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After months (years, maybe!) of saving up and researching your real estate options, you are ready to buy a home. You had planned on attending open houses to get a better feel for the homes that appeal to you, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person open houses have fallen in popularity — and are even illegal in some states and counties.
Data shows that as of April 16, 2020, in-person showings are down 58.4% compared to showings at the same time last year. In many cities around the country, virtual open houses are the only option right now.
Open houses are popular because they give would-be buyers an opportunity to walk through a house like a homeowner and see if it’s a good fit for their lifestyle. But if your only option is to attend an open house online, how can you make sure you’re making the most of your time and that the house you view virtually is the one you want to buy? Here are some tips.
Work with a local real estate agent
Your best odds for finding out about virtual open houses is to get into the agent network through your own agent, who will be able to pull Multiple Listing Service (MLS) information on any homes that interest you. According to the National Association of Realtors, MLS is a private databases that are created, maintained, and paid for by real estate professionals to help their clients buy and sell property.
“On the MLS, agents have always been able to post when we are going to have an open house, including the date and time,” says Linda Devlin, who’s worked with 66% more clients than the average agent in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Now, MLS has added a virtual open house URL so we can put the link right there in the MLS listing. We can then send it to buyers or post it on any social media site.”
In addition to MLS access, your agent will also have insights into different neighborhoods or areas and what the problems or advantages are of those places, and can fill you in.
Do your research in advance
Before you attend the virtual open house, learn everything you can about the house in advance. You should also ask your agent if they can get their hands on the home’s disclosures, which lay out any “material defects” in the home, so you’ll know right off the bat if there are any issues you’d like to explore further.
It also pays to ask your agent if they can get you a copy of the home’s floor plan. Having the floor plan in front of you as you attend the virtual open house might help you navigate the experiences more smoothly.
You’ll also want to spend time looking at any posted photos and videos of the home. If there are parts of the home that you can’t see well in the photos or have questions about, make a note of it. You might have a chance to ask the listing agent to show you more during the virtual open house.
Closely read the listing description, note the home’s materials and systems, and document everything in a house-hunting checklist. Keeping a checklist will allow you to easily compare homes and will help you remember which homes have risen to the top of your list.
Finally, if the house is local, drive by and scope out the neighborhood. Driving by will help you get a feel for the amenities nearby, gain a general sense of the neighborhood upkeep, and allow you to determine the vibe of the house and the neighborhood.
Know when to tune in
You can attend a virtual open house during the live-stream event, or you can wait and watch a recorded version of the open house later. If possible, it is best to catch the virtual open house live so you can ask the listing agent questions about the home.
Mike Sobh, who works with 76% more single-family homes than the average agent in Wayne County, Michigan, says that he likes to do virtual open houses via Facebook Live.
“I’ll advertise that ahead of time — people can ask questions about the home in the comments. If you have specific questions or want to see certain parts of the house, make sure you tune in for the live event.”
Keep in mind that a livestreaming virtual open house isn’t like a regular open house, where you can arrive at any point during the open house hours. Virtual open houses start at a specific time. Make sure you log in a few minutes before start time so you don’t miss any important information the agent is sharing about the home.
If possible, you’ll want to be at home and uninterrupted during the open house. If you’re house-hunting with a spouse and you have kids, see if one of you can watch the kids while the other attends, and then fill each other in later, or ask for a recording.
Get familiar with the software
If you plan on attending a virtual open house, make sure you know what kind of software the agent intends to use and become familiar with it before the virtual open house begins.
For some of these open houses, you’ll need to download some kind of app. Devlin says she likes Zoom because “you can personally invite folks through that platform,” but if you’re attending a virtual open house using Zoom, you’ll need to download the app on your phone or computer to use it.
In other instances, you’ll just need a link to attend. Either way, you should know before the open house starts what you need and plan accordingly.
Pay attention to the parameters
The agent hosting the open house will likely outline how you can ask questions or follow up afterward — pay attention to the parameters of the open house so you don’t disrupt it for the other people attending.
While you attend the virtual open house, it is also good practice to mute your microphone so your background noise doesn’t drown out the voice of the agent. If the agent allows questions, unmute to ask your question, and then immediately mute your microphone again.
Write down questions
You might have questions for the listing agent, your own agent, or your spouse — keep a pen and paper handy so you can write them down for follow-up later. Jotting down questions as they arise will prevent you from becoming distracted and help you keep your attention on the open house.
If the open house is a livestream and you have questions, “just ask,” says Devlin. If you’re watching a recorded virtual house, Devlin recommends having your agent reach out to the listing agent to answer any questions you may have. Either way, don’t forget to get the answers you need to make a decision!
If you like what you see during the virtual open house and want to pursue the home further, follow up with your agent and act quickly. Sobh says that virtual open houses are so effective that “we often have buyers lined up before we even put the home on the market.”
Devlin agrees that virtual open houses drum up competition for a home. “I’ve always said video is the wave of the future. There is a large portion of individuals online looking for homes anyway, so a home that can be viewed virtually will get a lot of attention.”
Because virtual open houses do have the ability to drum up a lot of interest in a home, if you think the home might be for you after attending the virtual open house, make sure you follow up with your agent right away — you don’t want to lose out on your opportunity to put in an offer.
Talk to your agent about next steps
If you find a house that you think is a serious candidate for you and you want to learn more, talk to your agent about the next steps and see if there’s the option of setting up an in-person tour.
Devlin says that during the COVID-19 pandemic, if you’re interested in moving forward with a house you’ve only seen virtually, there is a coronavirus addendum that can be added to the sale documents to help buyers with their timelines.
Rules vary by state and county, but Devlin says that because of the COVID-19 restrictions in her area, “we can only do things virtually right now. Inspectors and appraisers in my area are also on stay-at-home orders.”
The pandemic has made it more challenging to get the inspections and services needed to close real estate deals. An addendum can give buyers more time to make sure the inspections and appraisals they need are accomplished — and it could allow the buyer time to see the home in person before they buy.
Virtual open houses are the wave of the future, and they aren’t likely to go away even after the pandemic passes. With some planning, you can use a virtual open house as a tool to make quick decisions about a home — and snag the perfect place before other buyers get the chance.
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