I thought I was up to the challenge of a long-distance home purchase during a pandemic. After all, I was moving back to my hometown after only three years away. I knew the area. Family members could fill in the rest. I had a trusted real estate agent from my last house purchase. Plus, I look at real estate listings as a hobby even when I’m not in the market for new property. What could go wrong?
But after purchasing a midcentury modern ranch sight unseen and trekking 1,800 miles across the country to finally get an in-person look at it, my husband and I couldn’t be more shocked.
There were so many shoddy details that hadn’t translated through video and photos. The ceilings were lower and the rooms were narrower than they seemed in photos. The countertops that had looked like granite in photos were actually laminate. Every single counter and bathroom fixture was customized for a short person. After seeing broken fixtures and a layer of grime over everything, it was clear that I would have to cure decades of bad maintenance.
And then there was the constant noise pollution from the nearby interstate. Our ground team thought the sound was minimal, but a month after we moved in, the surrounding trees dropped their leaves and the dull murmur grew to a roar heard through closed windows.
So what were our mistakes?
Don’t depend on listing photos
In general, experts agree that buying a home without setting foot in it can be a dicey proposition at best and a nightmare at worst. And online listing photos, while helpful in narrowing down your property search, won’t give you the full picture of a house’s condition.
“I’ve visited homes only to discover that the yard is steeper than it looked online, the rooms are smaller, and you couldn’t tell there were power lines right behind the house,” says Steve Heard, a Realtor® with The Heard Group in the Sacramento, CA, area.
There were so many deal breakers that I would have noticed had I been able to set foot inside the home instead of relying so heavily on listing photos and videos. Case in point: Visitors at the front door of my new home have a direct sightline to the main bathroom’s toilet.
“Much like anything you buy online, a home’s listing is created to sell, not inform. They’re marketing,” says Shana O’Brien, owner of Cascadia NW Real Estate in Washington and Oregon.
Go beyond standard due diligence
A home inspection is standard operating procedure for anyone buying a home, but a long-distance purchase should always go through rigorous vetting to make sure you’re not buying a money pit.
Typically, the buyer pays for the home inspection during the escrow period. This can cost around $300 to $500, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But to cover your bases and make sure there aren’t any major system failures before you sign a purchase agreement, experts advise bringing in an additional pair of eyes.
Go to the American Society of Home Inspectors, where you can search by your home’s address for a local inspector who can examine the house on your behalf.
Barton L. Slavin, a senior litigation and transaction attorney on Long Island, NY, advises hiring an experienced licensed and insured engineer to inspect the premises before the purchase.
That would have been great in my own long-distance home purchase. After the home inspection, the seller had “fixed” some conditional electrical work that my home inspector found, but those fixes broke other things, which resulted in an electrician visit on my dime. And on the first cold day, when I turned on the furnace, it failed to heat, which was another big repair bill that would have been covered by a warranty.
In my first two months in this house, I’ve also found faulty plumbing hacks and a massive rodent infestation.
How to beat the odds
“The key to success is extreme buyer due diligence,” O’Brien says. “That means having a team of trusted ‘boots on the ground’ to physically visit and inspect the home.”
In retrospect, my live-video walk-through was fairly quick, less than 15 minutes. At the time, it felt like it was enough, but now I realize it wasn’t nearly long enough.
Our experts advise an extensive live-video walk-through with a long-distance home purchase.
“FaceTime works great,” O’Brien says. If buyers see something they have questions about during the walk-through, the real estate agent can zoom in. They can even take still photos and close-ups, which have better detail than streaming video.
Pay attention off-property, too.
“Walk around the block, video camera on, and capture the neighborhood, the condition of the sidewalks, the level of pride of ownership in the surrounding homes,” says O’Brien. “Is the narrow street jammed with parked cars? Are the sounds from the elementary school super loud at recess? What’s the street traffic and street noise like? The buyer will not know unless their agent does the investigation.”
Despite all of your best efforts, though, there’s still a chance your long-distance home purchase will not be all you bargained for. When that happens, O’Brien suggests taking it all in stride.
“Real estate is almost always a good investment,” she says.
As for me, I’m already planning out my investment strategy and making the best of my midcentury modern surprise fixer-upper.