First, consider FSBOs. Some will have paid a flat fee so their property can be listed in the MLS, but most won't. Most FSBOs finally end up getting listed with a Realtor, so they will end up there eventually. But you may have a 30 day, 60 day, or greater head start on someone who's just scanning the MLS.
Second, tap into the world of houses that aren't listed, but may be for sale. There are dozens of different ways. Here are just a few:
If you're interested in a particular neighborhood, do what Realtors and investors do: Direct market. Send a letter to each person in the neighborhood or building along the lines of: "I (or my spouse and I) really like this neighborhood and would like to move here. Do you know anyone in the neighborhood who is thinking of selling their home?" I've heard of people who'll go door-to-door with the same message, and they come up with results. I've done it, and found properties that the owner planned on putting on the market in a month or two.
Look at properties for rent. Now, not all of them will be for sale. But, especially in today's market, many people are discouraged and figure they can't sell today, so they'll have to rent out the property for a couple of years before selling. They'd love someone to offer to buy their property today.
Look for distressed owners. Many couples who are divorcing sell their homes. Some landlords who have to evict tenants are willing (or eager) to sell their homes. All of this information is part of the public record at your local courthouse.
Contact handymen and repair people. Very often, people will do some fix-up on their homes before putting them on the market. Often, the people doing the repairs will know whether the owners are fixing up in order to sell.
And a bonus suggestion: Look at expired listings. These are people who absolutely wanted to sell, but weren't able to. They probably still want to sell...but, aha, their properties are no longer in the MLS.
Hope those suggestions help.
If you have a particular area in mind, search for a Realtor who either lives in or specializes in that area. Often established Realtors will know (through former client follow-up) if or when someone is interested in selling. Many Realtors know people who are not on-market but who want to sell if they could get the right price. They can make your off-market dream a reality.
If you want a particular home? Well, this is a Buyer's market and you can afford to be bold: Have your agent ring the doorbell and ask the question. Again, there are many homeowners who wish they could sell without marketing. If you and your Realtor have done your homework on current values, you could buy a home completely off-market. I don't recommend this as a 'Lone Ranger' project, however - i.e. doing this on your own. There is too much potential for a deal to go south without at least one licensee (agent) involved in the process.
One last note: Please don't delude yourself into thinking that buying a property off-market is going to save you money. Home values have declined so precipitously in most areas of the Twin Cities over the last two years that many homeowners are underwater (would have to sell short) or very close to that threshold. These potential Sellers won't be able to sell for a lower-than-market price without involving their lender - and that opens a large can of worms that effectively negates any advantage you might have gained by pursuing a property off-market.
Good luck with your search! Be happy you're a Buyer in a Buyer's market.
Long shot, I'd say, but may be worth the time and effort.
Thanks, Todd Norsted
Look for PODS in people driveways, homes with yard sales, etc. Also just let people know you are looking for a home, they may know someone who is ready to sell. Be sure you don't overpay, most sellers aren't very realistic on pricing at first and if someone offers to buy their home before it's on the market they see dollar signs.
Michael Doyle Realtor
Most listings are not advertised prior to listing on the MLS so the number of "pre-lists" is relatively small in comparison.