The first time Chad Lail set foot inside his new home was after he bought it.
Lail, a professional WWE wrestler known as Jaxson Ryker, wanted to move with his wife and daughter from Orlando to be closer to family in Mooresville, North Carolina. But because of his production schedule, and the Covid-19 pandemic, he and his wife handled the entire purchase – from finding an agent to making an offer to signing a contract – virtually.
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“It was crazy,” he said. “But we had a couple FaceTime calls, we did the home inspection and loved it. With the coronavirus going on, it was easier for everyone.”
Buyers are growing increasingly comfortable purchasing a home sight-unseen, with 36% saying they’d buy a home entirely online, while 43% would sell a home that way, according to a Zillow survey taken in mid-May. With the pandemic limiting travel and home viewing options, and more people contemplating moves because they can work remotely now, the practice is likely to become more common, according to Zillow.
A growing number of online listings are now designed to give shoppers a more holistic experience. Between February and early April, virtual tours created on Zillow climbed by nearly 600%. Listings with a 3D tour also garnered more interest, drawing 66% more visitors and 90% more saves in April than those without.
The advantages of a virtual tour
While buying a home sight-unseen is something international buyers often do, it isn’t a common practice among typical buyers.
When stay-at-home orders kept Jeff and Janet Ralli from looking at a home in the neighborhood they had their eye on in Ocean County, New Jersey, they forged ahead online.
Their agent, Nancy Phander, sent along a virutal 3D tour and a video tour and they put in an offer based on what they saw.
“I don’t see an upside of doing it in person the old way,” said Jeff Ralli.
He appreciated that unlike a quick in-person tour of a home followed by an evening of “Oh! I should have looked at that!” regrets, the home was available for him to look at online whenever a question arose.
“When you’re doing a home tour with a realtor you kind of rush through it, you don’t want to waste their time and you miss a lot of things,” he said. “With the virtual tour, I looked at it over and over again. It is almost like doing a home inspection.”
He checked out the hot water heater and zoomed in to see the date the furnace was installed. He spent time looking out the windows to see the view from each room. He noticed the cabinet hardware and saw there was a chip in the molding.
“It was so much easier and better,” he said. “I’ve never had a truer sense of what I’m buying before I made a bid.”
Buying a first home without kicking the tires
Amanda Stone and her fiancé, Scott Maraldo, were already in a hurry to buy their first home before their lease was up on their rental. Then Covid-19 made it even harder.
A home in Howell, New Jersey, caught Stone’s eye online and she went to see it in March, just as the severity of the outbreak was setting in. Maraldo was still doing his National Guard training in Georgia, so she FaceTimed him as she toured it.
“I had a pretty good idea of what she was talking about,” he said. “Was it the same as being in the house? No, it absolutely was not. But it wasn’t a hard decision.”
They had looked long enough to know it ticked all their boxes: at least three bedrooms, a pool, a space for a home office. They put in an offer and Maraldo headed into a week of no communication due to his training. When he came out, Stone told him they were in contract.
But Maraldo’s first chance to see the house once he returned to New Jersey, during the home inspection, was thwarted. The day before, the governor issued a stay-at-home order and they were not able to go.
“On top of not being there for the inspection,” she said, “we’re buying this house, a huge expense, and he doesn’t even know what it looks like.”
The first time he walked into the house was the day before closing.
“It isn’t how we expected to move into our first home” she said.
Nothing about buying sight-unseen bothered Maraldo, though. He just missed not being able to have friends and family over immediately after they moved in.
What to look for when you’re not there
Knowing the red flags of homebuying can be hard, even when visiting a home in person. But the concerns can be compounded when you’re doing everything online.
To make sure you don’t miss anything, have an agent or friend tour the home in person with you via video chat to show you every nook and cranny, said Beatrice de Jong, a real estate agent who works with Opendoor, a real estate company that buys homes directly. They can alert you to a smell, what the natural light is like or how strong the water pressure is, she said.
“It’s more difficult to see details like cracked, scratched or damaged floors over video than it is in person,” said de Jong. Also ask about uneven or sloping floors, which could be a sign of foundation problems.
You’ll want to see that the light switches and outlets work, she said, to check for electrical issues.
“It’s challenging to get a feel for the neighborhood without being there,” de Jong said, “but location is the most important thing to look for since it will have the biggest impact on the value and is something you cannot change about a house.”
Take note of when the roof was last replaced and updates to other systems in the home, but don’t feel like you have to be the expert, she said.
“You will have the home professionally inspected before closing to make sure there are no surprises,” she said.