Real-estate agents say more primary homebuyers purchasing already-built properties are willing to go in blind, in part because technology has improved the remote-viewing process.
Zack Fountas bought a new one-bedroom apartment in White Plains, New York, from his home in Chicago, without ever having set foot inside the building.
The 850-square-foot apartment is within walking distance of the train station, and with an asking price of $155,000, it appeared on paper to have almost everything Fountas and his fiancee were looking for, including a dishwasher.
During an open house last summer, his sister-in-law and Joe Muller, an agent with Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty, gave Fountas a tour using FaceTime. Muller showed him around with his iPhone and then emailed a link with listing photos and comparable sales nearby. Fountas, who had not seen any other places in person, bid $142,000, and his offer was accepted.
Six weeks later, it was time to take a tour in person. “I think I was sweating because I was like, ‘Oh, my God, what if he doesn’t like it?’ ” Muller said. “He’d have lost his deposit.”
Fountas, who was moving to New York for a job as a risk manager after earning a business degree, said he wasn’t disappointed: “Having seen it through the phone, it was what we were expecting.”
Most buyers want to see a place in person at least once before committing. A home, after all, is usually an emotional purchase, with intangibles like the feeling it evokes key to a buyer’s attraction. But a growing number of house hunters across the country are making the biggest financial decision of their lives sight unseen.
According to a recent survey by Redfin, a national online real estate brokerage with more than 1,000 agents, 20 percent of buyers said they submitted an offer on a home without visiting it first. And in a survey of 45 New York City-based agents conducted by Realtor.com, more than half said that in the past six months they had worked with at least one buyer who was purchasing a primary home without visiting it first.
Of course, out-of-towners looking for investment properties — especially in hot markets — have long bought homes sight unseen. (Their decisions are often based more on profit-driven factors like average rents and price-per-square-foot comparisons than emotional considerations.) And when it comes to brand-new construction, buyers regularly commit with little more to go on than renderings and floor plans.
But these days, agents said, more primary homebuyers purchasing already-built properties are willing to go in blind, in part because technology has improved the remote-viewing process. And it tends to happen more in markets where properties sell quickly, putting out-of-town buyers at a particular disadvantage.
Graham Candish was living in Geneva when he accepted a job as an innovation director for a beauty company that would require him and his family to move to New York. His agent, Nuno Ribeiro of Redfin, showed him several homes in the New York area when he was in town on business, but nothing fit the bill.
After returning to Geneva, he did some research on his own using Google Street View to get a sense of neighborhoods. He perused websites like Zillow to learn property sales history, something he was not able to do when buying a home in Europe, where less information is available through public records. “There are no secrets here,” he said.
Having identified the French language school in Mamaroneck that his 12- and 14-year-old son and daughter would attend, he set about looking for a home within a 10-minute drive.
Candish said he found a Tudor-style home in Larchmont listed for $1.32 million near the school and within walking distance of the train station. “That was the main thing, the right location,” he said. “And it ticked most of our boxes, including having the potential to renovate it and make it more modern.”
He put in an offer of $1.25 million, which the seller accepted. Candish and his family didn’t fly back to New York to see the house until partway through the closing process, with their deposit at stake. “At that point, we were $125,000 in,” he said.
What you need to know
One thing he didn’t realize about the home until he saw it in person was that the basement was very damp and dark — “much more so than in the photographs,” he said. “They massively overexpose the photographs and turn on all the lights. You get there in person, and it’s not as bright as you’d imagine.”
Also hard to capture in photos: “It smells like a basement.” He has since remodeled the space to make it more livable and said he is generally happy with his decision to buy the home.
Other surprises can come up, as well. When Fountas moved into his new apartment in August, he loved it, but he did make one disappointing discovery: Parking options nearby were very limited, with all streets forbidding parking between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., something he might have noticed had he walked around the area in person.
“Thankfully, we were able to find a parking garage nearby,” he said.
Some believe that a growing comfort with buying almost everything else online is affecting the way people shop for real estate.
“There’s an e-commerce mentality sinking into the American consciousness,” said Glenn Kelman, the chief executive of Redfin. “Zappos popularized the idea that you can buy shoes online. I think it’s true for almost any goods in America now.”
The company recently built software that allows agents to help buyers write up an offer in a matter of minutes — a significant improvement over the previous software, which took a few hours — in part to help buyers compete in fast-moving markets, he said: “People want to be able to trade a house like they trade a stock.”
Of course, not everyone is convinced that this is how buyers should think about home purchases. Robert Dankner, a Manhattan real estate agent, said he would handle sight-unseen purchases only for longtime clients whom he knew very well.
“If I don’t really understand them, I would rather not make money and disappoint them and insist they look for themselves,” he said. “If it’s a house to enjoy for themselves, it’s not a numbers thing — it’s personal and touchy-feely.”