Buying a House Sight Unseen

Finding the right agent and getting help from others on the ground can help you buy a house even if you can't visit it in person.
Barbara Marquand
By Barbara Marquand 
Updated
Edited by Johanna Arnone

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When moving long distance, it’s not always feasible to tour homes in person before finding one you’re serious about. Even for shoppers with a tight timeline, the process can take weeks. Flights and hotel stays can add up quickly, depleting savings that would ideally go toward your down payment.

Making an offer without seeing a house in person isn't the ideal way to purchase a home, but it can be done. Technology such as 3D video tours and video-calling apps make it easier.

"Sight unseen" covers a spectrum. Some buyers make an offer without seeing the house in person but then attend the home inspection before the sale closes. Others don't set foot in the house until the final walk-through or even after the closing.

Previous homebuying experience isn't required for buying a house sight unseen, but it can make navigating the process less intimidating. Having some personal connections in the area where you're house hunting can help, too.

Here's how to make it work.

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Take extra care in choosing a real estate agent

"You need to have a good fit with that broker who's going to be your boots on the ground," says Jackson Blagden, a Sotheby's International Realty agent in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

To find the right agent:

Get referrals

Ask someone local for recommendations. For instance, if you’re moving for work, you might reach out to coworkers familiar with your new area. If you’re moving for an academic opportunity, your university may have resources to assist with relocation.

Check their experience

As a sight-unseen buyer, you'll be at a disadvantage when making offers, especially in a tight market, says Christopher Arienti, owner of Re/Max Executive Realty in Franklin, Massachusetts.

Sellers and their listing agents may worry that a buyer who hasn't seen the home in person will be more likely to back out of the sale than one who has toured the property.

A successful agent with deep experience in the local area will have earned the trust of other brokers, and that will go a long way toward getting listing agents to take your offer seriously, says Mino McLean, an agent with Island Sotheby's International Realty on Maui.

Interview agents

Good rapport with an agent is essential, especially when doing business long-distance. How responsive is the agent? Does the agent's communication style mesh with yours? Is this someone who will focus on the elements of a home that matter most to you?

Understand that technology can't do it all

Do internet research about the area, use Google Earth and Google Maps to view neighborhoods, and take advantage of virtual video tours to see homes. Then, use a phone app to have a video call with your agent at the house. The agent can take you on a visual and audio tour, zooming in on details, opening cupboards and closets, showing views out windows and narrating throughout the house and around the property.

"But no matter how good the technology you have is, it's hard to get the full feeling for a home until you're in it," Arienti says.

So you'll have to probe deeply to make up for not being there. Here are some of the things that deserve special attention.

Dimensions and size

"You might have what appears to be roomy space through the camera lens but doesn't look so roomy in person," Blagden says. To help buyers get a sense of space, he paces off the room with them on video calls.

Mark Trenka, a Century 21 agent in Denver, suggests getting a copy of a floor plan and asking lots of questions. How high are the ceilings? Will my table fit in the kitchen? How far is the primary bedroom from the living room?

Lighting

Trenka takes video at various times of day to show homes in different lighting. When does the sun hit the back deck? Is the kitchen sunlit in the morning or evening?

While living in California, Julie and Mike Hawthorne made an offer on a Denver-area home sight unseen in 2019 and then attended the inspection. They had met Trenka and looked at neighborhoods in person on a couple of trips, but family circumstances prevented them from traveling when a suitable home came on the market. The numerous videos Trenka shot and his meticulous explanations helped them feel comfortable.

"He went there I don't know how many times and filmed the house day and night," Julie Hawthorne says. "I walked in (at the inspection), and it was exactly like he said it was and how he made it feel. It just felt like home."

Get more 'boots on the ground'

Don't rely solely on your real estate agent. Get others involved.

The home inspector

A home inspection is important. As the buyer, you'll choose the inspector and pay for the inspection. Ask for referrals and look for an inspector with experience and excellent communication skills. If you can't attend the inspection in person, do a video call with the inspector during the examination.

Friends and family

If you have friends or family in the area, ask them to tour the house with the agent, says Laurin LaLima, a Century 21 agent in Morganville, New Jersey. When a Florida client wanted to buy a home in New Jersey in 2020 but couldn't travel, the buyer's sister went on the video tours with LaLima and attended the inspection. LaLima could give information, but the sister knew the buyer's tastes. The client saw the home on the final walk-through before closing and said it was even better than expected.

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4.0

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Min. credit score 
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Min. down payment 
1%

Check Rate

on Rocket Mortgage

NBKC - PURCHASE logo
Check Rate

on NBKC

NBKC

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
NBKC - PURCHASE logo

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
Min. credit score 
620

Min. down payment 
3%

Check Rate

on NBKC

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Check Rate

on Guaranteed Rate

Guaranteed Rate

5.0

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Guaranteed Rate - PURCHASE logo

5.0

NerdWallet rating 
Min. credit score 
620

Min. down payment 
3%

Check Rate

on Guaranteed Rate

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