Easy Virtual Tools for Homebuyers

Social distancing doesn't have to prohibit your ability to buy a home. These virtual tools can aid in the deal.

U.S. News & World Report

Virtual Tools for Homebuyers

Shot of a handsome young hipster working on a laptop

Though the process for house hunting may be a bit different, many people want to lock in low mortgage rates.(PeopleImages/Getty Images)

The spread of the coronavirus and the subsequent closing of offices, cancellation of social gatherings and encouragement of individuals to practice social distancing has disrupted many of your plans for the near future.

One of those plans may be buying a home. With the spring homebuying season approaching, you may not be sure how to proceed, and you wouldn’t be the only one.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve hit the brakes in the housing market, but the foot is off the gas as people try to understand what’s going on,” says Matthew Dolan, a real estate agent with Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

A focus on conducting as much business as possible from home, deep cleaning your house and staying away from crowds is a natural reaction, so it makes sense that some consumers are putting a home purchase on the back burner at least for now. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Even with the coronavirus interrupting many aspects of life, finding your next home is still possible – though the process for house hunting, making an offer and conducting due diligence may be a bit different. Many people also don’t want to lose out on the opportunity to lock in low mortgage rates.

Here are four virtual tools that can aid you in your home purchase while you practice social distancing:

  • Online house-hunting options.
  • Virtual and live video house tours.
  • Email, text and phone calls for questions and negotiating.
  • Electronic document signing.

Online House-Hunting Options

Looking online for information about houses for sale is likely already part of your process, as real estate information company Zillow reports 79% of homebuyers shop for houses online. Searching neighborhoods for available properties that meet your criteria is an excellent way to get started and also make use of the additional time you're spending at home.

Also take advantage of house-hunting apps, which make it easy to search for available homes, view photos of listings and look up property information from your phone or mobile device.

Virtual and Live Video House Tours

Looking at photos online can only show you so much, but there’s a good chance you’re hesitant to spend a day touring houses, let alone visit an open house with other people in attendance.

Real estate brokerages are considering this issue as well. National brokerage Redfin, for example, announced Monday that it is halting open houses during the spread of COVID-19. Daryl Fairweather, chief economist for Redfin based in Seattle, notes that virtual tours can be an alternative to viewing a home in person, allowing you to visit each room in the home and zoom in on areas of interest.

If there’s no virtual tour offered, a thorough and experienced real estate agent may be willing to tour a home with you on a video call, showing you details and opening closets and cabinets upon request.

"After the showing, I can go back and wipe everything clean,” Dolan says. He’s already worked with a buyer who is self-quarantining after an international trip. He coordinated a video home tour so the buyer doesn’t have to delay a planned move.

Email, Text and Phone Calls for Questions and Negotiating

Once you’ve found the home you want to buy, you fortunately won’t experience any different processes here by avoiding social contact. Text, emails and phone calls with your agent can help you work out the details of an offer. After that, your real estate agent will communicate in the same manner with the listing agent.

While you may be used to the prospect of sitting down with your real estate agent to discuss details of an offer, the switch to alternative communication likely won’t be a major disruption for you.

Electronic Document Signing

Electronic signatures are frequently used today regardless of a public health crisis. As Dolan puts it: “If you’re an agent still doing wet signatures for everything, you’re out of it.”

When it comes time to make details official for an offer or go under contract on a home, keep an eye out for texts or emails from your real estate agent with electronic signature options. Many professionals use DocuSign or other services to make the process seamless and official.

What About Things That Must Be Conducted in Person?

Ultimately, there are some parts of the homebuying process you can’t or won’t want to proceed with without an in-person meeting. Still, it's possible to take precautions to protect yourself – it may simply require a bit more preparation and sanitation.

Here are three things that may require face-to-face interaction:

  • Secondary showing.
  • Home inspection.
  • Closings.

Secondary Showing

Pandemic or not, it’s reasonable to be wary of buying a house you haven’t visited in person. As long as you proceed with caution and courtesy, this can be fairly easy.

“We can do a virtual showing for the first showing, and if it needs to go to a second showing, we can work that out too,” Dolan says. He notes that he offers to be the only person who opens doors and cabinets while the buyers keep their hands in their pockets, and following the tour he will go back and disinfect every surface he touches. He will also offer to provide a list of everything that was touched to the sellers should they wish to additionally clean the home afterward.

Home Inspection

During the due diligence process, a home inspection is often required by the lender to ensure there are no major faults with the property that threaten its value. This is something a home inspector can’t do virtually.

However, inspections can continue as long as everyone involved takes the proper precautions: wearing gloves, declining handshakes and hopefully inspecting a recently disinfected home.

A trustworthy real estate agent who also takes proper precautions can be an asset at this point in the process, and will likely allow you to remain home and attend the inspection on your behalf, following up with any information you should be aware of.

Closings

Some states require all real estate closings to be conducted in person, which means that unless exceptions are made, the final sale of the property cannot be complete until you sit down in a room. Bring your own pen, consider wearing gloves and don’t expect to shake hands.

Prior to closing, it’s important to communicate with your real estate agent, title insurance company, mortgage lender and real estate attorney about the best way to proceed with closing if it must be done in person. With proper precautions, a meeting like this will likely be in line with recommendations from local governments and the Centers for Disease Control about limiting the size of gatherings.

“I don’t think the homebuying process or the home selling process will expose you any more than the (CDC) guidelines suggest,” Fairweather says.

If you’re feeling sick or have a fever, let the other individuals involved in the closing know ahead of time, as you may need to postpone.

However, you shouldn’t let the possibility of postponement deter you from getting started in the process. Fairweather expects the housing market to make a relatively quick recovery. Her take: “Once we’re out of this, people will still want to buy homes, and we still won’t have enough homes for the people that want them.”

Wealth of Knowledge Podcast

Wealth of Knowledge is a weekly podcast featuring tips and expert insight on all things money: personal finance, careers, investing, real estate and more.

Wealth of Knowledge logo