How to Buy a House Sight Unseen: Lean Into Tech and Your Trusted Agent

Buying a house ‘sight unseen’ feels like a scary leap of faith to most people. Heather Moorefield, a top agent in Williamsburg, Virginia, says that she sees more long-distance buyers willing to purchase sight unseen than is typical due to her city’s proximity to military bases, but it’s certainly not the norm or preferred way of doing things.

“There are still a lot of buyers who fly in, even if it’s just one weekend,” Moorefield says. “They have their agent take over on the home inspections, but they definitely walk through the property at least once.”

According to an analysis of homebuyer behavior from Zola.ca, 90% of buyers will visit the home they finally purchase more than once, and nearly 40% of buyers like to spend at least an hour scoping out the premises. Meanwhile, 1 in 10 buyers take their time perusing for a collective 2 to 4 hours onsite among their various visits.

While it’s safe to say that home purchases haven’t gone the way of a push-button transaction (aside from the prefab tiny homes you can buy on Amazon), it’s also totally possible to buy a house sight unseen today thanks to modern technology. And if you’re buying from a long distance and can’t get away, sometimes there’s no other option.

A globe that you can use so you can buy a house sight unseen.
Source: (Al Soot / Unsplash)

Trends in sight unseen purchases among international and second-home buyers

Americans buy homes that are on average only 15 miles from their previous residence, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR) 2019 Home Buyers and Sellers Generational Trends Report. So most of these folks have no trouble popping over to tour a house in person.

But according to data from Redfin, in Nov. 2017, over one in three buyers reported making an offer on a home they hadn’t seen in person. By May 2018, that number had dropped to 20%, likely due in part to some softening in the market. However, sight unseen offers are no doubt a part of the current real estate landscape.

A report from luxury real estate site Mansion Global indicates that many of the buyers willing to make offers sight unseen are international and second-home buyers. When you purchase a property from overseas, physical viewings become difficult to plan and travel for. Plus, when a property won’t be your primary residence, and you’re using it as a vacation or rental home (or some combination of the two), there’s a little less pressure on finding the perfect place.

Foreign buyers accounted for $77.9 billion in residential purchase dollar volume between April 2018 and March 2019, NAR’s Profile of International Activity shows. Chinese and Canadian buyers both accounted for 11% of all foreign buyer purchases, with buyers from China and the U.K. scooping up the most expensive properties. International buying activity is concentrated in a few key states, including California and Texas — where sight unseen purchases also appear to be more common.

Using FaceTime so you can buy a house sight unseen.
Source: (Alexander Dummer / Unsplash)

Buying sight unseen: Pro tips, precautions, and tools to use in your search

If you don’t have the luxury of a physical tour, there are lots of ways to minimize the unknowns and risks with the sight unseen route. Let’s dive into how you can use the internet, great tools like FaceTime, and an amazing real estate agent to give yourself the best shot at a successful sight unseen home purchase.

Hire an agent who’s well-versed in the area and working with long distance clientele

Having an excellent agent by your side is critical in any home buying situation (here are 11 reasons why). But when you buy sight unseen, you’re putting another layer of trust in this person: “Your agent is going to be your eyes, so to speak,” Moorefield explains. “The agent should know the area and have experience with clients buying sight unseen.”

How many bad decisions have you made as a tourist in a new place because you didn’t know any better? Think of a time when you picked a disappointing restaurant or took a wrong turn. Frustrating, no doubt.

But now you’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars and the hassle of a long-distance move on the line. So hire a top local agent ingrained in the community and who knows the market deeply, otherwise you’ll be trying to navigate unknown terrain as an out-of-towner… without a tour guide!

Have your agent walk you through homes using FaceTime

Technology is an integral part of buying a house from a distance. Many homes online will have tons of listing photos to look at, plus virtual walkthroughs (such as the dollhouse views from Matterport) to give you a good sense of whether the home is worth a closer look. Some agents may also be able to guide you through a home using a virtual reality headset for certain listings. Use these tools to your advantage to rule out properties that aren’t a good match.

Once you know which homes you’re most interested in, have your agent book some showings and take you along on the tour using FaceTime. Sounds simple, but what’s great about FaceTime is that you can get a better idea of the flow of the house and ask your agent questions in real time as they walk through each room to really get a feel for a property.

Enlist a bestie to tag along on tours

“If there’s a family member or even a close friend, you can have them tag along with your agent or preview it for you,” says Moorefield. If you don’t have friends or relatives where you’re headed, perhaps your new coworkers or colleagues would fill in. Moorefield often sees buyers call on their military friends who have already transferred to the area. It never hurts to have an extra set of eyes or someone who can offer a boots-on-the-ground opinion on this big decision.

Get measurements of the home

Many real estate photographers use wide-angle lenses, so what may appear spacious in a photo could be much smaller in person. Your agent can help you take measurements to see if your furniture would fit and determine how big a room really is.

Scope out the area with Google Earth and other online tools

“I had one client who was buying long distance and they loved one house I sent them,” recalls Moorefield. “But I sent pictures of the neighboring property because it was pretty junky. And they got here and they’re like, ‘We just don’t like the whole area in general.’ So they ended up buying  a house two counties away. That situation is really difficult because you can’t really video an entire county.”

This is where Google Earth can be an invaluable tool in your sight-unseen home purchase. Simply input the address of the home, scope out the neighborhood from an aerial view, and zoom in to see details of the area. Pretty cool! And while you’re at it, see how long your commute would be using Google Maps. If you’re stuck in traffic and spending hours getting to work, the home may not work for your needs.

Other helpful online resources include Neighborhood Scout and Walk Score (which also shows an area’s Bike Score and Transit Score) and AreaVibes to look up crime rates.

A school where you can also buy a house sight unseen.
Source: (Tim Mossholder / Unsplash)

Check out the quality of the schools

Many buyers who end up purchasing sight unseen do so because they can’t take their kids out of school to travel, Moorefield says. As part of your research process, be sure to check out the quality and location of the schools your kids would attend.

GreatSchools is an excellent place to start. It provides information on academics, student population, and equity. When researching schools, look at school ratings, but also proximity compared to your commute. If you don’t have children, the local school ratings can also affect home values, so check this out regardless of whether you have a family.

Go for the extra inspections

No one should have to tell you to inspect a home that you buy sight unseen (that should be a no-brainer) but you should also opt for any specialized home inspections that your agent recommends to check for and sign of pests or issues with the roof, electrical, or plumbing. If you do find a major issue during the inspection process, you can use this information to negotiate or walk away from the purchase if you have to.

Visit the house once if you can

If you have no choice but to buy a house sight unseen, then follow these tips to make sure you know the lay of the land, have used all the tools at your disposal to view the property virtually, and are working with a pro who can guide you through to the end. But if there is any possible way you can make a quick trip out to see the house firsthand, there is simply no substitute for a physical viewing.

“Honestly I don’t recommend [buying sight unseen] at all, I think it’s very risky,” says Moorefield. “But if you have a great agent, you’re still gonna get a good deal.”

Header Image Source: (Thor Alvis / Unsplash)