Just a few months ago, a storyline about shopping for and buying a house without ever actually seeing it would be unbelievable. The tale of a terrible pandemic that disrupts nearly every aspect of everyday life and forces people to buy homes remotely would seem more like a strange dream or a work of dark, dystopian real-estate fiction.
But here we are! And collectively, we’ve found ways to keep moving forward, as we must, from Old Normal to New Normal.
As we grow accustomed to our new reality (guided by the CDC and WHO), you might be surprised to learn that buying a house online is a process that was well established in the Old Normal. Buying a house remotely (with zero regrets) is a fairly simple process, so don’t let the fear of the unknown dampen your excitement!
Whether you’re just beginning to browse or you’re close to closing, this remote buying process is easier than you may think. This guide will walk you through the whole routine.
Finding Mr. or Mrs. Right Agent
Finding the right agent is always the first step when you’re house-hunting, but it’s especially critical to find Mr. or Mrs. Right when you’re trusting them to be your eyes and ears for a remote purchase.
We’ve called upon two expert agents to help guide you through the whole process. Jason Moon and Charles Ryan are both superstars in their areas (Northwest Indiana and Detroit, respectively), and they were delighted to offer sage wisdom on both shopping for a home online and what to expect in the purchasing process.
Ryan and Moon agree: buying and selling homes remotely is not uncharted territory. In fact, Ryan’s 18 years of experience include helping remote buyers during the resurgence of the Detroit real estate market in the late 2010s (when out-of-state investors were buying homes left and right, sight unseen). Of our current lock-down situation, he says:
”This is one of the strangest markets ever. But though this market is strange, it’s not totally unfamiliar.”
This kind of confidence and awareness of market trends are two competencies to look for when interviewing agents, and there are many, many more. Ryan and Moon also see eye-to-eye on two key aspects for identifying the right agent to help you buy a house remotely, and both have to do with familiarity.
1. Find an agent who knows the area
When you choose an agent, make sure they are deeply familiar with the city and community. You want someone who knows more than just the average price per square foot and the name of the mayor. Find someone who knows what it’s like to live there — someone who knows what it’s like to call that place home.
2. Find an agent who has experience with remote purchases
It (almost) goes without saying that it’s best to work with someone who knows this process forward and backward. The best way to assure a smooth ride is to find someone who knows the road.
Beyond familiarity with the process, Moon says a good agent has the heart of a teacher. Many buyers are not comfortable with the technology upon which remote buying of homes relies, but as long as the buyer is receptive to learning, he’s delighted to teach.
“If someone doesn’t understand or know something, I am willing to help them.”
The icing on the cake working with an agent is that they will give you access to the MLS, which is, hands down, the most trustworthy source on the housing market data available online. This will be tremendously helpful when you get serious about the next step: house-hunting online.
Start your search online
Shopping for a house online is definitely part of the Old Normal that we’re all used to, but if you’re a serious shopper (unlike those of us who occasionally like to pretend we have zero practical concerns and unlimited millions to spend on our dream house), you’ll focus your attention and proceed methodically.
Keep in mind that looks can be deceiving, so don’t get too caught up with a home that looks perfect in the listing photos. While the layout and location may be exactly what you want, it’s fit and finish that really make one property outshine another, and those qualities can only be truly appreciated in person. So before you e-sign on the dotted line, arrange a virtual tour with your trusted agent.
In a virtual tour, your agent will walk through the house (vacated by sellers) with you on a video chat. You can ask your agent to open doors and turn on lights, look inside closets, and get close-ups of any details in the house that you care to see. It’s not quite the same as being there in person, so ask your agent to also deliver feedback on the sounds, odors, and temperature in the home. This experience offers an impression that is far better than the listing description or photos or virtual tours provided by the seller’s agent.
Make the offer
Up to this point in your remote homebuying journey, your agent has been your best buddy. A patient, endlessly helpful, and knowledgeable confidant who can reassure you in times of doubt and virtual high-five you in times of joy.
But now, it’s time for your agent to be your business partner. It’s time to get all your paperwork in order and hand over the reins to your real estate expert.
These negotiations happen between your agent and the seller’s agent and don’t require anything that can’t be done by phone or email, so the coronavirus can’t put the breaks on this part of the deal.
Remember superstar agent Charles Ryan? Among the countless reasons to find a good agent, Ryan, your shrewd business partner, points out that having an agent who knows the seller’s motivation (information you’ll never find online) can make or break a deal.
So sit back, pretend to relax, and let your agent work their magic.
But there is simply no way to do a remote inspection, so if you are buying a house in a state where real estate is considered a nonessential service, there’s just no way around it. You’re going to have to wait.
On the bright side, those rules apply to everyone equally so you don’t have to worry about your dream home being bought by someone else.
It might be hard to believe, but an appraisal can be done without anyone stepping foot in the home. There are many things that go into determining a home’s worth, but the constellation of external factors that determine a home’s current value can be combined with information collected by “drive-by” and “desktop” appraisals to calculate an accurate figure. This may seem like it’s part of the New Normal, but it’s actually pretty well-established.
A title review is essentially an examination of property boundaries and ownership history. It’s a fine-toothed legal comb, looking for any missed crosses on T’s or I’s without dots. It’s almost always done online, so the current pandemic restrictions do not have a big effect on this part of the process. Hooray!
Here’s yet another example of why finding the right agent is super-critical. Your agent will conduct the final walkthrough for you, also over video conference, so you can make sure that any repairs requested after the inspection were made to your satisfaction, and be certain the home is in the condition you want it in.
If you’re feeling shaky about buying a house remotely and want a little more assurance, talk to your agent about how to add a final walkthrough contingency to your contract. With a contingency in place, you can escape at the 11th hour if something has gone terribly wrong.
The details of this last step will vary state-to-state. Since the E-Sign Act of 2000, e-signatures have been recognized as legally binding, but closing on a home requires more than just an authorized signature, it requires a notarized signature.
Here’s where it gets tricky: some states allow remote online notarization (RON), and some do not.
If your state does not allow RONs, don’t fret. Closing is a fairly simple, in-and-out sort of process that can be completed with high regard to hygiene and social distancing. You may be able to go to a branch office of the title company if one is available (depending on your state’s restrictions). If someone in your household is immunocompromised, you might even be able to set up a sort of “drive-through” experience where you don’t have to leave your car, or the documents could be handed through the window of your home.
For states that do allow RONs, be sure you’re in close communication with your agent and the title company — make sure you know when the documents need to be received, and how they will be sent.
Instructions on how and where to wire your down payment should be made clear to you by your superstar agent, but if something doesn’t make sense to you, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. This may be your first remote home purchase, but it’s certainly not theirs.
Next chapter, new house
We’re all looking forward to a brighter future, and for many of us, that future looks a lot like the not-so-distant past. Hopefully, this guide has boosted your confidence and shown you that there is a clear, easy, and well-worn path to buying a house remotely.
Information is provided exclusively for consumers’ personal use and may not be used for any purpose other than to identify prospective properties consumers may be interested in purchasing. Data is deemed reliable, but is not guaranteed accurate by the MLS.