Jennifer Folden-Nissen's three-bedroom, Victorian-style house in Duluth, Ga., isn't for sale. But that hasn't stopped a guy calling himself Henry from phoning her at least once a week. She says the pitch is always the same: "I want to buy your house. I'm willing to pay cash. Today."
She says it's sort of like having to deal with an insistent car salesman. "I just let him leave voicemails," she says. But even those are pushy. "Call me back, call me back, call me back, call me right now — I'm out front of your house."
Folden-Nissen works at the local fire department, and she'd call home and ask her husband to see if the guy was outside. But nobody ever was.
Then Folden-Nissen started to get postcards from the same guy — with no stamp, so apparently hand-delivered — with photos of her own home on them.
"It was a little freaky because some of it was just like, OK, is the guy really outside?" she says. "And why is he taking pictures of my house if I haven't given him the time of day?"
Why is this happening? In short, the blistering housing market. The supply of available homes is nowhere close to the demand from people who want to buy them. The supply is nearly 4 million homes short, according to the government-sponsored mortgage firm Freddie Mac.
Many homebuilders went out of business after the housing crash, and that has led to a historic housing shortage. And now investors large and small are jockeying to snap up homes as the tight supply keeps pushing prices higher.
So big companies such as Redfin and Opendoor, countless individual speculators, real estate agents and some more predatory outfits have been contacting homeowners, just on the slim chance that they might be willing to sell to some random person calling on the phone.
"They have just gotten increasingly worse in the past six months, six or seven calls every day," says Lauren Barber, who lives in Columbus, Ohio.
"If you know anything about Columbus, it's growing and it's hot," she says. "People want to live here." Barber bought her house about 10 years ago for $155,000. She says now it's worth more than twice that.
Investors can go on the internet and buy lists of phone numbers for people whose homes have risen in value, maybe more than the owners' realize.
Barber works in human resources, so she says she has to answer her phone. "It could be one of our employees calling me with a question." She says she tries to block the homebuyer calls, but they always seem to somehow call from a different local-looking number.
She says one of them even called her mother's house, on purpose, to ask if Barber would sell.
"Like, really, you're going to call my mom and ask her if I'm going to sell my house to you? It was just the most absurd and amazing thing," she says. "But I told you no. Stop calling me. Don't bother my mom."
How much of this is legal or otherwise is complicated and can depend on local rules. The city of Philadelphia recently passed a law to crack down on the sketchier practices. It includes a local do-not-call list specifically designed to block cold calls from homebuyers.
"Oftentimes, the solicitations offer a free no-obligation written offer," says Michael Froehlich, an attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. That might sound harmless enough. But he says predatory outfits do that to get a homeowner to let them in the door.
"These guys get into their house, and they use these high-pressure and deceptive sales tactics to sort of hammer and hammer and hammer the homeowner until the homeowner signs the documents." He says he has seen elderly or lower-income residents sign away their homes for half of what they're actually worth.
And sketchy speculators are operating in other cities too. Gabriela Raimander is a homeowner and real estate agent in St. Petersburg, Florida. She recently got a postcard in the mail that looked particularly worrisome.
"THIRD NOTICE," it reads. "I am hoping that this card catches you in time." She says it looks designed to scare maybe an elderly person into calling the number back. "For whoever is going to fall for it, I guess."
She has also been getting some of those homemade postcards with pictures of her own house on them.
"I live on my own," Raimander says. "That's just creepy as all get-out. I don't want to have some stalkers stalking my property or, you know, essentially me. It's just, blech."
Froehlich says homeowners should be very careful if they respond to any direct solicitation. He says people are almost always better off selling their house the traditional way, where you list it for sale, get a bunch of offers and then pick the best one.