Relaxed young couple using a laptop at home

If you're looking to buy a home sight unseen, take advantage of virtual tours and video chats with your real estate agent while he or she is at the property. (iStockPhoto)

In April, after Virginia enacted a stay-at-home order due to the spread of the coronavirus, Ruth Boyer O'Dea found herself alone in a three-floor, five-bedroom residence in Arlington listed for a little over $2 million. Except she wasn't really by herself. On the other end of a video phone call was a couple in Texas, seeking to relocate back to the Washington, D.C., metro area after a year away.

For an hour, Boyer O’Dea, a real estate agent with TTR Sotheby’s International Realty, walked through the home, narrating her surroundings for her clients as they watched remotely and asked questions. At the end of the virtual tour, the couple decided to make an offer. In a day, they had the home under contract.

“We still practice business, but the way in which we do (things) has changed,” Boyer O’Dea says, referring to the shifts the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted in the real estate market.

As the virus swept across the U.S., the country went into a de facto lockdown, which weaved a state-by-state patchwork of essential businesses, a classification that excluded some aspects of homebuying and selling, while permitting others. In New York City, for example, in-person home showing and open houses succumbed to a ban but moving was allowed.

As a result, available long before the onset of the pandemic, 3D tours and video walkthroughs quickly became the norm in a coronavirus-stricken housing market.

To sell one of the penthouses at 21 East 22nd Street in New York City’s Flatiron district, for example, Douglas Elliman agent Frances Katzen hosted a tour over Zoom, the video conferencing app, for an American buyer who, at the time, lived in Belgium.

While sight unseen deals have always existed, mainly among foreign buyers, investors and home shoppers who are moving long-distance, such arrangements might spike in popularity, especially as the coronavirus lingers on with predictions for a second wave of infections.

“We've always had remote buyers,” says Miltiadis Kastanis, director of luxury sales for Douglas Elliman in Miami Beach, Florida. “The new remote buyer is the local Miami Beach buyer (who doesn’t) feel comfortable coming out to visit a property.”

[See: The Best Apps for House Hunting]

Lisa Sheppard, an agent with Sotheby’s International Reality’s Wine Country - East Napa Street Brokerage in Sonoma, California, echoed the sentiment that the Covid-19 pandemic might lead to an increase in sight unseen purchases.

“Although I have sold some properties virtually in the past, it's definitely not the norm,” Sheppard says. “But we're going to see more and more of that.”

According to a survey by home repair company Helitech that outlines the effects the coronavirus has wielded on housing, one in three respondents said they would consider purchasing a residence sight unseen.

Recently, Sheppard helped a couple from the District of Columbia buy a roughly 2,700-square-foot home in Sebastopol, California. It was a convoluted process that involved the sale of the couple’s D.C. home and a cross-country RV trip that was cut midway when the couple learned of a major structural setback – an inspection revealed the residence was a manufactured home – that threatened the whole undertaking.

In light of the pandemic, here is what buyers pursuing sight-unseen deals should know and do:

  • Do as much prior research as possible.
  • Aside from virtual tours, have video walkthroughs and consult floor plans.
  • Know what type of home inspections and appraisals are possible.
  • Be flexible with the available methods of signing sale documents.

Prior Research

As always, homebuyers should do their research before even venturing out to see houses.

In New York City, Katzen advises, “Do as much digging as possible about the inherent makeup of the building. Really do your due diligence. Look at the (comparable sales) to make sure what you're paying is the right number in context of the current climate and what's been achieved beforehand.”

[Read: The Guide to Making a Contingent Offer on a House]

Beyond Virtual Tours

In the early days of the pandemic, even if in-person home tours were impossible due to local regulations, agents were still able to enter vacant houses. That is what Sheppard did in order to take videos and images that supplemented the listing photography. The additional visuals helped her clients make up their mind about the property in Sebastopol.

“They decided that they were to buy the property sight unseen,” Sheppard says. “They've just seen it virtually through the photography, the videos, the floor plans and the drone stills.”

While 3D renderings and pre-recorded walkthroughs may offer a worthwhile introduction to a home, buyers should also request a live video tour that allows them to inquire about certain features as well as to request a brief stroll through the neighborhood. For instance, they may ask to see inside the cabinets that are closed on clips produced for the listing’s advertisement.

Moreover, during video tours, the agent’s experience of the property becomes paramount. Unlike their clients, agents can see the views, hear any noises and observe the community.

“You almost become the buyer for (the homebuyer) because they're not here,” Kastanis says of the role agents must play. “You have to really be able to express the property in a very emotional, strong way because they're not here to physically feel the property.”

It is also advisable that buyers reference the floor plans while virtually touring a home in order to better grasp the layout and the furnishing options it offers.

In some cases, it's also possible for homebuyers to connect with current homeowners, either in a neighborhood or a building, and seek their insights. This is what happened about two years ago in a $6 million condo transaction closed by Nada Rizk and Joanne Greene, New York City-based agents with brokerage Brown Harris Stevens, in a building where they had conducted deals before. At the time, a former client of theirs agreed to talk to the buyer, who lived in London.

“They stayed on the phone for half an hour,” Rizk says. “That made the buyer comfortable with buying sight unseen.”

Home Inspections and Appraisals

In conventional sight-unseen deals, agents would facilitate home inspections and appraisals on behalf of buyers. In such transactions, home inspections are crucial and often serve as a contingent factor for the execution of the sale.

In some cities, the coronavirus pandemic pushed inspections and appraisals to virtual alternatives that rely on images and available market data. In others, inspections and appraisals have been carried out under specific health protocols. The latter include limits on how many people can be in a home simultaneously and what personal protective gear they must wear.

In Arlington, Virginia, Boyer O’Dea met the home inspector outside but did not accompany him indoors, which would be typical in any other time. The appraiser also entered the house.

In New York City, though, both the inspector and the appraiser of the penthouse Katzen represented worked remotely through images. Only an engineer showed up in person to examine the upper deck.

In early June, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees the government-backed enterprises Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, extended its policy to allow lenders to conduct virtual appraisals through at least the end of July.

[Read: Why You Should (and Shouldn't) Sell Your Home in 2020]

Closing Deals

Traditionally, buyers purchasing sight unseen would visit the property for a final walkthrough and to close the deal in person. Yet, the pandemic has complicated this approach not only with the remote-work arrangements some title companies have adopted but also with numerous travel restrictions, both local and global.

Fortunately, though, in the U.S. the coronavirus outbreak has accelerated the adoption of remote online notarization, the so-called RON service, which postulated the legally binding nature of electronic signatures. Accepted in roughly 25 states, RON has allowed real estate settlements to go through during the pandemic (signing offers is usually subject to fewer regulations). This doesn’t mean that remote settlements are easy, though.

Boyer O’Dea’s clients had to video conference with a lawyer from Virginia, who went through the closing documents, a paper copy of which they signed in the presence of a local notary in Texas.

“They were all together, but they weren't physically together,” Boyer O’Dea says.

Then, those files were sent to Virginia overnight for the sellers to ink.

Because of the enormous commitment of buying a home and the new ruffles that the pandemic is adding to sight-unseen transactions, Kastanis has one overarching piece of advice: “Work with someone who you trust and who you are sure understands the home that you're looking at.”


10 Secrets to Selling Your Home Faster

Ensure a quick sale.

Upscale modern house for sale

(Getty Images)

Selling your home quickly not only allows you to move on with your life, it also means fewer days of keeping your home in pristine condition and leaving every time your agent brings prospective buyers for a tour. According to real estate information company Zillow, the best time to list a home for sale is on a Saturday between May 1 and 15; homes listed during those times sell six days faster and for 0.7% more than the average annual home price. But how fast your home actually sells, and at what price, depends on factors beyond timing. Here are 10 secrets to selling your home faster, no matter when you list it.

Updated on March 20, 2020: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

Pick a selling strategy.

Pick a selling strategy.

African American neighbors greeting each other over fence

(Getty Images)

Before putting a for sale sign in your yard, it's important to pick the selling strategy that will work best for you. The for-sale-by-owner option may be best if you feel confident in your ability to market the home and negotiate. If your time is better spent on other details, a real estate agent could be best. If you need to sell the home quickly, you may want to inquire with an iBuyer, an entity that can make the deal close faster than the typical homebuyer. You should feel confident in the selling strategy you choose, and avoid switching from one to the other while your house is on the market. Buyers could be turned off by the constant changing of circumstances.

Invest in a professional photographer.

Invest in a professional photographer.

Close-up of a man photographing with a camera

(Getty Images)

According to NAR's 2019 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, 44% of recent buyers started their search online. Of those, 87% found photos very useful in their home search. If your listing photos don’t show off the features of your home, prospective buyers may reject it without even taking a tour or going to the open house. Hiring a professional photographer and posting at least 30 photos of your home, inside and out, is a good way to attract buyers. Photography is often free for home sellers, as shoots are often conducted at the expense of real estate brokers as part of marketing the property.

Clean everything.

Clean everything.

Not prepared to miss a spot!

(People Images/ Getty Images)

Nothing turns off buyers like a dirty house. Hire a company to deep clean if you can’t do it yourself. “When the (home) is on the market, no matter what time of day or night, it should be clean and neat,” says Ellen Cohen, a licensed associate real estate broker with real estate brokerage Compass in New York City.

Key places to clean while your home is on the market include:

  • Kitchen countertops.
  • Inside cabinets and appliances.
  • Floors and room corners where dust collects.
  • Shelves.
  • Bathroom counters, toilets, tubs and showers.
  • Inside closets.
  • Windows, inside and out.
  • Scuffed walls, baseboards and doors.
  • Basement and garage.

Depersonalize the home.

Depersonalize the home.

Modern living room

(Getty Images)

Remove all your family photos and memorabilia. You want buyers to see the house as a home for their family, not yours. Remove political and religious items, your children’s artwork (and everything else) from the refrigerator and anything that marks the house as your territory rather than neutral territory. The same goes for any collections such as figurines, sports memorabilia or kids' toys that can make a buyer think less about the house and more about you. Family photos can be replaced by neutral art or removed entirely – just be sure to remove any nails and repair nail holes where any hanging photos used to be.

Let the light in.

Let the light in.

Sunlight through a bedroom window.

(Getty Images)

People love light and bright, and the best way to show off your house is to let the sunshine in. Open all the curtains, blinds and shades, and turn lights on in any dark rooms. If the natural light situation is lacking in any room, strategically place lamps or light sources throughout to set the mood. And while your house is on the market, open all curtains and turn on lights every time you leave your house for work or errands in case you get word that a buyer would like to tour the space before you get home.

Be flexible with showings.

Be flexible with showings.

Woman realtor talking to a young family

(Getty Images)

Buyers like to see homes on their schedule, which often means evenings and weekends. Plus, they want to be able to tour a home soon after they find it online, especially in a hot market where they're competing with other buyers. If your home can be shown with little or no notice, more prospective buyers will see it. If you require 24 hours’ notice, they may choose to skip your home altogether. "That's one less person who gets to see the property," Cohen says. Be ready to leave quickly as well – if you're still cleaning up or hanging around outside when the buyer arrives, it can make for an awkward interaction.

Set the right price.

Set the right price.

House with for sale sign in yard and open wooden fence

(Getty Images)

No seller wants to leave money on the table, but the strategy of setting an unrealistically high price with the idea that you can come down later doesn’t work in real estate. Buyers and their agents have access to more information on comparable homes than ever, and they know what most homes are worth before viewing them. A home that’s overpriced in the beginning tends to stay on the market longer, even after the price is cut, because buyers think there must be something wrong with it. "Pricing correctly on the lower side tends to work much better," Cohen says.

Remove excess furniture and clutter.

Remove excess furniture and clutter.

Self storage units

(Getty Images)

Nothing makes a home seem smaller than too much big furniture. Rent a self-storage container or a storage unit and remove as much furniture as you can. It will immediately make your home seem calmer and larger. Remove knickknacks from all surfaces, pack them away and store the pieces upon which you displayed them. Take a minimalist approach to books, throw rugs and draperies, and clear off your kitchen and bathroom countertops, even removing appliances you normally use. If you can scale down the contents of your closets, that’s even better, because it makes the home's storage space look more ample.

Repaint in neutral colors.

Repaint in neutral colors.

Couple preparing to paint living room

(Getty Images)

A new coat of paint will do wonders to freshen up your home, both inside and out. This is the time to paint over your daughter’s purple bedroom, nix the quirky turquoise bathroom and cover up the red accent wall in your dining room. Busy wallpaper can also turn off potential buyers. Your goal is to create a neutral palette so buyers can envision incorporating their own personal touches in the home. "You just want people to see the space for what it is," Cohen says. Rather than a stark white, consider neutral shades of gray, taupe and cream on the walls.

Spruce up the front of your home.

Spruce up the front of your home.

With white pillars, steps in the entry way

(Getty Images)

You’ve heard it 100 times before, and it’s still true: Curb appeal matters. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. A new or freshly painted front door, new house numbers and a new mailbox can breathe life into your entryway. Fresh landscaping and flowers in beds or in pots also enhance your home’s first impression. Trim trees and bushes, tidy up flower beds, remove dead leaves from plants, clear out cobwebs from nooks near the entrance and pressure-wash walkways, patios and decks. Leave the outdoor lights on, too, because prospective buyers may drive by at night.

Here are 10 tips to sell your home faster:

Here are 10 tips to sell your home faster:

Aerial view of house roofs in suburban neighborhood

(Getty Images)

  • Pick a selling strategy.
  • Invest in a professional photographer.
  • Clean everything.
  • Depersonalize the home.
  • Let the light in.
  • Be flexible with showings.
  • Set the right price.
  • Remove excess furniture and clutter.
  • Repaint in neutral colors.
  • Spruce up the front of your home.

Read More

Tags: real estate, housing, housing market, new home sales, existing home sales, pending home sales, home prices, moving


Dima Williams is a reporter and editor who covers the residential real estate industry with an emphasis on economics, policy as well as luxury. As a managing editor for a national real estate website and magazine, Williams extensively collaborated with top producing agents across the country to develop expert opinion pieces and advice articles. Connect with Williams on LinkedIn.

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