Is there any way for me as an agent to negotiate the purchase or even just view an REO with a bank prior to it being listed with an agent?
When I worked for a direct mortgage lender, one of my job functions was pre-approving people who were interested in submitting offers on our REO properties. I had a fairly heavy amount of contact with the company's REO department, so this question came up on a pretty regular basis.
The first thing you have to remember is that a lender has every incentive to get its REO inventory sold as quickly as possible. Every day a property sits in inventory is very costly to the lender. Once a property becomes part of the lender's REO inventory, the lender has every incentive to get it listed and sold as soon as possible.
That being said, if for some reason a property has not been listed, the lender probably has a very good reason to withhold it from being offered. There could be safety issues. There could also be looming legal issues unrelated to the foreclosure that would prevent the lender from conveying title.
This wiki has an article in which the contributor compiled a list of lenders and their REO properties. If the property you are interested in is owned by one of the lenders for which there is information, check out their REO list and see which brokers it typically employs in your market. REO managers typically use the same brokers over and over. Get in touch with those agents; tell them "From what I can tell, Acme Mortgage has taken back the property at 123 Main Street. If you happen to get the listing, please get in touch with me right away as I would like to see it and possibly submit an offer."
That's about the only way I can think of getting you as close to the front of the line as possible. I wouldn't worry too much about loosing out on an opportunity. If the property was that hot, someone would have gotten their hands on it at the foreclosure auction.