I believe the property you're referring to is in "pre-foreclosure" status, which basically means the owner has missed mortgage payments. If the owner does not bring the payments current in a designated amount of time, the property may be sold at a foreclosure sale.
There are multiple options in trying to purchase this property:
1) Going directly to the owner is a possibility, but many owners are unhappy that their payment status is public so you have to be careful. A few local agents with experience in these types of situations have strategies for contacting them which could prove useful if the owner is not open to talking, as well ensuring the transaction is as smooth as possible. In addition to normal transactional hurdles, this could be complicated by bank issues and/or short sale considerations. A real estate attorney might be another option, but even one experienced in bank-involved sale transactions may have limitations exceeding those of the agent basically due to experience and market knowledge.
2) Trying to work with the bank before the sale. This may or may not be effective because they cannot do much until the property comes back into their hands, which means it will already have had consideration by other potential buyers. Many other details apply here.
3) Waiting until it is taken over by the bank or is listed by an agent. There are advantages, but it's possible another person could purchase the home before you do, with a higher offer, or with an offer that's tailored to the situation. At least you'll usually have a full and complete opportunity to inspect the home, get a loan, etc.
Instead of making random appointments with mortgage lenders to begin the process, allow a real estate agent to recommend 2 or 3 for you. An good, experienced agent will likely recommend them and other specialists from a team that usually takes years to assemble properly. It will save you time and headache and will hopefully result in the quickest funding and best rate possible.
I work here in Santa Barbara, but am not a foreclosure specialist. That said, I would be happy to refer you to a couple of local agents that have handled similar transactions recently. Please feel free to contact me via email at email@example.com or telephone at 805-284-3660.