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Buying “Site Unseen”

Written by Posted On Tuesday, 23 February 2021 00:00

You can buy almost anything online sight unseen, but should you buy a home without stepping inside—site unseen?

The motivation for buying a property when you have not toured the interior can come from many sources, none of which make this the right or wrong thing to do:

Jumping into a hot sellers’ market: In a very competitive market, buyers may feel that because of the scarcity of listings, they may miss out on their dream home if they take time to tour a property before making an offer.
Too far to get to: Especially with Covid travel restrictions, a property may be too far away to practically visit first-hand before making an offer.
Technology shows it all: Increasingly, homebuyers are willing to “go in blind.” This is partly because technology has improved the remote-viewing process enough to make buyers confident—correctly or not—that they know exactly what they’ll get.
Individual circumstances: Buyers can have their own unique reasons for buying site unseen, that may or may not seem sensible to others.

The following list represents reasons why certain buyers usually decide NOT to view a property before buying:

The move is a far-away, career-driven “must” and all costs, including interior re-design, will be absorbed by the employer, so there is little or nothing to lose.
The house is a complete gut-job or tear-down, or still in the planning stage. Consequently, the buyer believes the value is entirely in the land. A subset of this is investors wanting to avoid or ignore the “warm fuzzy feelings” (amplified by clever staging) that home ambiance can cultivate. This is a common investor mind-set where attention and intent are firmly fixed on the bottom line.
Viewing may pose Covid-contamination hazards that are more significant than interior design issues.

If you believe that purchasing a property “site unseen” is a smart financial and lifestyle choice, keep in mind that not viewing the property is not a way to back out of the contract later. 

Real estate transactions provide ample opportunity for buyers to educate themselves regarding the unique value and challenges of a property; however, buyers are under no legal obligation to exercise these opportunities. The resulting agreement will be binding either way.

The “site unseen” approach may not save you time or stress.

You’ll still need and want to practice due diligence, which means, do your homework to be sure you are getting what you’re paying for.

Smart Moves: With the help of your real estate lawyer, real estate professional, home inspector, and possibly a contractor or designer, investigate property details to protect yourself and understand exactly what you’re getting into financially, legally, and with respect to responsibilities like mortgage repayment.

Five Unseen Factors to Clarify Before Signing

1. Location and Neighborhood

The property—the land—cannot be physically moved to a new location away from noise, pollution, smells, unsightly properties, and anything else you would not want your new property to abut or be near. Local culture and community can hold terrific value if there’s a match with your lifestyle choices, but these local aspects can disrupt peace of mind when there’s not a fit. Don’t settle for less when it comes to what you can’t change.

Smart Moves: Explore the entire neighborhood, not just the property for sale. Look beyond school ratings to understand neighborhood pace and rhythms. You are buying into an area and a population, so learn as much as you can about what’s around the property, what’s not, and who will share the neighborhood with you.

2. Leverage Professional Expertise

What is essential to your needs and what can you live with? Decide on these criteria and share them with the experts that matter. Your real estate professional, the home inspector you select, and the mortgage appraiser are three of a number of highly-observant professionals who will and should inspect the property with your needs in mind, whether you show up or not.

Smart Moves: Uncertainty and vagueness about what you want and need undermine your success. The more you rely on professional expertise, the more important it is for you to select and hire the best and equip them with detailed criteria. Don’t settle for “some guy,” but a highly-recommended inspector with skills relevant to your needs, who will see signs of problems just out of sight. For example, if you plan extensive renovations, a structural engineer may be useful.

3. Potential and Possibilities

Much-prized spaciousness, which can include ceiling height, and involves an appreciation of “openness” and “airiness,” tends to be a personal experience. Providing minimum dimensions or describing room use by the number of people to accommodate may help others to evaluate spaciousness for you.

Keep in mind that the more complex the space, the more challenging it can be for others to interpret its suitability for you. For instance, a high-rise one-bedroom unit can be virtually viewed more accurately than a multi-storey, multi-room house.

Smart Moves: Ironically, research has shown that one of the most common after-move-in disappointments for home buyers who viewed before buying is that the new property is “too small.” Viewing a property virtually or when you don’t know how to fully evaluate or appreciate what it has to offer, may cause you to overlook, underestimate, or overestimate aspects or to be distracted by visual clutter or a yummy decor.  

4. Technology Back Up

Facetime, virtual listing tours, and emerging technology aim to provide feels-like-you’re-there impressions of a property. Virtual viewing is not equivalent to seeing the space yourself even if the camera person knows their stuff and sincerely wants to relay the reality of the space. Video tricks like over-lighting dark rooms or using clever angles to mask the full truth of a room can create misleading impressions, but that’s why your real estate professional is standing in to view for you.

Smart Moves: Technology is expanding toward reality at such a pace that it may not be too long before even damp-smelling basements will be accurately captured. For now, asking a lot of questions about what you see and don’t will help reduce deception and disappointment.

5. Be More Sure Than Unsure

Ramped-up Covid-driven patterns in online shopping and virtual real estate showings, make shopping online, i.e. sight-unseen purchasing, seem more reassuring and realistic, but there is no “guaranteed return” when buying real estate. When you’re unsure, ask more questions.

Smart Moves: Decide to maximize the expertise and resources available to you while doing your due diligence. Explore your risk-taking tolerance and to what extent you can live with things that don’t turn out well.

There’ll be good, bad, and indifferent elements in “site unseen” purchases, but that’s true of buying real estate, in general.     

The more you intend to change about the property, the more acceptable not viewing the property first may be. 

Not advisable or desirable, but acceptable if your Smart Moves are effective substitutes for being there.

TIP: The “site unseen” Smart Moves above can also be effectively applied to “sight seen” home buying.

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PJ Wade —       Decisions & Communities

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