You don't have to have the investing acumen of Warren Buffett to achieve investing success or be a trust-fund baby to start securing your financial future early.

Since the stock market is our best hope for realizing our dreams, start investing today by putting away small sums of money every month. Then seek out undervalued small-cap stocks for your greatest returns. I like these because they offer opportunities for growth, while still being mostly overlooked by the big investors.

To find these future giants, we'll screen for stocks that have market values less than $3 billion, enjoyed earnings surprises of 15% or more last quarter, and are forecast to have long-term earnings growth potential of at least 15%. We'll filter our findings through the collective investing wisdom of the 160,000 members in our Motley Fool CAPS community. If the best and brightest CAPS players think these stocks hold potential, then we ought to take notice.

Here are some of the stocks this simple screen found:

Company

Market Cap

Share Price

EPS Surprise

Avg. Analyst 5-Year EPS Est.

CAPS Rating
 (out of 5)

Sotheby's (NYSE: BID)

$2.3 billion

$33.54

63%

19%

****

Force Protection (Nasdaq: FRPT)

$426 million

$6.07

23%

46%

****

Overstock.com (Nasdaq: OSTK)

$454 million

$19.78

22%

25%

*

Source: Yahoo.com and Motley Fool CAPS.

Of course, this is not a list of stocks to buy. This is a starting point for more research. We need to look more closely at these companies to see if analysts' faith in them is well-founded, but we've got the CAPS community helping us, and starting with their favorites would be a good idea.

An alternative opportunity
Oil's 2008 collapse had me thinking that all those petrodollar millionaires who were buying up art would be out of the market for a while. Indeed, as the wheels started to come off oil prices, both Sotheby's and Christie's often failed to make even the low end of their presale estimates.

Yet the rich are very different from me and you. While we're scrounging in the sofa cushions for change to buy groceries, they're out buying expensive art again. Sotheby's reported fourth-quarter results showing commission margins rose to 20.4% as revenues jumped 31%, generating profits of $73.6 million, the second-highest level in company history. From trough to peak, its shares have more than tripled in value.

But investors seem to think we're on the verge of another bubble, with CAPS member tgauchat saying Sotheby's run-up is unsustainable, and All-Star vprtwatcher suggesting today's fragile markets make it overvalued. At least the rest of us still have eBay.

Going on the offensive
When you think about the losses defense contractor Force Protection has endured over the past year -- getting squeezed out by General Dynamics (NYSE: GD) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) on the JLTV project, then the loss of the MRAP contract to OshKosh (NYSE: OSK) -- it's no wonder CAPS member secretbonus puzzles over analyst growth estimates even while remaining bullish:

I don't know why long term future EPS growth is so much more optomistic then historical EPS growth, but even using the more conservative historical EPS growth and this stock rates to be a good buy. Still, it has very little debt and a lot of assets to it's liabilities. Might not be priced at a discount to it's current book value, but considering it's forecasted earnings, and value you're getting even if it were to retain it's earnings it's still a good long term play.

Time for destocking
Overstock.com is a prime example of why we say you need to look more closely at the stocks that this screen finds. Although it fits the criteria we input, there's a lot under the hood screaming, "too risky!"

Sure it reported a profit this past quarter that caused its shares to soar, but it has had to restate its financials three times since 2006; it fired its accounting firm, Grant Thornton, when it suggested the company needed to do that this last time. Overstock.com also remains under investigation by the SEC and five district attorneys in California.

With 70% of the CAPS members who have given an opinion thinking Overstock.com is a time bomb waiting to happen, this is one stock investors would do well to avoid, regardless of the improvements its financials show.

Foolish final thoughts
Stock investing is not brain surgery. Finding good, undervalued companies is not as difficult as the professionals want you to think. You just have to commit to starting now, and do so regularly. Now's the time to begin!


General Dynamics is a 
Motley Fool Inside Value choice. eBay is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Sotheby's is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems pick. Motley Fool Options has recommended a bull call spread position on eBay. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.