three years ago. But the house was not on the market.
The Springs used online county databases to find the owner, tracked her to an assisted living facility and then sent her an eight-page handwritten letter asking to buy her house and selling themselves as the best new owners.
The owner was not ready to sell, but the couple arranged a rent-to-own deal and moved in. They finally completed the purchase of the home in January with the executors of the owner's estate after her death.
Welcome to the world of house stalking.
"A lot of buyers want to get into this market, but the inventory is just not there," says Christine Parente, a broker and owner of Re/Max Trading Places in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey.
Real estate agents are regularly asked to approach owners of not-for-sale properties, Parente says, but her advice is to reach out to the owner directly.
"Mail them a little note," she says. "Say you really admire the house. A lot of sellers actually consider it a compliment."
Last year, 20 percent of those who sold their homes without using a real estate agent said they did so because a prospective buyer had contacted them, according to a National Association of Realtors survey of 8,500 people. That is up from 15 percent in 2010.
Nationwide, home listings are down 14 percent in 2013, according to real estate website Zillow, and competition is intense for available properties in choice neighborhoods. In Orange County, California, for example, ERA Buy America agent Chasin Prather says there are only 3,000 homes for sale in his area, down from 12,000 three years ago.
Debbie Rossetto can barely get the for-sale signs in the yards of the San Francisco area houses she is trying to sell before potential buyers hound her with offers.
"One house just got listed a couple of days ago, and ... they already have two offers," says the longtime agent for Legacy Real Estate & Associates.
So if you are having a tough time finding something on the market, here are some tips on clinching your dream house, even if it is not for sale:
USE THE WEB
Zillow Chief Economist Stan Humphries suggests looking for houses that were once listed for sale but are now off the market. You just might find a homeowner who is been waiting for the market to turn around before listing again - and persuade him or her to sell to you.
In Zillow's "Make Me Move" section, homeowners list their properties with a "fantasy" price, but these are not considered active for-sale properties. There are now some 148,000 listings, and contacts to owners are up 132 percent over last year.
When Joe Dieleman and his wife could not find a home in Seattle after about 100 open houses and months of looking with an agent, they used Make Me Move to contact a homeowner. The owner responded immediately, the Dielemans saw the house the next day, and they closed on it a few weeks later.
"I don't think we would have found anything in the short term with an agent," says Dieleman, a 33-year-old graduate student at the University of Washington.
Online county records also allow eager shoppers to investigate a property and find the owner. If no contact information is listed, try other Web searches, including social media sites and local listing services like Spokeo.com.
Then there are foreclosure listings - sites like realtor.com offer them free - to find promising properties.
Pre-foreclosure listings provide many more possibilities. Zillow is listing 855,000 such properties, where the mortgage holder has missed a payment or two and the bank has reported the default but not yet taken action to foreclose. By contrast, the site has only 280,000 foreclosures.
HITTING THE PAVEMENT
Once they find that dream house, some hopeful buyers reach out in writing. Note: It is illegal to put something in someone else's mailbox, so if you do not want to run afoul of the law, you can send a letter through the U.S. Postal Service, addressed to "resident," or stick your note in the door.
Compliment the owner by saying how much you love the house, or sell yourself with personal details such as your gardening abilities or your childhood memories of the neighborhood.
Barb Camp, a retired realtor in Portland, Oregon, suggests offering inducements, such as allowing the prospective seller to remain for a period of time at a low rent.
Camp encouraged her son and daughter-in-law to send a letter to the owners of a southeast Portland house they admire. The owners have promised to keep their number handy and now wave at the would-be buyers as they jog past their dream home.
"They may end up with the house," Camp says, "if they are patient enough."