A Realtor should be able to search the MLS for short sales. That's easy enough, and it's free.
As for pre-foreclosures, the problem there is that it's not well-defined. A pre-foreclosure suggests a property headed toward foreclosure. But that might mean the homeowner is 5 months behind on payments, 1 month behind, or not behind at all. Courthouse research is very useful, but also quite time-consuming.
Keep in mind that while you might find a bargain with a short sale, you're not likely to with a pre-foreclosure.
Let's say someone owes $200,000 on a home they bought 3 years ago. But now it's only worth $150,000. If the bank forecloses, it might put it back on the market at $150,000--maybe less, depending on what the BPO (like an appraisal) says. If it's a short sale, it shoudl be priced at around market value, more or less. Again, perhaps $150,000. It doesn't make it a good value just because it sold for $200,000 a couple of years ago. The question is: What is it worth now? But then you get to pre-foreclosures. The owner owes $200,000. He's falling behind on his payments, but it's not yet a short sale. What can he sell it for? Figuring real estate commission and other expenses, he's got to get at least $215,000. And that's for a house that's only worth $150,000. That's no bargain.
The type of pre-foreclosure that makes sense is one with a lot of equity. Let's say that same house was bought 15 years ago for $50,000. It's now worth $150,000. You might make an offer of $100,000. That would get the seller off the hook and put $50,000 in his pocket. And you'd get a house for $50,000 under the market value. However, in that situation most owners would list the property with a Realtor and price it low for a quick sale. They might price it at $130,000. It's still be a real good value for the buyer, but would net the seller a lot more.
So, not only is it more difficult to find true pre-foreclosures, but when you do, most won't be any bargains.
Hope that helps.
Others do not. For the most up-to-date you can head the courthouse every day, or week. But, realtrac.com does a good job.
On the other hand, there are many other sites that are only available to realtors that are far superior to realtyrac.
It sounds like you want to do much of the research yourself, and that's completely understandable. I don't blame you, as I'd want to also, but some of the sites we use at the office are simply incredible.
The blow realitytrac.com out of the water, and are solely reserved for realtors, unfortunately.
Keep in mind there are A LOT of people looking for pre-foreclosures, and short-sales, so you'll need a realtor anyway, and your finances in order, so the moment you see "the deal" you're looking for you can pounce on it that same day.
Quality houses in this market go quickly.
Best of luck!
Have a nice morning,
Eric M. Abrams
California Real Estate Broker