Off-Market Sales in Bellingham & Whatcom County

One universal truth of real estate is that generally speaking, people do not usually buy or sell a property exclusively based on economic conditions or the market value of that property.

They buy or sell because something bigger in their life has changed.

They buy or sell because of their story.

And no two stories are exactly alike.

For example, our guy may have bought a small home for himself because he loved “small and cozy.”

Then, our guy met a mate with 5 kids, 3 dogs, 2 cats, and a pot-bellied pig.

Presto! Life has changed, and now a 3800 square foot 6-bedroom 4-bath on 5 acres seems “right-sized” so a move is in the works!


A couple bought their current home when their kids were young, needed their own bedrooms, a rec room, yard space, and proximity to friends, family, and a particular school.

Then the kids grew up, one left for college, the other followed her passion for rock climbing and can be found clinging to or dangling from various cliffs in Europe, Asia, and South America.

So mom and dad don’t need all that space anymore.

Rather than paying to heat and maintain a house twice as big as they need, they find themselves thinking about watching sunsets over the Bay, and walking to Fairhaven for dinner.

It’s time for them to optimize their current house, sell it, and buy a view condo that suits their “now different” lives better.

Every story has its own plot…

When we meet with a prospective seller, we have a detailed conversation about these important items, as they are always somewhat unique:

WHY are you selling?

WHEN is the best time for you to sell and move?

And have you thought through HOW you want to sell?

A seller’s timeframe, their level of involvement, their budget (if any) to prep for the sale, the particular sale process they most resonate with, and the ultimate outcome that best suits their needs…

All of it can — and does — vary widely from one seller to another.

And this is where we get into the substantial percentage of our business I alluded to in the opening letter.

What is this mystery characteristic?

Drumroll, please…….

Here it is: A meaningful number of our clients, 22 of them last year, or 10.8% of our total sales, were — for a range of reasons — fully “off-market” sales.

Every single agent at BNP has one or more off-market purchases or sales pending right now.

Those homes are not, were not, and will not, be listed in the MLS.

They are or were sales that BNP was (obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing about them) fully involved in, guiding the process, managing the transaction, compensated at closing, and now servicing those clients’ ownership of those homes no differently than if we had sold them MLS-listed homes.

Keep this in mind: Off-market or off the MLS is NOT the same as “no Realtor involved.”

It just means that, for a range of different reasons, the seller decided that it would suit their needs better to simply sell to a willing buyer, rather than go through the process of prep, photography, marketing, hosting showings, and being available to the full market.

“Hold on a minute!” you’re thinking.

“Prices are at an all-time high, bidding wars are commonplace, it’s time to cash in on the frenzy and go through the whole song and dance with a listing, isn’t it???”

Let’s recall our universal answer to almost every question in real estate, which also applies in this situation when you ask, “Shouldn’t a seller absolutely be fully ON the market with their property?”

Answer: “It depends.”

4 main reasons to sell off-market

We’ve been involved in enough off-market sales, representing both buyers and sellers, to identify four main reasons these deals come together.

And let’s be clear: Buyers are almost ALWAYS game for the chance to buy a property that the entire world doesn’t know about.

It’s not usually a challenge to get a BUYER interested, although I will touch on that a bit more later.

The challenge is usually finding a willing SELLER.

When it happens, though, it’s usually for one of these reasons:

To list your property on the MLS and expose it to buyers, neighbors, Realtors, basically the entire internet, is to “open the kimono” on your personal space, and open your door to strangers coming through your house. Yes, statistically it’s very safe, but it is very, very open. That is not for everyone. Some people, because of their work, their past, their personality, whatever, just don’t want to share that openly, so an off-market sale avoids that.

Sometimes the reason a person needs to sell is one that requires expediency. Could be a job opportunity, could be love, could be money, could be health, or a number of different things. Short-circuiting even a few weeks and just getting a solid deal put together right away is more beneficial to them and their needs than traveling the full listing-and-showing path.

When we explain the process of transforming a house from “how you live” to “how you sell”, and go over the steps of the pack-up, clean-up, optimization, staging, photography and virtual tours, marketing assembly, etc., some seller’s eyes glaze over. They may even have the “time” to travel that road, but they are someone who just “wants it done.” If we can bring a buyer to the table and skip the lead-up to a full listing, it’s a better fit for how they roll.

When we meet with a prospective seller, we naturally ask if they’ve ever sold a home before. Occasionally, before they even speak, the blood drains from their face and the look alone says, “Unfortunately yes, and I never want to go through that again.” It may have been different market conditions, there may have been bad actors involved, but regardless of the exact reason, the seller wants to take a different path this time around. When we explain how off-market can work, they choose that option.

How off-market properties are identified

When we’re called to meet with a prospective seller, after seeing and learning about their property and learning about their needs and desires surrounding the sale process, most often a full listing on the MLS is what they want.

Sometimes, though, there are signals of the potential desire (or an outright request) for an off-market sale.

We then explain the pros and cons and if it is a fit for them, (after time to fully consider it and going over some formal disclosures), we take that information to buyers we are already working with and see if a deal can be arranged.

We are also continually on the lookout for would-be sellers that aren’t yet in touch with us, or are openly spreading the word about wanting to sell.

I’ve written before about the letters we mail on behalf of our buyer clients, letters that lead to calls, meetings, and occasional sales.

We also constantly network with other agents, contractors, investors, and others who hear of willing sellers.

The sum off all these efforts is what we call “the funnel”.

How we explain off-market to buyers

When we meet with a buyer and explain the process we use to find them the right house, part of that conversation involves explaining the funnel.

The MLS, we tell them, is just one stream.

Most buyers are thrilled to learn that we pay attention to any and all other streams, despite their statistically smaller size or proportion of potential properties.

If we find an off-market that might be a fit for them, we share the ins and outs of potentially putting a deal together on that house.

“With an off-market, you could potentially skip the bidding war,” we explain.

“GREAT!” the buyer usually shouts.

“But you may not have the benefit of knowing what every other buyer is willing to pay for the property, and the seller may be asking a premium price,” we explain.

It’s a trade-off, and while we can usually mitigate price concerns with a careful market analysis shown to both parties, the sense of “getting a deal” isn’t always a component.

Advantages of “off-market” for a buyer

As I mentioned above, buyers in this market are usually thrilled to have the opportunity to buy an off-market.

Here are some of the advantages to a buyer:

  • Far and away the biggest advantage to a buyer getting an offer accepted on an off-market property is the lack of competition from other buyers. Bidding wars can feel like MMA cage matches to some buyers, and even paying what feels like a premium price is worth skipping the battle stage.
  • By including the possibility of an off-market purchase, you expand beyond the “MLS-listed-only” inventory and can potentially have more to choose from.
  • Generally, off-market deals feel less rushed, so the buyer usually isn’t under the same (often extreme) emotional pressure to make decisions or accelerate every conceivable time-frame or deadline in the transaction.
  • Off-market deals often have a more human-to-human element, meaning there can be more organic conversation between the parties about inspections, repairs, closing extensions. This isn’t always true, but we do see it more frequently in off-market deals.
  • Off-market deals typically have less distracting background noise from “back-up buyers” or others trying to wiggle their way in. For example, if you’re under contract on a MLS-listed home and still in feasibility, and a back-up buyer brings an “as-is” offer for $50K more than you’re paying, the seller could likely look for a way to get out of that deal with you. This has a far lesser chance of happening if the rest of the world doesn’t know the property is even for sale.

Risks of “off-market” for a seller

The MLS — the authority that polices agent behavior and actions — has very strict rules about “off-market” sales.

Bottom line: it is considered potentially very harmful to a seller to skip going on the market, because they can miss out on buyers who would have paid more for their property.

Helping a seller sell off-market is not prohibited, but we are required to (and would choose to anyway, because if given the choice, we would bring every listing fully on the market), carefully explain the advantages of being on the MLS, so that a seller can make a fully informed decision.

Some of those advantages are as follows:

  • In a Seller’s Market, like the one we’ve been in for over half a decade, the more potential buyers you can get your (well prepared) property in front of, the better your chances of getting one or more strong offers, a bidding war, and a maximum sale price.
  • Almost 90% of buyers are working with an agent, and agents are following the MLS, so to list on the MLS is to ensure you’re hitting those agents and (presumably) their buyers.
  • Sites like Zillow, Redfin,, Trulia, even our search function on, all automatically “crawl” the MLS and grab new listings to expose on their sites, so to be on the MLS is to be on those much, much more highly-trafficked sites.
  • A listing on the MLS includes a load of readily-available information that buyer’s agents can quickly access, use to learn more about the property, and can therefore write a cleaner, more in-the-know offer.
  • A listing on the MLS has a published commission amount that every agent can see so they know that a seller-paid-for paycheck for the buyer’s agent has already been established and agreed to.
  • An MLS listing becomes part of the database of “past sales” or “comps” that other agents, appraisers, even the general public who surfs the internet can use to see what price a home sold for, as it all gets published and spreads across the internet.

Does an agent still get paid for an “off-market” sale

A WA State licensed real estate agent (technically a “broker”) is licensed to help conduct the purchase and/or sale of any real property in the state.

It is technically irrelevant whether that property is listed on the MLS or not.

For an off-market sale, we use the same Purchase and Sale Agreement and its addenda, the same Seller’s Disclosure Statement, Lead Paint Disclosure, etc.

We follow all the same rules and are held to the same standards as an attorney, just like with MLS-listed sales.

And yes, we are ultimately paid for our work.

When we meet with a buyer or seller, we explain that we are ultimately paid at the close of the transaction, for each “side” of the transaction that we provide our services for.

The commission paid to the agent(s) almost always shows up on the seller side of the settlement statement prepared by escrow, but it can just as easily be thought of as “paid for” by the buyer in the price they are paying for the property.

With an MLS-listed property, the commission is agreed to at the time the listing was “taken” by the listing agent, and it is published in the listing.

With an off-market property, we explain that if the seller hasn’t previously factored for a commission in the price they are asking, we will add it in and that is the price we will convey to the buyer.

All of that is, of course, included in the language of the contract.

We are a business, after all, and our clients have graciously respected that fact regardless of how a property was identified for purchase.