Whether you’re across the country preparing for a new job, a military family overseas ready for the big move home, or just can’t get to your desired community for whatever reason, sometimes you’re in a situation where you’re buying a home sight unseen.
Buying a home without viewing it in person isn’t as uncommon as you think, especially not these days, with the help of technology and in the era of online shopping. In a 2018 poll commissioned by Redfin, 20 percent of homebuyers surveyed said they made an offer on a home sight unseen.
A similar survey in 2017 revealed that Millennial homebuyers were the most likely to put in an offer without ever stepping foot in the home, with 45 percent saying they had done so, followed by 30 percent of Gen Xers and 12 percent of Baby Boomers. Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago, and Austin were the top five cities in which homebuyers bid sight unseen.
If you’re willing to do the homework and recruit some expert help on the ground, you can purchase your home sight unseen safely, smartly, and without any hesitation. Here’s our ultimate guide on what to keep in mind:
Some homebuyers have only an ambiguous idea of what they’re looking for, instead relying on that instinctual feeling when they walk into a home – that gut reaction that tells them, “This is the home for me.” Unfortunately, for those virtually shopping, this isn’t an option.
Homebuyers shopping sight unseen need to be even more clear about what they’re looking for in their dream house, from the number of bedrooms and bathrooms to finite details like large windows or a big open concept floorplan. You’ll also need to consider how close you want to be to good schools, the transit system, and other amenities.
If you can, visit open houses and model homes in your current neighbourhood to get a feel for the size of home you’re looking for, along with room dimensions, colors, materials and other details you’re most drawn to. Then, when you’re ready to shop online, you’ll be able to picture the homes you saw in-person as you browse listings.
Your must-haves and deal-breakers list will help guide your search, but it’ll also dictate specific parameters you’re looking for to anyone helping you on your home-buying journey, such as a sales agent or your builder.
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 Jerry Sullivan, a Realtor with Century 21 Blue Marlin in Destin, Fla.
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 if you can’t see the model.”
Recruit a Dependable Team
When you’re shopping for a new build, builders can walk you through the home-building journey, from finding your inspiration to designing your home and all of its features. In most instances, companies build across the country, so while you may not get to walk through your precise lot, if you’re in the U.S., you may be able to walk a similar floorplan from the same builder.
“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 also adds that visiting 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 finding a showroom near you that has it,” says Shawna Kwiatkowski, homeowner of a house bought sight unseen. “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 advice from trusted professionals can give you a stronger sense of what you’re building.
Go On A Video Tour
As part of your team, you can also enlist a sales representative to schedule video tours, request information on the community, and more. Video tours are crucial to your home buying process – while you can’t physically step into the home, with the help of detailed video walkthroughs, you’ll get a much more intimate glimpse at what you’re buying.
These days, most homes on the market will detail their specs prominently in their listings and include an array of photos and a video tour to guide potential buyers – local or not – through the home before signing up for an in-person tour.
Get a lay of the land by studying the layout of the home, the measurements of the rooms and the virtual tour. If you like what you see so far, ask your sales representative to set up a “virtual viewing” so he or she can video chat with you from the home via FaceTime, Google Duo, Zoom, or other video chat services, so you can look, point out details, or ask questions. He or she can also do a thorough walk through the home, recording a video for you to look at again.
These real-time walk-throughs and recorded videos are key because your sales agent can provide commentary on what they’re seeing and touching. Some details simply aren’t captured without some narrating.
Make sure to ask your sales representative to take extra photos throughout so you can refer to those, too. It isn’t wise to rely solely on the listing’s photos, which aren’t always an exact portrayal of the home.
With new construction, you can ask the builder to take you through a tour of various model homes to study their different layouts and fixtures. You can also ask them for various floorplan blueprints, the materials you can choose from, and color swatches to help with your planning.
Scope Out The Neighborhood
Maybe you’ve lived in your destination city before, and know what’s around; more often than not, however, those buying a home sight-unseen are moving to completely unfamiliar territory.
If it’s the latter, Google Maps and Google Streetview are resources you can count on to help you get acquainted with the neighbourhood before buying. Type in the address of your potential home, and look at the grocery stores, restaurants, green spaces, and community centres that line the area. Don’t forget to check for how close it is to your new workplace, your kids’ school, gas stations, the highway, or other key stops in your day-to-day life.
Because Streetview and Google Maps are both static images, call again on your sales agent or builder to record a quick video or coordinate a walk or drive around the block and the main street to give you an idea of what the area is like. Ask them about their first impressions, the vibe they get from the community, what the neighbors are like, and of any other questions that come to mind, such as noise levels, parking, or traffic congestion.
Your home is likely one of the biggest purchases you’ll ever make – do your research on the state of the area and its long-term plans. Look at city council plans to check for planning applications – you can usually search by postal code to decipher if any development is in progress or planned for the future. You can also check city websites for crime rates, public school rankings and real estate sales to get a rough idea of what you’re getting into.
Do Your Due Diligence
Choosing your new home is just the tip of the iceberg. All homebuyers must do their due diligence before forking over their down payment and closing, but this is even more critical for those buying a home without seeing it in person.
This step involves calling in a string of professionals. This includes paying for a full home inspection and covering fees for notaries and accountants .
Don’t skimp on this step because your line of advisors, from inspectors to attorneys and brokers, will protect you throughout the process and make sure the transaction goes smoothly. In most states, the due diligence period is about two weeks to one month, giving you time to make sure you want to go through with the purchase. In some cases, and if your ability to travel permits it, you can add a clause to the sale pending an in-person visit, too.
Once you’ve found a home that checks all your boxes and you’ve gone through the rigorous due-diligence steps, even closing can happen remotely. Your will simply receive your contract and all addendums via email, which you can sign electronically. Funds are transferred via bank transfers or wire transfers.
Physical signatures are required, but you can send these documents via FedEx to complete the process.
Brace Yourself For Move In Day
You may have some unsteady nerves once moving day arrives and you’re moving to a new state, a new city … and a new home.
While you may have seen a model home in virtual tours and through plenty of images, it was likely staged and furnished – and maybe not exactly as your own home. It may be surprising to walk into a different, completely empty home. Don’t worry! Instead, get ready now for an array of emotions to wash over you once you step into your house so you’re mentally prepared and ready to hit the ground running on making the space your new home.
Once you get into unloading the boxes and moving furniture into place, you’ll see your home quickly coming together.
Carmen Chai is an award-winning Canadian journalist who has lived and reported from major cities such as Vancouver, Toronto, London and Paris. For NewHomeSource, Carmen covers a variety of topics, including insurance, mortgages, and more.