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How to take some of the mystery out of buying a house sight unseen
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How to take some of the mystery out of buying a house sight unseen

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A real estate agent with deep knowledge of the area you want to live in is important if you're buying a house sight unseen.

Last fall, when planning a move from North Carolina to Stillwater, Oklahoma, for a new job that would start in January, Andreza Conti Patara and her husband, Marcelo Patara, decided to buy a house.

But the couple wanted to avoid air travel due to COVID-19, and buyers were snapping up homes in Stillwater soon after they came on the market, leaving no time to drive out to see new listings.

So they researched neighborhoods online, hired a real estate agent, and bought a four-bedroom, two-story house sight unseen.

"I heard so many people say, 'You are crazy. How are you going to do that?'" Conti Patara recalls.

Making an offer without seeing a house in person isn't the ideal way to purchase a home, but it can be done, and today's technology, including 3D video tours and video-calling apps, makes it easier.

Almost two-thirds (63%) of home buyers in 2020 made at least one offer on a property without visiting it first, according to a survey of 1,900 home buyers commissioned by Redfin, a real estate brokerage. Roughly 10% of tour requests with Redfin agents were for video tours in January this year, up from less than 1% at the beginning of 2020.

"Sight unseen" covers a spectrum. Some buyers make an offer without seeing the house in person, but then attend the home inspection before the sale closes. Others don't set foot in the house until the final walk-through or even after the closing.

Previous homebuying experience isn't required for buying a house sight unseen, but it can make navigating the process less intimidating. Having some personal connections in the area where you're house hunting can help, too.

Here's how to make it work.

Take extra care in choosing a real estate agent

"You need to have a good fit with that broker who's going to be your boots on the ground," says Jackson Bladgen, a Sotheby's International Realty agent in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

To find the right agent:

Get referrals

Ask someone local for recommendations. Conti Patara asked her future colleagues at Oklahoma State University, and they pointed her to Century 21 real estate agent Jennifer Misener. The couple toured homes virtually with Misener and asked about schools for their two boys, 9 and 7.

"We were on the phone all the time," Conti Patara says. "She knew what we were looking for."

Check their experience

As a sight-unseen buyer, you'll be at a disadvantage when making offers, especially in a tight market, says Christopher Arienti, owner of Re/Max Executive Realty in Franklin, Massachusetts. Sellers and their listing agents may worry that a buyer who hasn't seen the home in person will be more likely to back out of the sale than one who has toured the property.

A successful agent with deep experience in the local area will have earned the trust of other brokers, and that will go a long way toward getting listing agents to take your offer seriously, says Mino McLean, an agent with Island Sotheby's International Realty on Maui.

Interview agents

Good rapport with an agent is essential, especially when doing business long-distance. How responsive is the agent? Does the agent's communication style mesh with yours? Is this someone who will focus on the elements of a home that matter most to you?

"There has to be a high level of trust," Misener says. "You should have no concerns with the agent you're working with."

Understand that technology can't do it all

Do internet research about the area, use Google Earth and Google Maps to view neighborhoods, and take advantage of virtual video tours to see homes. Then, use a phone app to have a video call with your agent at the house. The agent can take you on a visual and audio tour, zooming in on details, opening cupboards and closets, showing views out windows and narrating throughout the house and around the property.

"But no matter how good the technology you have is, it's hard to get the full feeling for a home until you're in it," Arienti says.

So you'll have to probe deeply to make up for not being there. Here are some of the things that deserve special attention.

Dimensions and size

"You might have what appears to be roomy space through the camera lens but doesn't look so roomy in person," Bladgen says. To help buyers get a sense of space, he paces off the room with them on video calls.

Mark Trenka, a Century 21 agent in Denver, suggests getting a copy of a floor plan and asking lots of questions.

How high are the ceilings? Will my table fit in the kitchen? How far is the primary bedroom from the living room?

Lighting

Trenka takes video at various times of day to show homes in different lighting. When does the sun hit the back deck? Is the kitchen sunlit in the morning or evening?

While living in California, Julie and Mike Hawthorne made an offer on a Denver-area home sight unseen in 2019, and then attended the inspection. They had met Trenka and looked at neighborhoods in person on a couple of previous trips, but family circumstances prevented them from traveling when a suitable home came on the market. The numerous videos Trenka shot and his meticulous explanations helped them feel comfortable.

"He went there I don't know how many times and filmed the house day and night," Julie Hawthorne says. "I walked in (at the inspection) and it was exactly like he said it was and how he made it feel. It just felt like home."

Sounds and smells

Laura and Jim Murray of Bend, Oregon, had long wanted to buy a vacation home in Hawaii, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented them from traveling when a dream property became available on Maui in May 2020.

Photos captured the lush landscape and the interiors and exteriors of the three buildings on the property — an updated one-bedroom home, a one-bedroom cottage and a small studio — but couldn't tell the whole story.

Their agent, Sam Utley of Island Sotheby's International Realty, described the floral scents and recorded sound outside from traffic on a nearby avenue.

"The hardest thing to convey was the road noise," Laura Murray says. But the descriptions and recordings gave them a good sense of it.

Get more 'boots on the ground'

Don't rely solely on your real estate agent. Get others involved.

Friends and family

If you have friends or family in the area, ask them to tour the house with the agent, says Laurin LaLima, a Century 21 agent in Morganville, New Jersey. When a Florida client wanted to buy a home in New Jersey in 2020, but couldn't travel because of the pandemic, the buyer's sister went on the video tours with LaLima and attended the inspection. LaLima could give information, but the sister knew the buyer's tastes. The client saw the home on the final walk-through before closing and said it was even better than expected.

Murray says having relatives on Maui made buying a home sight unseen much less daunting than it would have been otherwise.

"They were able to troop on over there, and they sent us photos," she says. Plus, her husband, Jim, is originally from Maui and they were familiar with the area from previous visits.

The sale closed in June 2020, and she didn't see the property in person until July. She loved it. "I had a hard time falling asleep that night because I was so excited," she says.

The home inspector

A home inspection is important. When making offers in today's tight housing market, some buyers are waiving the right to back out or negotiate repairs after the home inspection. That's risky with any home purchase. Even if you take that risk, consider getting a home inspection to understand the property's condition and what will be required to fix any problems.

As the buyer, you'll choose the inspector and pay for the inspection. Ask for referrals and look for one with experience and excellent communication skills. If you can't attend the inspection in person, do a video call with the inspector during the examination.

Conti Patara and her husband attended the home inspection virtually and negotiated with the seller to do repairs. The family walked onto the property and met their real estate agent, Misener, in person for the first time one hour before signing the closing papers in January.

"Everything was all ready, and it was exactly how she had described," Conti Patara says.

Barbara Marquand writes for NerdWallet. Email: bmarquand@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @barbaramarquand.

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