Buying a home remotely is now a possibility thanks to rapidly changing technology, a global pandemic, and a suddenly more mobile workforce. This has ushered in a seismic shift in the way that real estate transactions will be handled from here on out. Though virtual tours and remote closings were becoming increasingly popular (particularly for military members or those who lived overseas), the pandemic caused explosive growth in online homebuying for all.
But how exactly does remote homebuying work? And how do you actually become comfortable enough to buy a house in another city or state that you've never even laid eyes on? Here are six fail-proof tips for buying a home remotely, according to real estate experts who have handled these virtual transactions from mortgage preapproval to closing day.
1. Find a Real Estate Agent You Trust
Finding a good real estate agent is always crucial with any home purchase, but it is of the utmost importance when you are buying a home remotely.
"You need to do your homework when finding your agent," said Kelli Salter, an agent in Jacksonville, North Carolina. "Read their reviews. Speak at length with them on the phone or on Zoom. It's so important you get to know each other — and almost become good friends because they are your eyes, ears, and nose on the ground."
When looking for a real estate agent, do your due diligence and ensure they know their local community like the back of their hand. They will be referring you to a mortgage lender (who needs to understand the specific market you're shopping in) as well as the home inspector, who will be knowledgeable about what sorts of challenges houses in the area can face, like pest issues, flooding, or high radon levels.
2. Be Very (Very) Honest About What You Want
We all have a wish list for our dream home, and this is the time to lay it all out for your real estate agent, who will be scouting every listing on your behalf. Since remote buyers won't be there in person to tour open houses or get a physical sense of what the real estate market has to offer, it's important that you are honest about what it is that you want — and most importantly, what you don't want.
"I had one client who was moving from northern Virginia to North Carolina, and she told me, 'I cannot be any farther than 15 minutes from a Starbucks.' I knew that was important to her," Salter said. "An agent also needs to know the dynamics of the family. What type of home is going to be right for them? Do they love to cook? Do they have a lot of kids?"
Although the market is competitive (and you may not get exactly what you want for your price point), it's still important to be open and honest with your agent about your list of must-haves, whether that's an up-to-date bathroom or a spacious dining room for dinner parties.
3. Be Overly Prepared for Virtual Tours
Because you won't be there in person to physically walk through the home, your real estate agent will need to be ultra prepared for the virtual tour, whether that's via video chat or Matterport, which is a specialized 3D tour of a space. John Myers, an agent in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said this entails not only panning through rooms slowly on camera (and going back over anything as necessary) but also bringing in tools to assist with visualizing the space.
"I have a laser measurer that I take with me [on virtual tours]. I had a client who wanted to know if their king-size bed would fit in each bedroom we looked at. I also measure the height of the ceilings for clients," Myers said.
Another major to-do for a real estate agent on a virtual tour is to be completely honest about how the place looks, feels, and most importantly, smells. Michelle Mumoli, an agent in Jersey City, takes this especially to heart. "I'm very honest with clients when I'm doing a video home tour. If something smells off (and I too have highly sensitive olfactory senses), I will let them know. I also touch things for them and explain what the textures are and feel like," Mumoli said.
Bottom line? Your agent needs to focus on the little details that you won't be able to experience on a virtual tour, particularly smell and touch. Smell can also hint at issues like mold, moisture, and even radon.
4. Virtually Scope Out Potential Neighborhoods
Once you move into your home, you can renovate anything you like to make it your dream home, but the one thing you won't be able to change is the way the street or neighborhood looks and feels. This is why it's crucial that your agent provides you with the resources to make sure you not only love the house but also the area in which it's located.
Salter, who has actually long been in the remote buying game due to her town's proximity to a military base, has this down to a science. "We drive around the neighborhood with the camera on," Salter said. "I not only do a video of the front of the house but I also turn the camera around. I want to give them a view from the front porch. I also have absolutely driven from the front of a neighborhood to the house with the camera recording so that they know exactly what the neighborhood looks like."
Pay attention to how close your neighbors are and, if this is important to you, ask your agent to scope out the situation. Is your nextdoor neighbor's window looking into your bedroom? Will you have privacy in your outdoor space? These are good things to keep in mind when scoping out the neighborhood.
In addition to your real estate agent assisting you with video, you can also learn more about the neighborhood by looking at Google street view as well as crime reports and school ratings on sites like Neighborhood Scout.
5. Be Prepared to Fly In Before You Close
Although it is possible to close on a house without ever seeing it in person (depending on the state in which you're buying), this generally isn't the best approach.
"I recommend the buyer come see [the house] as soon as possible after contract. I don't want them to spend money on inspections if they don't like the house," said Myers.
Salter, on the other hand, recommends to her clients that they at least walk through the house before the end of the home inspection period so that they can feel confident moving forward with the signing.
If you choose not to walk into the house until you own it, it’s likely you’ll be asked to sign a sight unseen addendum. This is an addition in your contract to essentially ensure the agent or seller isn’t liable for the condition of the home due to the fact that you are buying the house sight unseen.
6. Work With a Mobile Notary if Closing Remotely
Whether you completely trust your real estate agent on the condition of the home or you simply don't have the time to fly or drive in for the closing, you'll need to ensure that you have all of the necessary legal components to seal the virtual deal — and that means working with a mobile or traveling notary who will collect your electronic signature.
"Depending on what state [the buyer lives in], the title company would work through a service, and that service would hire a mobile notary," Myers said. "The notary would show up and meet the buyers wherever they want to meet — at their house, at a coffee shop, wherever. They would get all the paperwork, sign it, and notarize. Then they would either collect the funds or buyers could wire the funds, whichever they felt more comfortable with."
To determine whether a completely virtual closing is possible with your lender, reach out to your agent or your mortgage loan officer. Typically, the services of a mobile notary cost between $75 and $200.
How Local Buyers Can Benefit
Although virtual tours are particularly beneficial to those who live far away from the area in which they are buying, these can also serve local buyers well.
"With the market moving as quickly as it is right now, you can often run into scheduling issues. You can 'buy remotely' with people who are local who just can't get to a house fast enough," Salter said. "Maybe they can't physically get to a house until later in the week, so we can use technology to bring them into the house, view the house, write an offer, and secure that home for them. It doesn't have to be that they're halfway around the world."
If you're looking for a house to buy in your local market and just keep missing out, ask your real estate agent to incorporate virtual tours to make the homebuying process quicker and easier.