How to Buy a House Without Seeing It First—and Without Getting Burned

Julie Bensman
·6 min read

How to Buy a House Without Seeing It First—and Without Getting Burned

All about the risky, ludicrous, and totally necessary real estate trend.

Nobody recommends buying an apartment sight unseen. But they also don't recommend repurposing a high school bra as a face mask or using one-ply tissue as toilet paper, both of which I'm guilty of doing during the global pandemic now passing its first anniversary. So when my partner and I decided to leave our Los Angeles home and move to New York City to be closer to family, we weren't quite sure where to start.

Neither of us was comfortable getting on an airplane to start the house hunt, let alone tour properties indoors with real estate agents we'd never met. So we started with some weekend browsing on Zillow. Then, we were emailing agents. A few weeks later, yada yada yada, we just closed on a West Village apartment WE'VE NEVER SEEN. If you're in the market to do the same, or even just supplement your IRL search with some virtual help, it's important to understand how real estate shopping trends have changed (hint: drastically).

Why the Surge?

To explain why the pandemic flushed the housing market with buyers, experts point to remote work, generational trends, and near record-low interest rates that could save first-time buyers thousands of dollars over the course of a 15- or 30-year mortgage. "The pandemic has reshaped how and where we want to live," says Zillow home trends expert Amanda Pendleton. "When your home no longer needs to be tied to your workplace, you can make housing decisions that support your lifestyle and not just your job."

As we hunkered down during the early days of the pandemic, it was only natural to reexamine how our homes served the new needs of life, work, childcare, and outdoor play. "All of a sudden, having a big backyard wasn't a burden," says Pendleton. "It was a must-have feature."

So where is everyone moving? Pendleton says Zillow saw rising interest in vacation destinations like Key West, the Jersey Shore, and Cape Cod. Small cities were also trending, with places like Borger, Texas, Pierre, S.D., and Vernal, Utah showing the greatest year-over-year growth in out-of-town search traffic.

That being said, 2021 is already showing a different kind of trend. As the vaccine becomes more widely available and local economies reopen, experts predict demand for city living to surge. "The housing market in L.A. is strong," says Mary Fitzgerald, realtor and star of Netflix's Selling Sunset. "Most homes under 3 million are going into multiple offers and over the asking price. I think the market will remain strong as long as interest rates stay low."

Window Shopping on the Web

Even with access to an online floor plan, it can be difficult to accurately gauge a space you've never seen. Don't be afraid to ask an agent for more photos than you see in a listing, especially pulled-back shots that show both the floor and ceiling (many times, listings will use only close-up photos that purposely don't show context). Another tip? If photos show rooms with the blinds down and closed, ask an agent for more options with windows open during multiple times of the day. This will help you get a sense of views and for how much natural light windows let in.

"Great photography is one of the most important things agents should focus on when listing a home," says Fitzgerald. "This is what gets buyers interested, and gets them in the door for showings. Drone photography is important for certain types of homes to showcase the property in ways that traditional still photography can't capture. Professional video tours are also valuable when listing luxury estates."

Virtual Tour Dos and Don'ts

Think about the traditional IRL home shopping experience: You used to have to load the kids into the minivan and spend countless weekends going from open house to open house. "Not anymore," says Pendelton. "You can take advantage of free virtual 3D tours paired with interactive floor plans to give you an immersive experience without leaving your couch."

An experienced agent will also offer serious home buyers a virtual tour via video call. In this scenario, smart shoppers can tap the knowledge of an agent who has potentially seen hundreds of similar homes. "The biggest mistake a home shopper can make during a video tour is forgetting about all the externalities you can only experience while touring a home in person—the sounds, the smells, the light," says Pendleton.

Some questions to consider:

  • Noise. Can you hear street traffic or barking dogs outside? Is it a quiet neighborhood or are there lots of children playing outside?

  • Smells. Can you smell food from a neighbor or nearby restaurant? Is there an odor of must or wet wood anywhere?

  • Light. Is there afternoon shade over the yard? Does the home have plenty of natural light?

  • Details. Can you test the water pressure in the shower? Open the cabinets? Show all the storage?

After You Pull the Trigger

Once the deal is done, the next step is getting ready to move in. "Buy things slow," says Jaclyn Christensen, CEO of Jaclyn Christensen Design. "If you can wait until you move in to buy furniture, wait. Don't feel rushed or pressured to fill a space. I've seen people do that only to be disappointed later that they don't use a particular room the way they thought they would."

That being said, no one wants to show up to a stark white box after a cross-country journey. Christensen recommends hiring someone on the ground (a designer, a project manager, even a friend) to help discuss details, take pictures, and answer questions. This person can also help you avoid unexpected surprises. While most buyers do their due-diligence by hiring a reputable home inspector (and you should, too), they won't tell you if your home is near a busy road or if your view is blocked by power lines. Your agent should give feedback on these types of things, but in the off chance they don't, a good friend can be your eyes and ears.

As for the little things that make a house instantly feel like a home? "Plants!" says Christensen. "Real plants make a huge impact on any space and automatically create a cozy, personal feel." In this upcoming year of unknowns, making your home a sanctuary is more important than ever. Find your perfect space and get ready to (keep on) nesting.

A new Zillow survey found that people are more likely to buy and/or sell their home entirely online:

  • During the pandemic, 36 percent of Americans would be more likely to try to buy a home entirely online, and 43 percent would be more likely to try to sell a home entirely online.

  • When the pandemic ends, 30 percent of people say they would still be more likely to try to buy a home entirely online, and 33 percent would be more likely to sell a home entirely online.

  • One out of three people say they would prefer a virtual or video home tour instead of touring a home in person (even after the pandemic ends).