By Michele Allen
At the height of the 2004 housing market frenzy, I went on a blind date with a house we had purchased sight unseen. PCSing to Washington, D.C. from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, that summer, our housing search, in that wild market, was like speed dating, where everyone already came in with an engagement ring. Every time our realtor or our internet searches presented us with a good option, the owner’s would glibly relay that they “already had two or three contract offers just that day!”
I was stalking Militarybyowner.com and my realtor’s links at 5 a.m. each day, waiting for one house to be posted before the vultures swept in.
Prices were skyrocketing! In the neighborhood we sought, a home went for $30,000 over its asking price, in a one-day bidding war!
We knew the neighborhood we wanted and the price we could afford, but nothing stayed on the market for longer than four hours that wasn’t backed up to the busy cross-town street or had been inhabited for the last year by six families.
My local friend haunted the neighborhood streets, looking for the stray “For Sale” sign that didn’t have “Under Contract” slapped across it. Her pursuit paid off as she watched a man walk out of his home and actually plant the FSBO sign in the yard. Like a safety pursuing a wide receiver, she ran him down and asked him if she could take pictures and send them to me before he posted it online.
And with that, I was set up on my house blind date.
After 48 hours of pictures flying across the waves of the internet and a scrambled inspection by my Dad, who was just a few hours away, we purchased the home.
We literally put a contract on a house we never stepped into and closed on it 40 days later. As I pulled up in front of my house on that July afternoon, I wondered “Did we do the right thing?” It was 2004, and we had no choice, right? For us, this blind date resulted in a lovely and happy marriage. We loved the house, location, and the neighbors that came with it.
Seven years later we still live in it.
Although the bottom dropped out of the market, and everyone around us is sitting in a house that they paid a lot more for, our home was the perfect fit for our family. Sure, I wish the kitchen was bigger and the basement had a larger room for the growing teens that flood that tiny space, but the fun that has been had in this house may not have happened if it wasn’t for that blind date.
It’s no longer 2004. Should you buy a house sight unseen? Of course the market no longer spins off multiple contract homes or escalating prices, but sometimes, military families are forced to purchase a home this way because of their circumstances, a PCS from an international assignment, or a narrow focus that has you pursuing a specific street or neighborhood.
If you find yourself considering a move site-unseen, here are some things to consider:
1. The Risk.
The inherent risks in these types of buys are obviously far greater than there are in the purchase of a home to which you’ve given intense personal scrutiny. Sight-unseen, you are relying almost exclusively on the honesty and forthrightness of your agent, the marketing literature, some digital photos, and (or) a virtual tour and, possibly, satellite images.
2. Use an independent agent.
In this sort of deal, don’t use a seller’s agent, because that agent, by nature, has the seller’s best interests in mind, not yours.
3. Be clear about what you want.
Be very clear with the agent about what type of house and amenities you’re shopping for, and request information on schools, parks, crime statistics, taxes, utility costs, shopping, mass transit, and anything else that will tangibly affect your quality of living. Always do a search for any sex offenders who might be living in the immediate area.
4. Hire a home inspector.
Make room in your tight budget to hire a home inspector to give the place a thorough going-over. You can’t afford not to. You should also insist on a contingency in the sales contract that allows you to do a final—or in your case, first—walk-through in the empty house before you agree to sign those closing papers. A home inspection can be a valuable procedure when buying a home. If you would like more information on hiring a good home inspector, take a look at our tips on Hiring a Home Inspector. If you’re purchasing a foreclosure or short sale, the contract will likely be as-is with the right to inspect. There may be time to arrange a visit between contract execution and the date of the inspection.
5. Get a personal overview.
There are some things about home-buying that you can only observe firsthand, such as neighborhood culture, noise levels, the condition of nearby houses, traffic on your street, funky/suspicious smells in and around the house, or the presence of busy roads or highways nearby. Do you have a local friend, who can give it a personal overview?
6. Verify the value.
Verify the value of the property and make sure it’s a great deal, a prime location, or a popular floor plan so the risk has reward and the property will be easily marketable in the future.
If your stomach is turning just reading about purchasing real estate sight unseen, it’s probably not for you. If it is something you would consider, remember that, even if you’re buying sight unseen, it doesn’t have to be a blind purchase. There are systems and procedures that can help ensure that you get that great deal and that you’re buying sound real estate.