Would you buy jeans without trying them on? How about acquiring a car before a test-drive? Probably not. Yet real estate agents say that buying a house sight unseen is becoming increasingly common in a seller’s market where hopefuls want to get in offers early to beat the competition.
“What I’m seeing is people not wanting to go to open houses — not even due to COVID. They want to negate an open house and a bidding war,’’ said Corey O’Neill, an agent with Elevated in Boston.
This sometimes means that an agent will write an offer at noon with a firm deadline of 5 p.m. the same day for an answer. The buyer will usually offer over the asking price, with a proposal just tempting enough not to pass up.
“You’re maybe paying a bit extra to have the [seller] cancel an open house, but essentially you’re bidding against yourself,’’ as opposed to countless other hopefuls, O’Neill explained.
According to the National Association of Realtors’ “2020 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers,’’ 1 in 20 buyers purchased homes sight unseen during the period of April to mid-summer of 2020. “This is based on data early in the pandemic, however, and the share of sight-unseen buyers may have grown as inventory has shrunk, demand has sustained, and realtors have embraced virtual tech tools to showcase listings,’’ said Jessica Lautz, NAR’s president of demographics and insights.
High-tech, 3-D home-touring tools like Matterport offer peace of mind from afar. Plus, an enterprising agent can play detective, pulling permits and finding out the home’s history to put buyers at ease. This is especially important because, these days, many buyers waive inspections to make their offer more appealing.
Consider Lisa Sevajian, a Compass agent who specializes in Andover. When a buyer can’t make an open house in person, she gets to work checking permits, driving by the home, and “super-sleuthing,’’ she said, by looking at Facebook posts by the current owners. A seller who posted six months ago complaining about a leaky roof or moldy floors might raise red flags.
“I’m checking to see if they’ve posted in community groups looking for plumbers and roofers. I’m on my phone 14 hours a day, which is awful, but between myself and my assistant, if a house hits the market at 9:15 in the morning, by 9:40 we have a good understanding of its history. I social-stalk the sellers,’’ she said, laughing.
She also asks homeowners to release a seller disclosure statement attesting to the condition of the property.
Agents matter, but acts of faith do, too. Take Sophia Bender Koning, whose story belongs in Cambridge real estate lore. She and her husband, a Harvard Business School professor, maintained apartments here and in Brooklyn. With a new baby, they realized the commute was impractical, so they looked for a permanent home in Cambridge in 2018.
At last, a dream home came on the market that matched her aesthetic: “1960s, strong lines, modern,’’ she said. The excellent bones made it easy to overlook cosmetic woes.
“It looked like the 1970s threw up in it, with aqua and yellow walls,’’ she recalled.
Just one other problem: The open house was Saturday, offers were due Monday, and the couple had a 4-month-old. So her husband, Rem, hopped on a train Friday night, went to the open house, and made an above-asking offer — waiving contingencies, too — without his wife seeing it. Bender Koning did, however, write a personal note to the seller about her enthusiasm for the home.
“We’d lived in San Francisco before, where real estate is crazier. Maybe our understanding is skewed, but we realized that if we wanted something, we had to be ready immediately. We knew there would be tons of offers,’’ she said.
They beat out the competition (and ultimately painted the walls).
“I’m so happy we did it, even if it was a big chance. Within the first month, all the appliances broke. Maybe I would have realized that, but it wouldn’t have changed anything about our decision. It’s about accepting risk,’’ she said.