Is the pandemic causing more people to buy homes sight unseen?

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Over the years, consumers have warmed up to buying certain products online, when before they would choose to buy them at a brick-and-mortar shop.

Shoes, clothes, home furnishings and even groceries — especially now that COVID-19 has led to social distancing restrictions — these are items that many consumers now unflinchingly buy online.

But what about a new home?

As the pandemic was ramping up last month, a survey from the National Association of Realtors found about 30% of those who worked with clients who put contracts on homes had at least one buyer who put in a contract without physically seeing the home.

But many local Realtors and experts see this behavior more as an outlier than the norm.

Jim Belfiore, founder and president of residential market research firm Belfiore Real Estate Consulting, said he has not been able to verify a single sight-unseen purchase.

However, he said since the pandemic Realtors have been using more virtual tours to initially show listings before in-person showings. Homebuilders have embraced technology and many have far more sophisticated virtual tools on their websites now than a month ago, he said.

“Of course, I do believe more buyers are looking at virtual tours closer and photos online; this our builder clients are sharing,” he said. “I do not believe many buyers would purchase a home, typically one's biggest investment, without first visiting the home to view it.”

While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, last year only 3.5% of buyers bought a home without a viewing, according to NAR’s 2019 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers.

Since the pandemic, there has been chatter over whether video or virtual purchases are here to stay.

Realtor Rebecca Durfey said she can’t begin to picture a world where this would become the standard, especially because this is the most important financial decision many people will make.

She has had three sight unseen personal residence purchases in the past two months — one closed and still hasn’t been seen by the buyer since he is in New York and has been confined to his apartment. She said each of those cases made sense — the buyers were not able to be here to view homes due to the virus, but each of them had vetted her, she knew what they were looking for, and she physically went to each home and walked it while having them on a video app so they could ask questions.

There is no way that will ever be the standard in the market, she said.

“Some buyers will be fine with that, especially investors or out of state buyers, but generally speaking, a buyer wants to see, touch, feel, and smell the home they are going to spend a huge amount of money on.  It’s their greatest investment,” Ms. Durfey said. “There are many people that appreciate and enjoy the journey of home-buying. As an agent, I want them to have that hands-on experience and I certainly want them to know for themselves — not from me — that the home is the right one for them. That is a significant amount of liability and pressure for an agent to make that final decision. I know what homes have good locations, floor plans and should resale well, so it’s not that I can’t get a person a great home, but there is an emotional element to the home-buyer experience that I can’t duplicate for my clients.”

Since the pandemic, the real estate industry has reacted by implementing sanitary and social distancing precautions when showing homes.

Realtor Kristy Ryan said she explicitly caters to the desires of her clients when it comes to safety measures.

She said when showing homes some sellers may want prospective buyers to wear gloves or masks and follow social distancing guidelines.

If a seller has a certain preference when it comes to health and safety then it is important to fulfill it, she said.

“I am definitely doing more virtual tours, but in end, there are still showings going on, and people still want to see the home in person,” Ms. Ryan said.

Benjamin Katz, owner and designated broker of Lake Pleasant Real Estate, said he has been dealing with sight-unseen sales for 15 years with buyers looking for a vacation home, but buyers who are located in town are still looking at properties in person.

While it is more common for vacation homes to be bought without physically seeing them, Mr. Katz said he is not experiencing more local sight-unseen sales.

“Typically the buyer (of a vacation home) has visited the area or community in the past and knows exactly what they’re looking for,” Mr. Katz said. “When the right home comes on the market, these buyers often feel totally comfortable buying the home sight unseen. They often visit for the inspection and do end up seeing the home prior to officially closing on it.”

Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697, phaldiman@newszap.com, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.

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