Life is never easy, of course.
Properties go though 3 general stages when ownership is going from an individual to a bank. These are:
Short sale - the seller will not earn enough on the transaction to cover the outstanding loans. Therefore, the seller and then the bank (or banks) have to approve the sale. Depending on whether there is a 1st and a 2nd loan on the property, these can be reasonably prompt or take months. They tend to take months when the 2nd loan is due to get nothing but are demanding something from the primary lender - and even if the 2nd is due to get nothing, they still have to sign off. Screwy, I agree.
Foreclosure comes next. NOTE: Coldwell Banker agents cannot be involved at the foreclosure stage. The big risk here is that you may not get clear title to a property if you buy in foreclosure. You may also have to evict any tenants living there, etc.. Basically, it is a big headache if you are unprepared for the eventualities.
Finally, a property becomes bank owned (REO) in the final stage. Here, you deal with a bank (representative) rather than a seller, but it essentially progresses like a normal transactions. Disclosures are usually a little light in this case.
Getting back to your question, I (or most agents) can help with short sales or REOs, but foreclosures are a no-no for us. As for web sites listing foreclosures, etc. (e.g. RealtyTrac), I find that much of this info is valid, but a lot of the time it is invalid as well.
If you want to try to contact sellers directly, that is your perrogative. Since the vast majority hit the MLS when they are ready to go on the market, that is when I (professional agents) usually can be of use.
Hope this helps!