How To Conduct a Virtual House Hunt

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Real Estate

If you've been thinking about buying a home for a while, you may have marked your calendar back in the winter to start your house hunt right about now. After all, spring typically kicks off the busiest home-buying period of the year. But what a difference a few months make! Now, the coronavirus pandemic probably has you worried about how to safely check out homes without risking infection.

Our new series, "Home Buying in the Age of Coronavirus," aims to help you stay safe if you want to continue your home search, because now may just be the perfect time to buy.

"For buyers that are in typically lower-inventory, high-priced markets, there has never been a more opportune time to take advantage of favorable interest rates and less competition," says Cara Ameer, an agent with Coldwell Banker who is licensed in California and Florida.

So if you are in a position to buy, the third installment of our series explains how to conduct a virtual house hunt and how to protect yourself if you do visit a home in person.

Learn how to read an online listing and find out what it's hiding
"My advice to buyers is to parse listing photos to determine whether something is a good enough candidate to consider a more in-depth tour," says Kate Ziegler, a real estate professional with Arborview Realty in Boston.

An agent will help you get into the nitty-gritty of an online listing. But here are some red flags to look for as you click through pictures that may not always show the true details of a property:

> Are there more photos of the exterior than the interior? The inside might need work.
> Closed curtains and blinds in a photo are usually hiding a bad view.
> If a picture of a bathroom focuses on a sink, it can mean the bathroom is painfully small.
> If photos look stretched out, the seller or agent is trying to make a room appear bigger.
> Some listing terms are red flags as well. A "fixer-upper" can mean a great investment or a money pit, and "cozy" generally means the home is small.

Squeeze the most out of virtual tours
The real estate industry is adapting quickly to the coronavirus outbreak, with many agents adding video tours to their listing photos. (Look for the virtual tour icon on the bottom of the listing page.)

"If you're interested in a property with a video, ask the agent if they have more footage," advises Ryan Serhant of Nest Seekers & Bravo’s "Million Dollar Listing New York."

Sometimes parts of the house are left on the editing room floor to keep the video short and dynamic.

You can also make a FaceTime (audio and visual) call during which your agent walks through a home, sharing footage of the features. You can also direct your agent to show you what you want to see and uncover any blind spots in the original video.

"In order to get the most out of a virtual home tour, buyers should ask their agent to emphasize the little details, like the finishes after a renovation or crown molding on a ceiling," says Nikita Idiri, licensed real estate salesperson at New York's Elegran.

Buyers should also have a floor plan of the space handy to help with determining how big a room is or how high the ceilings are.

Dig into disclosures
If you like a home from the photos and the virtual tour, ask your agent for the seller disclosure. This should outline any known problems with the home's structure, as well as the age of various features and any improvements.

"Sometimes buyers will find out things about the house that help them to decide whether to move forward or rule it out," says Maggie Wells of Keller Williams in Lexington, KY. "For example, the roof and the HVAC system may be at the end of their lives or there could be some sort of structural deficiency."

Take precautions if you visit a home
If you are interested in a property and the seller will allow you to tour it, consult with your agent to ensure that visiting a home is allowed in your city or state. Many shelter-in-place orders prohibit nonessential workers from conducting business. Federal guidelines identify real estate as an essential business, but states have the final word, so the actual regulations vary and can change.

"If my buyer clients request to schedule an in-person showing, I accommodate it as best I can while taking every step to protect them," says Wells.

First, verify with the listing agent that no one in the household is sick. But since you can't know if anyone living in the seller's home has asymptomatic coronavirus, take all necessary precautions to protect yourself and follow CDC guidelines. Ask the seller to leave all closet doors and kitchen cabinets open for you, to minimize the need to touch handles. Here are more tips you can take to protect yourself:

> Don't touch anything in someone else's home.
> Stay 6 feet away from your real estate agent at all times. If the home is small, ask your agent to open the front door for you and wait in the kitchen while you tour the house on your own. You can ask questions via cellphone as you look around.
> Wear protective booties; agents generally provide these even in normal times. Carefully throw them away when you’ve finished touring.
> Wash your hands thoroughly with soap after you leave the home.

Accept that you may not be able to visit a home
Showing protocols are changing quickly, and many companies have started to prohibit in-person home tours altogether for the time being.

"Also, many sellers may not be comfortable showing their homes during this time," says Ameer. That doesn't mean you're at the end of the road, as you can buy a home sight unseen.

Is it risky to buy a home when you can't tour the inside? Yes, but it happened frequently under certain circumstances even before the coronavirus.

"I do absolutely believe that buyers will consider buying 'physically sight unseen' if they have some comfort level with the neighborhood," says Ameer, who recently had a listing go under contract by out-of-state buyers, on the strength of a video she posted. "Especially those buyers that have been in the market for a while or started to seriously search prior to the virus pandemic hitting." That's because after cruising enough open houses, buyers know what ticks their boxes when the right property comes along.

If you live near a home, you can certainly drive up and walk the home's exterior with permission from the listing agent and home seller.

And if you're truly nervous about buying sight unseen, consult a real estate attorney.

"Attorneys are working to draft necessary legal language, including relevant force majeure clauses, into the purchase contracts to protect the buyer," says Teresa Alessandro, licensed real estate salesperson at New York's Elegran. A force majeure clause allows a party to back out of a contract under specified circumstances that cannot be controlled (such as a pandemic).

If you really want to see a home with your own eyes, focus on vacant ones or new construction, since those are usually available to see even if your real estate professional hasn't been deemed an essential worker.

Don't forget to check out the neighborhood
Remember, the surrounding neighborhood is just as important as the house itself. So do a virtual deep dive on Google Earth to see if the home you're interested in is near schools, shopping centers, restaurants, parks, and public transportation. Our interactive neighborhood maps are another great resource.

"You can also do a physical drive-by of the neighborhood without actually entering anything," says Caleb Liu of "You'll want to survey the quality of the roads, and if there are any freeways or power lines nearby."

There are some things you still want to be able to see with your own eyes.