Buying a House Sight Unseen Successfully

The combination of improved technology for virtual tours and prospective buyers’ wish to avoid traveling have made buying a property remotely, without ever seeing it, an increasingly common phenomenon.

By , J.D.

In past years, no one would have recommended buying a house or property remotely, or sight unseen. The risks were too great. You might be misled or defrauded, concerning the home's condition, location, or other features. However, the combination of improved technology for virtual tours and prospective buyers' wish to avoid traveling (particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic) have altered this conventional wisdom. Although buying a property remotely will never be ideal, more and more buyers are doing it, and reporting positive results.

Before you embark on a home purchase sight unseen, however, you'll absolutely want to:

  • consider the benefits and risks of buying a house you haven't visited in person
  • focus on how to best utilize the technology and websites that allow one to "view" a property from afar
  • line up trusted helpers, most likely a real estate agent, home inspector, and if possible, local friends
  • create a detailed list of your "must haves" and "no ways" to share with anyone examining the property on your behalf, and
  • closely monitor the process to its conclusion.

What Does "Sight Unseen" Really Mean When Buying a House?

We're not talking about literally having no clue what a piece of real estate looks like. This discussion is aimed at situations where factors like distance, expense, and so on make it difficult or impossible to visit a particular house during the time window when it's offered for sale.

By going online, you can and should be able to view still photos of the house, take a virtual tour (in some cases), and do a virtual walk-through with a real estate agent. Independent online research will also help you get a feel for the house and neighborhood.

What's more, by writing appropriate clauses into your purchase contract, you can give yourself a last-minute chance to view the property before the sale actually closes; perhaps during the home inspection, or the final walk-through.

The home inspection is a traditional contingency included within most home purchase contracts, allowing you to back out if you aren't happy with what you see or discover.

The walk-through is not a contingency, as its main purpose is to make sure the seller has moved out and left the house in the condition you expected. Nevertheless, it creates an opening for negotiation. Thus if you were to discover during the walk-through that the house looks nothing like what you'd seen, this could be a time to put the brakes on the sale.

As for the logistics of buying a house from afar, you might be able to able to do everything virtually all the way through the closing (the date when you and your lender supply the funds for purchase and title changes hands), by e-sign all documents. This depends on local practices, however. In some states, buyers must still attend the closing in person, if for no other reason than to meet with the notary public who affirms their identity.

Benefits of Buying a House Sight Unseen

In a 2021 survey, nearly 80% of millennials said they could be persuaded to buy a home sight unseen. And they're not the only ones doing so. Buyers' reasons vary, but typically include some combination of:

  • low housing inventory in the United States, thus intense competition from other buyers, leading to a sense of desperation about finding any house at all
  • the speed with which houses are often sold, particularly in hot markets, in multiple-offer situations
  • travel restrictions or health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, and
  • other issues with traveling to see a property, such as cost and the difficulty of arranging a trip to a distant location on short notice.

By researching and bidding on homes from afar, buyers can overcome these hurdles, putting themselves in nearly the same position as a local buyer. They can also consider properties in as many geographic regions as are of interest to them, whether in a city on the opposite coast or out in the country, far from any airport.

Risks of Buying a House Sight Unseen

By now, many Americans are experts at online shopping. We scrutinize photos, search for independent information sources, and communicate questions to unseen persons. But a house is not only a huge purchase, it's costly, unique, and has multiple components and features. Perhaps most importantly, it has often been lived in for years. It will not be perfect, and not all imperfections will be easy to detect from afar; even with an agent's help.

Let's say, for instance, that your real estate agent has no idea what marijuana smoke smells like, and vaguely registers the odor regularly wafting from the neighbors' house as incense. The agent gives the thumbs up on the house, and it looks perfect on all the virtual tours. If, however, you'd prefer not to be exposed to pot smoke at all hours, you might end up turning around and selling the house sooner rather than you'd hoped.

Or, let's imagine that the seller didn't do a particularly comprehensive job filling out the disclosure form that's required by law in most states. These are meant to tell buyers about problems and defects the seller has observed from living there; everything from an unreliable refrigerator to a rotten area of wood around the toilet. As a result of the incomplete disclosures, the home inspector you hire isn't alerted to take a closer look at a particular issue. This could be an expensive mistake, if you move in and have to make unexpected repairs.

In the worst case, home sellers have been known to try pulling a fast one, such as putting a potted plant over a hole in the floor or blocking attic entry with a stack of boxes, so that not even the inspector notices or can gain access.

Then, of course, there's the simple issue of your limited perception via a computer screen. It can be hard to get a feel for size and dimensions through pictures and video, much less for the surrounding neighborhood. You won't be able to detect unpleasant smells from pets, tobacco, and so on. You might miss inadequate lighting because the photographer brought in high-intensity lamps and your agent visited only on a bright, sunny day. You might not be clued into excessive neighborhood noise, or sounds at odd hours, like a rooster crowing in the early morning or a dog who howls to be let in at midnight.

The short of it is, you'll want to take every possible step to overcome such potential risks, as discussed below.

Get Comfortable With Online Home-Buying Technology

Fortunately for distant buyers, home sellers routinely put a large number of photos of the house and surrounding property on their online listings, and in some cases add a 3-D tour.

You'll want to study these closely. They're undeniably helpful, but won't show everything. In literal terms, the photos might leave out less appealing parts of the home; entire rooms in some cases, or the creepy basement. Home listing photos are often filmed with a wide angle lens, making rooms look bigger than they are.

If no virtual tour is included, you'll want to treat the individual photos like a puzzle, figuring out how they fit together. In fact, if no house plan is provided, see whether you can sketch out your own. This can produce revelations along the lines of, "We will have to walk downstairs from the master bedroom to get to the one and only bathroom!" or "The children's bedroom window can be easily seen into from the street."

Don't forget to check independent sources of footage of the property, such as Google's street view.

Perform Independent Online Research

While noodling around online, search for each prospective property's address, to see whether any news stories or other information come up. You might not want to buy a property that is "stigmatized" by a past violent crime, for example, or is on the list for "haunted house" tour stops.

Also do your research about anything else of importance to you, such as walkability, neighbors' political affiliations, proximity of a grocery store or park, quality of local school district, and so on. Websites such as Walkscore, Sperling's Best Places and Neighborhood Scout can help.

Find a Real Estate Agent Suitable for Sight-Unseen Purchases

It's almost always worth enlisting the help of a real estate agent when buying a home, particularly since it doesn't normally cost you; the seller pays the commission. But in this case, it's critical.

For starters, the agent will handle all the tasks an agent normally does, such as alerting you to suitable properties, clueing you in on matters you'd never know otherwise, such as the negotiating style of the sellers' agent, and helping line up an inspector and other experts. But the agent will also be your eyes and ears throughout this process.

Look for an agent who is experienced, trustworthy, and committed to serving your interests (including warning you away from an inappropriate sale), as well as tech-savvy. Ideally, you want an agent who has helped other buyers make sight-unseen purchases.

Also make sure, in your hiring interview, that the agent is articulate and that conversation flows easily. You're going to be relying heavily on the agent's descriptions of the property, and will be spending a lot of time on the phone together.

You'll also want an agent with a solid reputation for professional dealings with other agents. This is not only for your ease of working with the agent, but because, if you end up competing against other bidders, the agent can help assure sellers that you're serious. The agent's reputation becomes yours, in a way.

Definitely request and check any prospective agent's references to make sure the previous sight-unseen buyers were happy with their services and the result, assuming they've moved into the house by now.

Also check out, Should You Hire a Real Estate Agent or Lawyer to Buy a House?.

Ask Lots of Questions During Video Walk-Through With Your Agent

A key step before you make an offer will be to ask your agent to do a walk-through of the property, through some form of video-chat app. Ask the agent to narrate everything from smells to quality of appliances and finishes. Direct the agent toward any areas you want a closer look at, and make sure the tour includes every room and space, inside and out.

To help get a sense of actual room size, you can ask the agent to pace the floor and literally say, "Step, step." You might also ask the agent to turn the camera on him or herself and raise arms toward the ceiling, to help you get a sense of its height. The agent should also bring a tape measure, in case you want to ask questions like, "Will my desk fit in that alcove?"

It's also worth requesting that your agent visit the property and do a walk-through with you at different times of the day or night. That will help you see how light, darkness, and neighborhood changes at different hours will affect your experience of living there. If, for example, the agent were to visit only at midday on a Sunday, you might not learn until it's too late that parking there is impossible on weekday afternoons, when a local school creates gridlock.

One common problem with these walk-throughs is that the call gets dropped, because of inadequate cell phone or Wi-Fi service. That, too, is something you'd want to further check into.

Find a Home Inspector Suitable for Sight-Unseen Purchases

Not all inspectors come with the same level of expertise. By all means choose one who has broad experience in contracting and/or engineering, and who's known for tough, detailed reports on property defects. Remember, even if the homeowner has provided seemingly comprehensive disclosures, or even hired an inspector to prepare a report in advance, major defects can remain hidden. You want an independent evaluation of the property, from someone who's entirely on your side.

If you have local friends, ask them for recommendations. Look for inspectors with a professional affiliation, such as the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). And don't be shy about requesting a sample home report, so that you can see what you'll get. A narrative report, for example can be easier to digest than one that's simply a bunch of boxes for the inspector to check (though the narrative report will cost more).

You might also need to hire extra inspectors if the property has features your main inspector isn't expert in, such as a swimming pool or dock.

Call on Friends Who Live Near the House to Visit It

If they're willing, having a friend or relative who knows you take a look around the house can be an excellent information source. If open houses aren't happening in your area (as has been an issue during the COVID-19 pandemic), your house scouts might need to arrange visits through your real estate agent.

There's nothing like having someone who knows you and knows your tastes clue you into things like, "You're going to love the view, and it's a short walk to the cutest bookstore ever," or "There's something weird about the neighborhood vibe, people were looking at me like I was a suspicious outsider," or "The place set off my mold allergies; aren't you also allergic to mold?"

Make a List of Your "Must Haves" and "No Ways"

In any house search, you will want to think in advance about your priorities; for example, whether you absolutely must have a large master bedroom, or could never live in a property with no garage.

But if buying a house remotely, you'll want to make your list even more detailed. It's the best way to alert the people visiting prospective properties on your behalf to your wishes; particularly the "no ways." Think hard. Visit a few local open houses to remind yourself, if possible, or cast an eye over friends' and relatives' houses as if you were a prospective buyer.

This will remind you of features or concerns that might not appear in ads or online marketing materials. Maybe, for example, you get dizzy when a house has sloping floors, or can't stand the sound of airplanes whose flight path is just above. And if you have any allergies, such as to mold, make sure they're on the list.

Pay Attention Up Through the Closing

It typically takes about six weeks between the seller accepting a real estate purchase offer and actually closing the sale. During that time, you have various responsibilities, such as hiring an inspector, approving the resulting report, arranging your home loan, and so forth. You'll be busy.

This time period offers an opportunity to learn more about the house; and in some situations (based on contingencies written into the contract), to back out if negative information turns up, without losing your earnest money deposit.

It can be too easy to get one's heart set on a home and ignore new information that should make one rethink or renegotiate. As a remote buyer, you'll want to guard well against this tendency. If at all possible, try to visit the place in person before it becomes yours.

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