House Hunting While Stuck at Home: How to Shop for a House Online

Editor’s note: All of HomeLight’s coronavirus information for buyers, sellers, and agents is available on our COVID-19 hub.

As the timeframe for social distancing stretches into the future, many of us have been fortunate enough to become very, very familiar with the places we call home. For some, the lockdown has resulted in an unforeseen interest in projects like decluttering and snacking. But for others, whether through boredom or necessity, the expanse of extra time has focused on a single purpose: shopping for a house.

But how can you shop for a house that you can’t walk through or drive by? What if you have your eyes on a property in a different state or time zone? What if you’ve never even been to that time zone? Is it possible to shop — really shop — for a house online, or does your big move have to do a big wait?

Luckily for those who are not just browsing for fun, shopping for a house online is one of the things you can do safely and successfully during the lockdown, and we’ll show you how.  We’ve enlisted the help of two top-selling agents, Charles Ryan, a Detroit-area agent with more than 18 years of experience and countless remote sales under his belt, and Jason Moon, who’s consistently ranked in top 1% of all Northwest Indiana brokers for production and sales. With the guidance of these experts, this guide will help you navigate the process with confidence.

A list used to shop for a house online.
Source: (Aaron Burden / Unsplash)

Step zero: Make a list

The first step is to make a space for all your other steps. A house-hunting checklist is a great way to organize your thoughts and streamline your search.

You probably know the general size and shape of the house you’re looking for, but what are your must-haves, and how do they rank next to your nice-to-haves? What do you want? What do you need? What about the layout? Make your first step a call to order and efficiency by making an exhaustive checklist.

Once you have everything nailed down, figure out where there is a little wiggle room.

Looking for a three-bedroom, two-bath? How about a two-bedroom, two-bath with a four-season sunroom that could easily become that third bedroom? The key is to strike a balance between knowing what you want, and working with what you can get.

But what good is the right house if it’s in the wrong neighborhood? Luckily for us, you can learn a lot about a place online.

Hello, neighborhood

A plethora of state, city, and neighborhood information is available to would-be homebuyers, and it’s all just a click away. But where do you start? How do you distinguish good sources from fountains of bad information? The best way to break up a big project is to serve it up in bite-size pieces.

Walkability and commuting

“Google it” is the ubiquitous first step in fact-finding for many queries. Second only to rapport with a good agent, there is no greater asset for getting a virtual lay of the land.

Googling the address will give you a choice of photographic and satellite images of the home and surrounding area. But there are some limitations here — the images might be dated (check the lower right corner of the photographic image to see the date the image was captured) and, according to Moon, in rural areas, the images may be incomplete, low-quality or non-existent.

On the plus side, especially if you’re hunting in an urban area, the “Search Nearby” and “Explore” features will populate the map with amenities of your choosing, from restaurants to nursery to hospitals.

Google Earth provides highly-detailed, zoom-able maps rendered in dazzling 3-D. For the intrepid and highly techy traveler, there’s even a VR version if you’ve always wanted to pop on your headset and wander the foothills of the Himalayas.

But back to the subject at hand: aside from good old Google, what are some online resources to acquaint yourself with a city you cannot currently visit? Here’s a small sampling.

Hospitals and healthcare

US News and World Report provides a searchable guide to the nation’s top hospitals (and the methodology used to do the ranking) and The LeapFrog Group also provides a guide.

Crime rates and stats

Though somewhat prone to errors due to administrative shortcomings (accurate reporting, dynamic updating, and so on), sites like CityProject, and Spot Crime offer searchable maps for crime hot spots.

Neighborhood Scouts offers a buffet of statistics for the analytically minded, though much of their good stuff is kept behind a paywall.

Air quality and environment

The Environmental Protection Agency has you covered with location-specific data.

Schools

The National Center for Education Statistics has the numbers on both public and private schools. Great Schools is also an excellent resource.

Social media and a grain of salt

Moon advises buyers to beware of local Facebook Groups and the like when it comes to online research. He doesn’t discount the importance of a buyer’s self-guided internet investigation, but he stresses that your agent can provide reliable, vetted sources. He says, “I want to make sure you have the right facts at your fingertips.”

Both Moon and Ryan are adamant about this point: above all else, you must rely on your agent for information about the community you may call home. While you might be able to find the precise annual rainfall or the average price of a gallon of gas, no web source will be able to provide the information that matters most: what is it like to live there?

And it’s not just local knowledge your agent can provide. Ryan points out:

“You’re not going to find the seller’s motivation online. So you’re going to have to find an agent who’s willing to go digging deep, having conversations with the agents that are listing the properties and find out, why is the seller selling?”

To find the right agent, get ready with (another) checklist, and don’t be timid!

A phone used to shop for a house online.
Source: (Nadine Shaabana / Unsplash)

Interviewing agents

Ryan’s general advice on interviewing agents: “Don’t be shy. You can’t be. Not in this. You have to lay it all on the table.”

During interviews, he says it’s common for buyers to ask questions about his personal experience living in the area, including his preferences on restaurants and local recreation facilities. He’s even been asked to share his reflections on growing up in the area, where he went to high school and college, and where he might go for a drink after work.

Your agent should be eager to find information on whatever is important to you. “Where is the local herpetarium?” might catch your agent off guard, but if amphibians are your thing, make it known. A good agent will make it their thing, too, and be enthusiastic about getting you what you want. Ryan says, “You have to have an agent that’s tenacious — that’s not afraid to go ask those difficult questions. “

Moon and Ryan agree that years of experience is the bare minimum qualification for the right agent for a remote search. It’s essential you have someone who’s familiar with the process, from shopping to closing remotely.

Agent? Check. Now let’s shop!

Some shoppers are not aware that working with an agent unlocks a trove of information to which you would not otherwise have access. Your agent will grant you entry to a site with the most up-to-date information available anywhere online: the MLS (multiple listing service). As the name suggests, it’s the catch-all listing for every piece of property on the market. The information is kept super-fresh with frequent updates, unlike the secondary resources where consumers have unrestricted access, which tend to be just a couple of steps behind.

Save yourself the heartbreak of finding out the property you fell in love with online has actually been under contract for two days. Serious shoppers focus their efforts on the MLS.

At this point, with your agent and checklists in order, and your “yeas” and “nays” in tidy piles, you’re ready for the next step where the house-hunting gets very real (well, very virtually real).

Request a virtual showing

In some cases, the homes you’re viewing online will offer a virtual open house, or the sellers’ agent will give you a live video tour. You may even find immersive virtual reality options (if you can tear yourself away from Google Earth) that will walk you through a composite 3-D rendering of the home (whoa!). All of these are good options, but none are as good as a personal, virtual walk-through with your agent.

Only your agent’s virtual showing can square up your expectations with reality. For example, the professional photographers hired by seller’s agents will use tricks to accentuate the good and hide the bad, but according to Moon, just as often it goes the other way: a home that showed poorly online will exceed your (virtual) expectations in person.

Moon also makes sure to include the front and back yards and any details that may not appear in the listing photos. With a live virtual tour, you can hear the floorboards creak under your agent’s feet, watch the toilet flush, and say, “Hey — can you get a close-up of that backsplash?”

While doing a live tour allows buyers to ask questions in real-time, Ryan says it’s also common for people less comfortable with technology to request videos.

Source: (Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash)

Facewhat? What’s a Zoom?

Don’t let unfamiliarity with technology stop you from achieving this dream! It is totally fine if you’re not a cutting-edge gizmo wizard; you can still shop for a house online. Ryan suggests enlisting a digital native (a grandkid, if you have one available) to help you clear technological hurdles.

To make sure his clients are comfortable with the process, Moon even creates video tutorials. So if a real-time, live, virtual walkthrough is too much for you, your agent can make you a video and talk you through how to open and play the file.

Ready, set, buy

It’s important to remember you are not the first and will not be the last person to shop for and buy a home online. This was common before coronavirus, and it will be common when things return to normal.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not totally unnerving to make a huge financial decision about a property you’ve never set foot in. What it does mean is that the process is pretty well ironed out, and your agent and legal representatives can help defend you against the unforeseen with warranties and provisions against things that may go wrong in the first year.

So if right now is the right time for you to start your search, don’t let the pandemic stop you! Equipped with good information and a trusted agent, there’s no reason to wait.

Header Image Source: (Mia Baker / Unsplash)