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What you need to know before buying a home virtually

Nora Vanni and her fiancé have lived in Brooklyn for a few years, but their long-term plan had always been to move back to Minneapolis, where they both grew up.

In two weeks, they’re going to be making that move — to a home they bought that they’ve never seen in person. “COVID just sped everything up,” Vanni, 29, told MarketWatch.

The pandemic made moving closer to family a priority for the couple. Originally, the pair were thinking of first relocating to Minneapolis to a rental and then looking for a home to buy in person this fall. But their Realtor encouraged them to start looking sooner. Like many other parts of the country, more homes are listed for sale in the summertime than during other parts of the year.

“We decided that we wanted to look remotely just in case we found something we really loved,” Vanni said. Eventually Vanni found the home they ended up buying when a “coming soon” listing for it appeared online.

Vanni had her parents tour the property with their real-estate agent — Vanni and her fiancé Hank saw the property over video chat. The couple quickly put in an offer that got accepted.

The couple’s experience buying a home essentially sight unseen is not an uncommon one, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

A Redfin study
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released in late July found that 45% of people who bought a home in the past year had made an offer on a home they hadn’t toured in person. That was up from 28% of people surveyed around this same time a year ago and 20% of people when Redfin first conducted a survey on this topic.


45% of people who bought a home in the past year had made an offer on a home they hadn’t toured in person, according to Redfin

That percentage is likely to climb in the months to come. “I predict that by the end of the 2020 home-buying season, the majority of homebuyers will have made a sight-unseen offer,” Redfin chief economist Daryl Fairweather said in the report. “The pandemic has changed the way many people view homes, and on top of that, the market is highly competitive. If you aren’t using this strategy, another buyer who is could beat you to the punch.”

Gabrielle Pinkerton, an event planner who recently moved from California to a suburb south of Nashville, also made an offer on a home her family hadn’t seen in person, though she did tour the home during the inspection. While virtually touring the home saved Pinkerton money, it was a nerve-wracking experience.

“It was definitely a gamble and for such a large purchase I wouldn’t normally buy blindly like this,” she said. “Our health was more important so we chose not to travel during that time because of the virus.”

With more families across the country likely to buy homes while relying solely on virtual methods to explore the properties, MarketWatch spoke with real-estate experts and home buyers to get advice on how to approach the process.

Picking the right real-estate agent is even more important

Pinkerton’s main tip for buyers was to select a Realtor that’s trustworthy. “Our Realtor knew us from when we lived in California,” she said. “He knew our personalities and he was the best person to represent us in-person when we couldn’t go.”

After all, your real-estate agent will be your eyes and ears during the touring process.

When evaluating potential agents, it can be useful to find one who is experienced in helping people who are relocating, argued Scott Fuller, a real-estate broker and founder of LeavingTheBayArea.com, a real-estate services firm that helps people relocate out of California. Most agents, he said, are more used to working with people who are moving within a community.

Brokers that specialize in relocation may understand more of the challenges that come along with buying a home sight unseen. “There’s a lot more unknowns and hand-holding involved,” Fuller said.

The best agent will also be one that can act as a “human Rolodex,” Fuller said.

“Can your agent help you to schedule movers and get different moving options and quotes?” he said. “Can your agent help to set up utilities and services is at your home or at least provide contact information for water, gas, garbage and electrical, everything else that you’re going to need to set up?”

Be mindful of ‘analysis paralysis’

Many people are accustomed to browsing sites like Zillow
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or Realtor.com these days to see what homes are available where they want to buy.

And one of the big benefits of buying a home virtually is that it can actually be a less time-consuming process. After all, it’s easier to set up multiple tours when you don’t need to hop in the car and drive to see all of them.


‘We just had to count on the inspection turning up anything that might be a pitfall.’


— Nora Vanni, a home buyer who purchased a property virtually

But over-browsing can actually make the process more stressful. “The emotional experience of buying a home and looking at it online becomes addictive,” Fuller said. “You tend to spend a lot of time and start focusing on things you necessarily shouldn’t — it becomes analysis paralysis.”

One way to avoid the information overload is to create a detailed list of your must-haves in your new home. Using these to limit your search will help prevent you from getting caught in the weeds.

Request the most in-depth video tour possible

Ahead of the tour, buyers should request a floor plan of the home, said Kelly Gaitten, an agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices
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in Virginia. “Think about things as far as the feel of a room,” she said. “What looks good in a picture of the family room might be way too small. So measurements and floor plans are huge right now.”

Ideally, the tour should actually begin well before the agent reaches the front door. Ideally, the real-estate agent should begin the tour while driving up to the home in question, Fuller said. This will give you a better sense of the neighborhood and local amenities. If you’re a parent, you may also want to request that the agent drive from the home to the nearby schools to give a sense of how long it would take the kids to get to school each morning.


‘If it’s pretty tight, and the seller knows that one of the buyers hasn’t actually seen it in person, they’re going to lean towards the guy that’s actually seen it in person.’


— Maggie Wells, an agent with Keller Williams in Lexington, Ky

From there, the real-estate agent should show you every part of the home from every possible angle. As the tour is going on, don’t hesitate to ask as many questions as possible — particularly about the things you can’t learn just from looking at a home. Does a room smell moldy or like cigarette smoke? Can you hear planes overhead or the neighbor’s dog barking all day?

Real-estate agents will gladly answer questions about these aspects of the home. But keep in mind there are other times when an agent can’t give their opinion. The National Association of Realtors’ code of ethics prohibits agents from providing subjective opinions on things like nearby schools. “We’re not allowed to steer people on what’s good and what’s bad,” said Maggie Wells, an agent with Keller Williams in Lexington, Ky.

Don’t waive the home inspection

Laws vary from state to state on whether home sellers are required to provide potential buyers with disclosure forms detailing a house’s history and condition. And a video tour can only key a prospective buyer into so much.

Today’s real-estate market may be a competitive one, which can make waiving the home inspection tempting because it can be attractive to buyers. But doing so is a very risky proposition.

Real-estate experts and buyers told MarketWatch that the home inspection takes on renewed significance if you’re buying a home sight unseen. Vanni and her fiancé opted for a more expensive — but more thorough — inspection when they purchased their new home.

“We just had to count on the inspection turning up anything that might be a pitfall,” Vanni said.

When reviewing the report, pay particular attention to expensive parts of the home that could be in rough shape, such as the roof or HVAC system.

Sellers may be biased against buyers who haven’t toured in person

Once it comes time to make an offer, it’s critical that a buyer who hasn’t toured the home in person put their best foot forward in today’s competitive market. “If it’s pretty tight, and the seller knows that one of the buyers hasn’t actually seen it in person, they’re going to lean towards the guy that’s actually seen it in person, because the person who had seen it virtually could get cold feet,” Wells said.

Wells suggested that when buyers line up financing they choose a local mortgage lender rather than an online lender or a major bank. In her area, many seller’s agents are wary of larger lenders because of the difficulties people can have getting in touch with a loan officer or customer service.

And one common tactic Realtors encourage buyers to take is sending a personalized letter to the seller explaining who you are and what you love about the home. That can be useful in this situation, but Fuller actually recommended taking it a step further.

“What you really need to do is you need to put that to video, so the seller can kind of get that emotional connection,” he said.

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