I Bought My House 'Sight Unseen,' and Here's What Happened
February 4, 2019
The first time I set foot in my new home was a few weeks after I bought it. Yep, I'm one of those weird people who made the biggest purchase of their lives "sight unseen."
I still remember the moment of reckoning: It was August 2016. My family—husband, two young kids, angry cat in a bag—had just gotten off the plane from New York to Austin, and we were blinking dazedly into the furnace-like heat of Texas. We drove our rental car to our new address, then stood, nervous, in front of the three-bedroom, 2.5-bath, two-story house with the green trim we'd purchased for $519,000.
"This is it," I said, and turned the key in the lock, praying we hadn't made a very expensive mistake.
The door opened. We walked inside to find ... exactly what we'd expected. Our new home was cavernous compared with our Brooklyn apartment. In fact, everything looked even better than in the few photos and video footage we'd seen. Inspecting the gray wood-style tile in the kitchen I hadn't been sure I'd like, I looked over and caught my husband's eye. He was smiling approvingly at the white-painted-wood paneling in the dining room. Incredibly, this was one huge gamble that had paid off.
And we're hardly the only ones taking this risk: According to a survey of 2,134 Americans by BusinessWire, 1 in 5 home buyers makes an offer without physically visiting the property. This is what happens when you're in a tighter-than-tight real estate market.
All in all, I'm glad I ignored my many naysayers and took the leap. If you, too, are considering buying a house sight unseen, here are a few pointers based on my experience.
Shop around online, a lot
Originally, we had planned to sell our apartment in Brooklyn, then move to a short-term rental in Austin while we shopped around for a dream house that fit all of our criteria.
But two months before our planned move date, the perfect house popped up: It had just the right layout, in just the right neighborhood, at just the right price. I'd been scanning listings for months, and had seen nothing even close. It even had my dream of an en suite master bathroom. We waffled for a few days, then decided to at least look into it.
Find a real estate agent you trust
If I didn't have total trust in my real estate agent and her ability to evaluate the home, this would have been impossible—thank you, Dillar Schwartz.
I got hooked up with Schwartz through our agent in Brooklyn, who had briefly considered a move to Texas herself. When she said the price on this home was right, I had no doubt she knew what she was talking about. Plus, she knew the seller's agent, and so could reassure him that we were serious buyers.
For finding the best, most trustworthy people in a new area, there's nothing as good as a personal recommendation.
Take a video tour
Make sure to take a virtual tour before making an offer—thanks to technology, you can use FaceTime or Skype with your on-the-ground agent. The tour gave us the opportunity to ask questions in real time about things we couldn't discern from the photos—was that floor laminate or wood? How big was that closet, really? Were there any problem areas the photographer had wisely avoided? How strategically deployed was that fisheye lens in the living room photos? It was our agent's first look at the house, too, so we were able to hear her reactions in the moment.
If possible, have a friend check it out
My friend lived nearby, so she also visited the house to make sure there were no bad vibes, weird smells, or sinister auras that my agent might have missed. She also confirmed that the backyard was as awesome as it had seemed. And having known me for years, she also knew the things that would bother me: popcorn ceiling, sliding glass bathtub/shower door, carpet. When she said it was a winner, I knew we were good.
Find a top-notch home inspector
Without buyers' eyes on a home, the home inspection becomes extra-critical. Schwartz made sure to have experts come out to double-check anything the inspector flagged as strange or questionable.
The house had an unusual AC unit, and good AC is obviously a must-have for Texas. An HVAC pro came and made sure there was nothing amiss. A few places with not-up-to-code external wiring were deemed not dangerous by an electrician, though we were able to get a small concession for it from the sellers. A roofer made sure some missing flashing was not a deal breaker. Knowing the major systems in the house were in good shape made it a lot easier to take the plunge.
Accept that some small things might not be perfect
As it turned out, there were a few things that even my friend didn't catch, and that were below the radar of a home inspector. One bathroom had a wobbly toilet, and a ceiling fan had more aggressively horseshoe-themed detailing than I'd realized. These were small things, but ones that I might have caught if I'd been there in person. Would I have bought the house anyway? Absolutely.
You just have to go into the process knowing there will be surprises—but that's just part of the experience of buying and owning a house. Do your best to rule out the big bad surprises, and be prepared to weather a few smaller ones.
Source: "I Bought My House 'Sight Unseen,' and Here's What Happened" REALTOR.com (May 31, 2017) Audrey Ference