Ideally, buying a home is a slow, steady process of researching a neighborhood, visiting potential homes and interacting with the community to ensure it’s not only the right home but also the right place to live.
For some, the homebuying process is as meticulous as they would like. But for many others, cross-country moves, complicated seller situations or a tight housing market can make it necessary to put in an offer before even visiting the property.
Buying a home sight unseen can be a scary way to buy a home. It’s hard to measure through photos and a written description whether a property measures up to your wants and needs.
A June 2016 survey of 2,000 recent homebuyers and sellers by real estate listing site Redfin found 19 percent reported having made a bid without seeing the property in person. Looking at homes with listing prices of more than $750,000, 39 percent of people surveyed put in an offer sight unseen, as higher-end homes are likely to attract more overseas buyers in already competitive buyer pools.
Redfin’s online and as-needed agent platform may make purchasing a home sight unseen a bit easier. But it’s fairly uncommon in residential real estate. Cynthia Pierce, associate broker and owner-partner of Keller Williams Realty Perimeter in Dunwoody, Georgia, says she’s been in the business for more than 30 years, specializing in corporate relocation to the Atlanta area, and has never worked with a client who purchased a home completely sight unseen.
Diane M. Phillips, a Realtor and military relocation professional for Frankly Realtors in Manchester, Maryland, stresses the importance of physically touring a home to ensure it’s the right fit, but she says a sight-unseen purchase is sometimes the only option – like when buying in a market where bidding wars on the first day are common.
“It’s rare, but occasionally it does have to happen,” she says.
If you must make an offer on a home sight unseen, be sure you proceed carefully to avoid buyer’s remorse. These do’s and don’ts can guide you to a home purchase you won’t regret later.
Do work with an agent you trust. Selecting a real estate agent should always be a careful, thought-out process, and purchasing a home you won’t be able to tour initially means you need to be sure your agent will be honest with you and advocate on your behalf when you’re not present.
The key to working with an agent from a distance is technology, says Debbie Drummond, a Realtor with Simply Vegas in Las Vegas.
Drummond recently worked with a relocating military family that had to buy sight unseen, so she used FaceTime and recorded videos to substitute for in-person tours. “I had sent them videos to show the surrounding area and the inside of the home so they could see it,” she says.
Look for an agent who’s willing to virtually walk you through the whole property and the community, as well as point out potential flaws and guide you to the right online resources that can help you get a feel for the area.
Don’t buy sight unseen unless it’s your only option. Avoiding tricky tour schedules may sound like an easier purchase process, but that could lead to a headache down the line if you haven’t done your homework. If you can, visit the property first.
Working regularly with military members and their families, Phillips says she schedules time with relocating clients based around their limited schedules – even if that means constant home tours for an entire weekend when they're able to visit their next hometown.
“It’s not unheard of to do a marathon 72-hour home search and then write up a contract, and have backups for other properties lined up if they don’t get the first one they’re after,” Phillips says.
Do send a representative if you can. If you’re unable to visit the home yourself, it can be beneficial to send someone – maybe a sibling or friend – who is familiar with your preferences and can help the real estate agent determine if it's the right home for you.
“I would always recommend that the person somehow either send a representative, maybe a family member, that would be able to give some advice as to what the person’s likes are,” Phillips says.
Don’t take photos at face value. Bad home listing photos have become a running joke in the real estate industry. And while Drummond says images on the multiple listing services have gotten better on the whole, sometimes they’re too reworked.
Great photography meant to showcase a space can make a space appear significantly larger or imply more natural light reaches a room than is the case.
“It’s really important to do FaceTime or video so they can know what it looks like in real time without any touch-ups or anything,” Drummond says.
Do include contingencies in your contract. Submitting a bid doesn’t mean you have to completely give into the unknowns of a property you haven’t seen. As with any purchase, include contingencies that leave room for unexpected discoveries in the inspection or information about the property you uncover in the due diligence process.
“There are ways you can usually get them out [of the deal] if you do it in a timely manner,” Drummond says.
Don’t forget the inspection. The inspection is a particularly important part of homebuying – especially for a home you haven’t been able to tour – to reveal any functional problems that may need repairs.
“You want somebody who is trained to flush the toilets, run the dishwasher and make sure everything is as it should be,” Drummond says.
For real estate investors planning to fix up a property anyway, an inspection may seem like a bump in the road that slows down a deal. But when it comes to your bottom line, it’s best to know how much you'll have to invest in key parts of the home – structural, electric and plumbing – before sinking your money into the house.
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Do see the property as quickly as possible. Once you’ve gone through your research process, seen as much of the home as you can and put in an offer that’s accepted, it’s time to visit the property while there’s still time to back out.
“I get little butterflies in the stomach when they actually come and see the home,” Drummond says, noting she still gets nervous that the buyer won’t like the property she helped select.
While there may be some surprises, Drummond says she has yet to have a buyer regret the purchase: “So far I’ve never had anybody say, ‘I wish I hadn’t bought this.’”
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.