Buying a House Sight Unseen
There are a few really big moments in our lives. Graduating from college. Getting married. Having a kid. Buying a house. They're stressful, joyous, and very involved occasions . . . that you tend to be there for in person (especially if you're the one birthing the kid, amiright?).
Well . . . we're currently in the process of buying a house. Without ever having seen it.
Yes, we are insane. We're aware. But we're in the middle of a pandemic and no matter how many games of rock, paper, scissors we play, neither myself nor Daniel feels like spending 18 hours of travel one-way to get up to Fairbanks for a home showing. SO. We took the plunge on realistically the most expensive purchase anyone will ever make . . . without seeing it for ourselves. I guess we learned nothing from watching Catfish.
We're still in the process of actually buying the home (we are officially under contract, though), which is made blissfully easy in this digital age. But . . . would you bite off on buying a house sight unseen?
If you're as crazy as we are and want to plan a cross-country or global move without first visiting your new casa, here are a few tips and tricks we've learned along the way.
GOOGLE MAPS THAT SH*T
Not sure if this is for a "buying a home sight unseen" guide or a "how to be really creepy" guide, but either way -- this was one of my go-tos when we were looking for our new home. I'm not talking about just plugging in an address and saying "oh, there it is!". No. I'm talking about getting in there. Street view style in there. I'd find the property and then zoom in until I couldn't zoom any more, then take it to the street.
Aside from the fun of feeling like a sleuth, doing this level of mapping is helpful for a variety of reasons. First, it lets you see what the neighborhood is like down to the nitty gritty of whether or not people take care of their lawns (not that we gave a tiny rat's ass about that when we were looking in Alaska, but hey -- to each their own). Second, it gives you a lay of the land. For example, that street that didn't look that big on the real estate website . . . is actually a four-lane highway that's right outside your door. Good to know before you sign on the dotted line. And third, if you're looking for a spot with a bit of land and room to roam, it shows you in as close to real-life as possible just how far away you'll be from your neighbors. I super sketchily did the street view walking feature for longer than I'd like to admit taking a tour around our prospective neighborhoods . . . if you can call giant plots of land in Interior Alaska a neighborhood.
CHECK MULTIPLE LISTING SITES
Not all real estate websites are created equally. It's true that they pretty much all pull from MLS (Multiple Listing Service), but the information is presented differently, you get varying levels of detail, and some update with new listings more frequently and faster than others.
Our two main home search websites and apps were Realtor and Zillow.
I use Realtor and its app the most because I like the interface. It's simple to apply and change filters, new listings are easy to spot, and it loads and processes very quickly. Saving and reviewing your saved homes is a snap, as is reaching out to listing agents who can assist you with taking the next step once you find a home you think you'll like. Realtor also gives you the options to overlay crime maps, noise levels, various points of interest like shopping, a satellite view, and even a 3D view. All together, it's an easy tool that has helped us find two of the last three homes we have purchased (including this one in Alaska).
Another favorite is Zillow. I don't use it as much as Realtor, but I really can't say why. Maybe I just like Realtor's branding. While you'll get the same nuts and bolts as you do with Realtor, such as filtering, saving, satellite view, etc., what I've found is that Zillow actually posts new listings one to two days sooner than Realtor. This became most apparent when we listed our two Virginia Beach homes (one rental property, one that we live in) and kept checking all of the listing sites to see when they had finally gone up. Low and behold, Zillow showed them a full 48 hours prior to when Realtor did. So if you live in an area where properties tend to fly off the shelves faster than toilet paper during a pandemic, then stick with Zillow to give yourself an edge.
DO A VIRTUAL WALKTHROUGH
We were lucky enough to have found a place that was just down the road from some friends of ours, so when we asked to do a viewing of the home, they filled in for us and did the walk through themselves. We FaceTimed (score that AT&T had service at the house, which was definitely not a guaranteed thing) throughout the tour and our friends were able to give us a lay of the land in addition to their valuable two cents on whether or not our little family unit would be happy there.
For those who aren't lucky enough to have cohorts living in the area, you can always rely on the agent you're working with to do a virtual tour with you. And if your agent is too . . . shall we say, mature . . . to know how to FaceTime, well . . . there are plenty of agents in the sea. Unless you've already signed a contract with them. In that case, maybe their grandkid can help them with the FaceTime session.
Don't skimp on this part of buying a house sight unseen. You might not be able to physically walk around it yourself, but there is no number of pictures that can replace being able to actually take a "stroll" through a property. Homes that offer 3D virtual tours are helpful and fun, but we would still recommend doing a live remote walkthrough so that you can look around more thoroughly and ask questions of someone who is physically there in the space.
VIRTUAL CRIME MAPS
This wasn't as crucial for us (unless we wanted to check on the latest bear car-burgling), but if you're moving to a more populated area, there are numerous websites that offer scarily in-depth neighborhood crime maps. A word to the wise -- when you get on one of these sites, the first thing you're going to do is put in the address where you're living at the moment. What harm can it do, right? Mhmmm. We tried this when we were living in a city, and let's just say going for solo jogs never quite felt the same.
Either way, it's crucial to see the type of area you'll be living in, and you just can't get this kind of information from a satellite view map. Most crime maps will be able to show you a myriad of types of offenses, let you narrow or expand timeframes, and some will even give you information on offenders including how long ago the crime was committed. Just brace yourself before going on one of these pages -- you can find some pretty startling stuff.
CHECK LOCAL CONVENIENCES
Again, this wasn't crucial for our situation. After all, not like anyone expects local conveniences in Alaska unless you consider being able to fell trees in your front yard for your own firewood a convenience. But hey, maybe you're moving to a bustling metropolis and want to know how many steps out your front door you have to take before getting your morning dose of no-foam-half-skim-sugar-free-vanilla-breakfast-blend goodness. In that case, check out some sites that offer walk scores and ratings based on how easy it is to navigate the area either on foot, by car, or via public transportation.
PRO TIP: You can also scope out where services like DoorDash and Uber Eats deliver to before you pick a place to live, if that's your style
Buying a house sight unseen isn't for everyone, but according to recent polls, about 20% of people say they have put an offer on a house without ever having laid eyes on it. So rest assured that you're not totally insane for wanting to buy your new home without having crossed the threshold yourself. Just follow these tips, do your virtual stalking due diligence, and get ready to type on the dotted line.