How To Shop For Real Estate

You’d Think We’d Be Used To This By Now

Trying to buy a piece of property in a market without an MLS.

Having invested now in real estate in 21 countries, you’d think I’d have gotten used to what that means, but I haven’t.

Kathleen and I have been looking for a house to buy in Panama City for the past year or longer. Even here in Panama, where agents will work together and split commissions (not a likely prospect in many other destinations around the world), you have to engage more than one agent. We’ve been working with three. That’s not only inefficient and complicated for us, but for the agents, too. In one house we viewed, we noticed the business card of one of the other agents we’re working with on the kitchen counter. He’d been by to check the place out thinking it might be something of interest to us. The owners informed him, when he explained who he was working for, that we already had an appointment to see the house with another agent.

After finally deciding that no house exists in this city that we want to buy (the prices for the few we’ve found that we like are more than we want to spend), we’ve moved on to the apartment market.

Buying an apartment in Panama City can be even more complicated than buying a house. Without an MLS system, it’s impossible to figure out what is actually for sale. Properties for sale are advertised online with classified listing services. These are all but impossible to decipher. Real estate agents list apartments with these services and then renew their listings forever (it seems) without adjusting the price. Sometimes each renewal appears as a separate listing, so it can seem there are a dozen apartments of the same description for sale in a particular building. But it’s just the one apartment, relisted again and again to try to keep its listing position near the top. We’ve also seen the same apartments listed on these sites by several different agencies and also by the owner…all at different prices.

Call to inquire and the agency responds with, “Let me check and get back to you.” Eight or nine times out of ten, when they call you back, it’s to inform you that the apartment has been sold or that it was listed at the wrong price. Agents use these listings as feeder ads to bring in clients. They don’t see it as a problem that the actual price for an advertised property is almost never what was advertised.

Sometimes the seller lists a property at an inflated price just to see if he gets any bites. In one building, we viewed two apartments for sale, identical units. The listing price for one was 33% more than the listing price for the other. When asked about his price, the owner of the higher priced apartment replied, “I’ll sell if I get my price. Otherwise, I’m happy to stay put.”

The way to manage a market like this is with a three-pronged approach. Work with more than one agent/agency, check online listings yourself both to source options and to familiarize yourself with the market, and drive around the neighborhood where you’re interested in buying looking for “se vende” signs.

Working this way, you’ll find most of the options that fit your parameters. You’ll also invest an enormous amount of time, but you have no choice. Not every agency will have the same listings, not every property will be listed online, and not every property for sale will have a “se vende” sign out front. Employing all three strategies gives you the best chance of finding what you want at a price that makes sense. The key is narrowing your search to a manageable neighborhood or area.

Thinking this through, it means that you can’t expect to fly into a market like this one (that is, a market without an MLS) for a long weekend and find the property of your dreams. You might not be able to see any properties if you haven’t organized meetings with agents ahead of time. It can take them days to schedule showings, as most listings aren’t exclusive and owners don’t give keys to agents or use lockboxes as they do in the United States.

After more than a year of sometimes maddening effort, we’ve finally made an offer on an apartment.

Lief Simon

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