It's one thing to buy a shirt online that you've never seen or tried on in-person. It's another thing entirely if you try to apply that buying technique to a house.
Looking at online listings is a helpful first step in the home-buying process—with the key word being "first." Buying a home without viewing it yourself in person (and preferably with a skilled realtor) is just asking for a raw deal.
Since online viewings are helpful and in-person viewings are critical, how should you balance the two? Why is it so crucial to view potential homes in-person? Here's what you need to know to answer those questions:
Online Listings Can Help You Find Your Groove
When you first consider buying a home, you may not have a clue what you're looking for. Sure, you might have a few vague ideas or rough preferences from years of watching "House Hunters," but you need to start on your own search to really develop a working list of must-haves, nice-to-haves and must-not-haves to help you find the right home. Browsing MLS listings is a great way to start figuring out what you like, what you need and what's available in your price range.
To save time, go ahead and get pre-qualified for a loan. You'll want to get a pre-approval once your search turns more serious, but in the meantime, a pre-qualification will give you a decent estimate of your price range. Knowing your limit will keep you from viewing—and falling in love with—homes online that are out of your budgetary league. Just keep in mind that you may get approved for more than you can actually afford, so don't forget to create your own realistic budget as well.
Online Listings Help Narrow Your To-See List
Looking at homes online is an easy way to narrow down the list of homes you want to visit in-person, saving you the time and trouble of visiting homes you wouldn't be interested in anyway. Did you click on a seemingly dreamy online listing just to discover a house with too few bedrooms, a terrible layout or the need for a budget-breaking number of updates? Great! You only wasted a few minutes rejecting it rather than an hour or more driving to and touring the property.
One exception to keep in mind: homes listed "as-is." If you know you have very specific tastes and will likely remodel the kitchen or bathroom of the home you buy, it might be worth your time to visit a few as-is homes in person. An as-is home is just what it sounds like: The seller is under no obligation to fix or upgrade anything. While that sounds daunting, not all as-is homes are unstable, mold-ridden money pits. Some owners just need to sell a house quickly and choose the as-is route in hopes of expediency. For buyers, this means you might be able to find a diamond in the rough for a price that makes your renovation dreams easier to achieve.
Online Listings Can Be Deceiving
You know better than to expect that the burger you buy from a fast food joint isn't going to be the slow-motion, beaded with droplets of pure freshness, Technicolor dream meal you saw in the commercial. So why would you assume that a home you see online will live up to its advertisement? Because that's what a listing really is: a convincing, and sometimes deceiving, advertisement meant to attract buyers.
Few, if any, sellers are going to include pictures of the black mold in their bathroom, the hole in their roof or the rats in their basement. While there are some listings where it's clear no one put in any effort, most try to shed the most positive light possible on the home. Savvy sellers will use every trick in the book to make their listings irresistible: trendy lingo, clever staging and misleading photography, just to name a few. Unfortunately, unlike the world of online shopping, claiming your new home didn't match the picture or description won't allow you to return your purchase.
In-Person Visits Are Absolutely Essential
Online browsing should be followed by hiring a competent, trustworthy realtor and visiting prospective homes in-person. Why? Because there are so many things an online listing can't or won't show you.
Online listings will use highly edited, professional photos to make rooms appear bigger and cleaner than they are. What's more, an online listing won't reveal persistent bad odors, loud neighbors or other neighborhood concerns. An online listing probably won't give you a look at important factors like plumbing, wiring, HVAC systems and other less glamorous aspects of homeownership. It's critical that you visit homes in-person to get an accurate and detailed impression of the home. As a reminder of what to look for, try taking a home inspection checklist with you when you make your visits.
Browsing for homes online can be a lot of fun! But the bottom line is this: Once you get serious about buying a home, make sure you conduct in-person visits before making an offer. Buyer's remorse for a poorly made t-shirt is nothing compared to buyer's remorse for a badly maintained home.