How to Buy a Home When There’s No Home to See

A latino family standing on the lawn. In the background is the skeletal representation of a house.

You can buy your home before you see it with these easy tips.

Shawna Kwiatkowski and her husband, a Marine based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, thought they would buy a resale property when they were relocating to the Tampa area.

But their Realtor, Brent Schnell of Century 21 Beggins Enterprises in Apollo Beach, Fla., suggested she consider new construction.

Schnell worked with other military families making long-distance moves and had experience sharing floor plans, renderings, videos and photos to show people what to expect.

“We knew our budget, we were prequalified for a loan and we knew we wanted a two-story house with as many bedrooms as possible,” says Kwiatkowski. “Brent sent us a list of five builders in the area and we narrowed it down to three because we wanted a house with a swimming pool.”

Schnell helped Kwiatkowski identify communities within an easy commute to the base and talked with him extensively by phone about the model descriptions she was reading and the floor plans she reviewed.

“Our builder had a community near us in Raleigh, so even though the models weren’t the same, I could go and look at rooms that were similar in size to the ones on the floor plan to get a feel for them,” says Kwiatkowski.

She also measured the rooms in her home to compare them to the dimensions on floor plans.

Whether they are long-distance buyers or are purchasing a home in the pre-construction phase of a community, many people buy a house without walking through a model home and sometimes without ever seeing the neighborhood.

Jacques Cohen, a real estate agent with Compass in New York City, purchased a condo based on a minimal rendering of the unit.

“I know the Gramercy neighborhood well and also recognized the shortage of homes in the area,” he says. “I knew resale wouldn’t be a problem if I decided to sell in the future.”

Cohen’s leap of faith was a little easier because of his confidence in the builder and his local market knowledge, but he says other buyers can review renderings and floor plans, talk to a developer’s sales representative and view photos of similar projects by the same builder to make a decision about buying something sight unseen.

“It’s pretty common in New York City to have only a video of what something might look like and then a small sales center where you can look at floor plans,” says Cohen. “Now that competition is heating up a bit for builders, sometimes you can go to a sales center that has a kitchen mockup, a bathroom and some of the materials that will be used so you can touch them and see them in person.”

Some builders use new technology to provide a 3-D virtual tour based on architectural renderings.

“Architectural drawings and 3-D renderings of floor plans are pretty common for new condos in our area because builders are selling them before they are built,” says Jerry Sullivan, a Realtor with Century 21 Blue Marlin in Destin, Fla. “Buyers can see a mockup of the interior and then also see photos of what their view will be, which is especially important to buyers here who want to know if they’ll see a marina or water or a golf course.”

Rely on Reputation and Research

Doing research can be even more important than visualizing a new home.

“You should do your research on the builder and look at the company website, Facebook pages and reviews to learn as much as you can about the builder’s reputation,” says Sullivan.

Sullivan recommends consulting a Realtor with new-home experience.

“Get in touch with a real estate agent with knowledge about local builders so you can narrow down your choice,” suggests Erin Hungerford, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate in Richmond, Va. “Agents who know a lot about local builders can tell you about their reliability and standards, which should give you the confidence to buy a home even when you can’t see the model.”

Tips for Buying Before You See Your Home

Most people want to see something built by the same builder in order to get a feel for the quality they are buying, says Hungerford. She recommends going to a model home by the same builder, even if it’s not your model, as Kwiatkowski did.

“You can get a sense of ceiling heights, the quality of the hardware and lighting fixtures and what the crown moldings are like,” says Hungerford. “Be sure you have a list of what’s standard and what are upgrades in the home you intend to buy and in the home you’re visiting so you have an accurate comparison.”

Hungerford says going to a design center can help you get a feel for your fixtures and finishes even when there’s no model home.

“If you see a description of a material or a color and you don’t know how it will look, it’s worth taking the time to Google it to read reviews or to try find a showroom near you that has it,” says Kwiatkowski. “I went to a rug store to ask them to show me what the difference was between types of padding for underneath carpeting.”

Even if you can’t touch or see every part of your home, thorough research and professional advice can give you a stronger sense of what you’re building.
Michele Lerner is an award-winning freelance writer, editor and author who has been writing about real estate, personal finance and business topics for more than two decades. You can find her on Google+.

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