5 critical action steps every first-time homebuyer must know
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By Daniel Bortz
May 26, 2020
Rangely Garcia / Money

When you buy a house, you need to tour it. So that’s what Cat and Bobby Boucher did before making an offer on a three-bedroom townhome in Alexandria, Va., earlier this month. The only difference: The Bouchers never set a foot inside — instead, Cat toured the home through a private video showing with the seller over Facebook.

“The seller was only offering video tours, and seeing the home that way felt a little strange but it made sense considering that a lot of people are staying in their homes because of COVID,” says Cat, 30, who loved the property and its private backyard — a big upgrade from the 875-square foot one-bedroom with no yard where the couple currently lives. “I just want to be outside, especially during quarantine,” she says

The Bouchers offer was accepted and the couple, who were permitted to complete the home inspection in person, are scheduled to close June 12.

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With many people still following shelter-at-home and social distancing guidelines, virtual home tours have quickly replaced in-home showings in some parts of the country. According to a survey earlier this month by the National Association of Realtors, 64% of real estate agents reported they’d seen home sellers stop holding open houses, and 29% said they’d seen sellers disallow in-person tours.

“People have always purchased houses from afar, but in the past your agent would at least be able to go inside a home and show it to you through video chat, and that’s no longer the case in some markets,” says Seth Lejeune, a real estate agent in Royersford, Pa.

Travel restrictions have also prevented some long-distance buyers from being able to tour homes. A case in point: Jonathan and Jade Wilson, who have three children and currently live in Leavenworth, Kan., are hunting for a four- to five-bedroom, single-family house in Northern Virginia, but because Jonathan, 37, is a program manager at the U.S. Air Force, he’s not allowed to travel more than 180 miles under the military’s travel ban.

Still, the Wilsons are actively searching for a home online. “We’re really relying on 3-D tours, which a lot of listings have,” Jonathan says. “They help us understand how a house is laid out, which is something you can’t get from just looking at pictures.” If the Wilsons find the right house, Jonathan says they won’t hesitate to make an offer. “We’ll probably purchase and close on a home before we see it in person,” he says.

You could be in a similar position if you’re looking to purchase a home right now. The good news is there are steps you can take to minimize your risk when buying a home sight unseen.

Take a second look at listings

You’ve heard it before: a picture tells a thousand words. However, “photos can also tell a thousand lies,” warns Lejeune. Professional photographers have plenty of tricks up their sleeve to make rooms look larger, mask bad natural light, and hide flaws. “Photoshop can do wonders,” according to Lejeune.

Your best approach is to pay attention to what you don’t see, advises Peggy Yee, a broker in Vienna, Va. “If there are a ton of photos of the bedrooms but no photos of the bathrooms, there may be an issue there,” she says. Similarly, if there are many photos of a home’s exterior but only a few of the interior, it could be an indication that the house needs work.

Pro tip: “Pull up a property’s listing that last time it was sold and see what the photos were,” suggests Katie Wethman, a Washington, D.C.–based real estate agent. “You may find pictures of rooms or parts of the house that aren’t in the current listing.”

Embrace 3-D tours — with caution

“Almost all of the listings we’ve looked at have had 3-D tours,” says Lauren Donnelly, a 32-year-old human resources manager who is searching for a five-bedroom house with her husband Kevin and their two kids in Johns Creek, Ga.

Jennifer Baxter, the family’s real estate agent, says 3-D tours can be a mixed bag. “They let you explore every nook and cranny of a house,” says Baxter. “The drawback, though, is it’s still hard to see how large a room is, or how scratched the floors might be, or whether there’s a musty smell,” she says. “There are always going to be things you can’t see or experience until you’re physically inside a home.”

That’s why Baxter recommends today’s buyers at least have their agent look at a home in person, if possible, before they make an offer. Many sellers who aren’t allowing prospective buyers inside their house are letting agents view the property on a buyer’s behalf. “Having an expert who has their boots on the ground and who can FaceTime with you while they walk through the house is so important,” she says.

Protect yourself with contingencies

“Making an offer on a house without seeing it in person was risky,” Cat Boucher says, “but we had our contingencies in place.” The Bouchers made their offer contingent on a home inspection, which gave them an out from the deal if a professional inspection uncovered any major problems with the house. (It didn’t.)

The moral: If you’re thinking about putting in an offer on a house without seeing it in person, Lejeune strongly recommends insisting on an inspection, even if it makes your offer slightly less attractive to the seller.

Do extra leg work

“You should try to get as much information as possible about a home, especially if you can’t see the house in person,” Yee says. That entails digging into a seller’s property disclosure statement—a legal document where the seller is required to disclose if they’re aware of any flaws that could negatively affect their home’s value, like a leaky roof or mold infestation. (The caveat: Some states, such as Virginia, have very lenient seller’s disclosures, Wethman says, so how much intel you can glean from a seller’s disclosure statement will depend on where you live.)

If you can’t drive around the neighborhood, Lejeune recommends using Google Street View to tour the area. “You can take a walk down the block and see what the other houses look like without leaving your couch,” he says.

Also, ask the seller for a copy of their home’s floor plan. If they don’t have one and you’re buying a condo, “look at listings of similar units to see if they have a floor plan,” Wethman says, or ask the condo association if they have a copy.

And, don’t be afraid to request additional photos from the seller. “If you want to see a particular part of a house that’s not pictured or shown in a video tour, like a storage room, ask the seller to take a photograph of it and send it to you,” Lejeune says. “It’s OK to be skeptical.”

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