Buying a $300,000 house sight unseen? It’s no longer unthinkable

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Kathleen and Jimmy Flynn did something in June many would have thought unthinkable before the pandemic. The California couple placed a bid and signed a contract on a two-bedroom, East Aurora house without ever setting foot inside.

Instead, they relied on their agent, Matt Lepovich of Century 21 Gold Standard, to take them on a virtual tour using FaceTime, showing them every nook and cranny – while the couple watched from their kitchen table back home in Burbank, Calif.

“If you asked me a year ago if someone would buy a $300,000 house and not see it, I would have said you’re crazy,” Lepovich said. “But in this environment, it’s another avenue to travel, especially for people who are distant or who may be afraid because of Covid.”

With the exception of investors, it’s been very rare in Western New York to pay top dollar for a house sight-unseen – even just to make an offer over asking, let alone go through with the deal. After all, buying a house is probably the most expensive purchase anyone makes, and unless it’s just an investment property, they’re going to be living there.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has upended norms in homebuying along with nearly every other industry. And the restrictions on travel and fear of the coronavirus, coupled with the growing frequency of long-distance relocation – especially cross-country or international – is making the unthinkable happen.

The Flynn’s $309,000 deal closes this month, and they will drive back east next month. They had been looking for a house for more than a year, and were already outbid a couple of times, before they spotted a listing online that caught their eye.

The two-story house with just under 1,500 square feet dates to 1880, still has its original architectural design and integrity, and is around the corner from the Roycroft Inn, where the couple was married in 1998.

They acted fast in June from California, placing a bid that exceeded the asking price by $30,000 to beat out five other offers, and quickly signing a contract.

“I don’t think we would have moved forward with making an offer just by looking at the listing from 3,000 miles away,” Jimmy Flynn said. “FaceTime made a huge difference.”

When the coronavirus hit New York hard in March, the state shut down almost all in-person business activity, hoping to stop the spread of the virus. That included traditional real estate sales. Agents were allowed to continue taking on clients and listing homes, but everything had to be done remotely and virtually – with no in-person tours or open houses.

That put the kibosh on home showings for months. It forced agents to become comfortable with taking videos or using videoconferencing systems like FaceTime or Zoom. And buyers had to either wait until the economy opened up again – or take a leap of faith.

Susan Lenahan of M.J. Peterson Corp. sold six houses during the pandemic by relying on video or walking around the houses with the clients on FaceTime. They signed the purchase contracts based on what they had seen virtually, hoping to at least get into the house with a home inspector before the closing. In three cases, she said, the buyers never even met her until the final walk-through – which is almost unheard of in a business reliant on personal relationships.

It’s not just younger buyers turning to virtual showings. Jacque Taylor of Weichert Realtors Stovroff & Taylor Real Estate said she had two closings in July where older buyers relied on video tours to make the offers, but didn’t see the interior until that morning.

The shutdown has largely been scaled back in Western New York, and there is less reluctance about going into houses for tours. But there are still situations in which buyers are making offers before seeing a house in person.

“It’s absolutely being done,” said Greg Straus of 716 Realty Group. “People are happy to look at something online and buy it now. A house is a huge investment, but the concept is the same.”

Heavy competition and no time to get in can be one driving factor. In some cases, it’s because of the distance, as with the Flynns, who are excited to move back to her native Buffalo.

The couple has spent the past four decades living their dream in Southern California, pursuing their respective goals in the music and acting industries. She has spent the past 11 years managing large-scale employee events for Warner Bros., while her husband made a living in movies, television, plays and commercials – even meeting a young Quentin Tarantino 30 years ago. “We’ve had a full life here in Southern California, but we’re ready to get back to our East Coast roots,” said Jimmy Flynn, a Boston native.

But the distance and the Covid-19 pandemic made it very difficult to search for a home – especially with New York’s quarantine requirement for travelers from California. So they got creative with Lepovich.

“We were sitting at our kitchen table, that Quentin Tarantino sat at, hunched over my laptop, looking at the stuff,” Kathleen Flynn said. “He’s opening closets for us, and going out into the yard.”

Buyers almost always still insist on getting inside themselves at some point prior to closing.

“Buying a house is a very emotional feeling and decision. Somebody is not going to feel it’s their home without being in it,” said Brian Hillery, an agent with Hunt Real Estate Corp.

Ryan Paolucci, of Nichol City Realty, said buyers want to go to the inspection and take a look after an offer is accepted.

“They want to see the house before proceeding past the inspection point,” Paolucci said.

Sellers can also be skeptical of a buyer who hasn’t been inside.

Jennifer Hobson, also with Hunt, said she represented a seller recently on a deal in which a family from New York City beat out 14 other offers, but did not physically see the house until the home inspection. She said the buyer’s brother attended an open house, with the buyer on FaceTime.

“My sellers were very hesitant to accept an offer from someone that had never seen the house in person but they were by far the highest bid so we decided to gamble on it,” Hobson said. “It is a little nerve-wracking when the buyer hasn’t actually been in the house until the home inspection because you fear, what if it isn’t what they expected? Or what if they don’t like it in person as much as they liked it online? But it all worked out.”

That’s not to say that there will now be a huge surge in people buying houses without ever setting foot inside first. Indeed, most agents aren’t keen on it.

During the pandemic shutdown, Hunt agent Mark Bostaph said he “had a lot of buyers that wanted to put offers in because they felt like they would be missing out if they didn’t.”

But he discouraged them. “Looking at houses online is just like dating online,” Bostaph said. “The pictures might look great, but we don’t know if they are crazy.”

He noted that there could be foundation or roof issues, mold, leaning walls or other factors. “Are you willing to be married to a house that you never met and don’t know if you really liked?” Bostaph added, reciting what he has said to other people. “Buying a house unseen is something I would never do.”

Published by The Buffalo News

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