Though shopping for a home online has been a growing trend in recent years, mostly due to the advancing technology that has made it possible, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed shopping online from just a cool thing we could do to a necessity for many homebuyers.
In a hot market, people have been quick to buy homes, with nearly two-thirds of homebuyers in 2020 making offers on properties they had never seen in person. Virtual tours became the method of choice for buyers in a, dare we say it, unprecedented market through 2020 and 2021.
Because buying online has become so prevalent, we talked with Laurie Dau, who works with 85% more single-family homes and sells properties 72% quicker than the average Doylestown, Pennsylvania agent, about the truths of shopping online for a home.
Dau says that prior to the pandemic, “we didn’t see it much at all before except for investors. They pretty much know the area they want to be in, and it’s something that they do over and over.”
But once the pandemic began “buyers were forced to take more risk in order to get the house that they wanted.”
A big move…during a pandemic
Jody Ellis and her husband were living in Anchorage, Alaska, when they decided to move to Henderson, Nevada, near Las Vegas. Their kids were grown and out of the house, and they were ready for warmer weather.
They started the process in 2019, but when their house didn’t sell, they decided to wait until the spring of 2020. They had no idea what was about to happen.
Once services shut down as a result of the growing pandemic, they considered waiting until the situation had settled down, but “we really wanted to move, so we decided to give it a shot. Surprisingly, our house sold on day one, which threw us into a bit of a panic since we didn’t have anything lined up in Las Vegas.”
Because they needed to move quickly, they didn’t have many options other than shopping for a house online.
“This was April/May of 2020, so a lot of things were shut down, travel was restricted.” They had planned to drive from Alaska to Nevada, but Ellis remembers: “Canada closed their borders! And most sellers were very hesitant to even allow people to tour their homes.”
Enter their real estate agent, who Ellis says “was willing to go the extra mile” and did video walkthroughs of between 8 and 10 properties, with Ellis and her husband along for the ride from their home in Anchorage.
To protect themselves, Ellis and her husband made sure the sale was contingent on a home inspection. Initially, “we found a property we liked, but the inspection revealed a lot of issues, so we backed out. Because we didn’t waive any contingencies at that time, we were able to get our full earnest money back.”
When they found their current home, they didn’t see the property until after closing. They flew to Vegas the day before they were to close and weren’t allowed into the property until after closing, meaning that they had to stay in a hotel with their “very shell-shocked two dogs and two cats.”
After closing on the property the next morning, they got to see the house for the first time in person.
“Initially, we were not very satisfied,” Ellis explains. “When the inspection came back, we had asked for a few repairs, and the seller flat-out refused.”
They had already offered $4,000 over the asking price and still didn’t have the power to negotiate repairs because the seller had multiple offers. Ellis knew that if they didn’t take the house, there were other people willing to scoop it up.
“I now see how the pandemic has really changed the landscape of real estate and know we were lucky to get into our home at the very start of the ensuing chaos — and we didn’t pay even more over asking!”
Now, they love their home, and because of the way the market took off shortly after their purchase, they walked into the house with instant equity — even after paying over asking price.
Ellis’s biggest recommendation is to “find an agent who is knowledgeable about the area and understands the ins and outs of today’s market.” Her agent was available day or night and helped to make what was an already stressful experience more manageable.
A possible investment property
One of my good friends, Brandi Berg, bought a house through Wisconsin Surplus Online Auctions. She found a good deal on the site and, after entering the highest bid, ended up with a 1,200-square foot property on 10 acres, settled on a river; she and her husband wanted to fix it up and use the home as an Airbnb.
They knew that purchasing the house sight-unseen from the auction site meant there would be some issues they would have to address and “were willing to deal with anything, except the squatters.”
When her dad and husband toured the property, the sewer cap was off, there was excrement in two 5-gallon buckets, and they found garbage spread one foot high throughout 6 of the 10 acres — which they could handle.
However, “the fact that there were clearly multiple people living there just made for an uneasy project.” Ultimately, “the unknown of who might show up, who may go in and ruin the work we put in, and what position they could be put in” caused them to back out of the sale.
Typically, if you cancel a sale on Wisconsin Surplus, they would charge the user $200 and freeze their purchase account for six months. But Berg contacted the county that sold the property. After explaining the situation, she says that “the county felt because the property photos had been misleading that it was not our fault,” and they were able to back out of the sale without penalties, the county taking care of the situation on their end.
Even though this particular purchase didn’t work out, Berg says “don’t be discouraged! Sometimes the risk of the unknown may be worth the reward.”
She does recommend buying a property that you can see within the first 72 hours and notes that it’s important to know the penalties of backing out of a sale.
So what did our shoppers learn from their online homebuying experience?
6 truths about shopping online for a home
1. Contingencies are critical
Dau says that the main consideration for buyers is to “put as many contingencies in there as you can and still win the property. That includes your inspection contingency or appraisal contingency. If you can get a walkthrough contingency approved that’s agreed upon by a seller, that’s great!”
Including a walkthrough contingency gives you some extra insurance in case you don’t like the home when you do a final walkthrough or if something was misrepresented. If you’re unable to do the final walkthrough in person, your agent can do it with you via video.
2. You might not love it…but also: You might love it
Ellis wasn’t happy with her house right away, but it ended up being the right place, and today she loves it.
Berg was excited about the deal she got and the prospect of acquiring an investment property, but it ended up not being what she expected.
One of Dau’s agents had a client who moved from California to Pennsylvania and ended up loving their online home purchase more than they thought they would.
The moral of the story? No matter how much legwork you and your agent do, there may be something that comes up once you get into the house: a crack that no one noticed, a creaky floorboard, a broken light fixture. Something that might make you reconsider the process.
Or, you could walk into the house and realize that it’s more perfect than you dreamed it would be.
Even in traditional home purchases, things come up that you didn’t expect. And the same is to be expected when shopping online for a home.
3. There are ways to get out of the purchase
As with Berg’s case, if the property is misrepresented, there are ways for buyers to back out of the purchase. Given the nature of sight unseen purchases, Dau says the seller’s disclosure (these aren’t required in every state; check the laws in yours) is incredibly important.
“We’ve been schooling sellers to put everything on that, make sure [they] don’t leave anything out, really think it through. Because if you do have a sight-unseen buyer and you forget to put something on there, then the seller is at risk of being sued.”
There’s “a burden on both sides for the buyer to learn as much as they can about the house and the seller to make sure they remember everything that’s gone on.”
4. It’s ultimately up to the seller to accept a sight-unseen offer
Throughout the changing market, sellers have become wise to the risks of sight-unseen purchases. Dau has seen situations where a seller wouldn’t accept the offer no matter how much over the list price they were offered because they didn’t want to risk having the buyer walk away.
5. Have your finances in order
Houses have been selling quickly in 2022, so having your finances in order is key to submitting a quick offer on a property.
Dau says, “if you have all your financial ducks in a row, and you’re watching the internet for those houses to pop up — if you already know you’re willing to take the risk of a sight-unseen offer — you could be the first offer in, and the highest offer, and win it right away.”
Have an agent do a market analysis to see how this house is priced. Is it already overpriced, and now you’re going to pay above that?If you have an agent who sells a lot of homes, they’re going to know the answers to those questions.
- Laura Dau
Real Estate Agent
Real Estate Agent at Realty One Group Legacy
Currently accepting new clients
- Years of Experience
- Average Price Point
- Single Family Homes
6. Having a good agent matters…like, it really matters
Dau advises hiring an agent who knows the area, especially if you’re relocating to an area that you aren’t familiar with.
“Have an agent do a market analysis to see how this house is priced. Is it already overpriced, and now you’re going to pay above that?” Have appraisals in the area been coming in low, high, or right at the sales price?
“If you have an agent who sells a lot of homes, they’re going to know the answers to those questions.”
She also recommends having “an agent on the ground, go in there and video it and look around. Pictures can only show you so much, so having an agent go in there to walk through and FaceTime can make you feel a lot more secure.”
A good agent will also review the seller’s property disclosure, if your state uses these, to alert you to anything that might affect your decision.
It’s also important to have a dedicated buyer’s agent rather than going through the listing agent directly. Some states don’t allow dual agency, anyway, but in a purchase this big, it’s important to work with someone who has your best interests (and only yours!) at heart.
The biggest truth about shopping online for a house
It’s a personal decision.
In today’s world, with restrictions easing in many parts of the country, it’s become more likely that you can see a house in person. But in areas where people are still wary of in-person meetings, or if you’re shopping for a home in a different region and are unable to get there in-person — the technology and tools are available, and you may just find yourself buying a house sight-unseen.
Header Image Source: (Igor Savelev / Unsplash)