Zack Fountas bought a new one-bedroom apartment in White Plains, N.Y., from his home in Chicago, without ever having set foot inside the building.
The 850-square-foot apartment is within walking distance of the train station, and with an asking price of $155,000, it appeared on paper to have almost everything Mr. Fountas and his fiancée were looking for, including a dishwasher.
During an open house last summer, his sister-in-law and Joe Muller, an agent with Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty, gave Mr. Fountas a tour using FaceTime. Mr. Muller showed him around with his iPhone and then emailed a link with listing photos and comparable sales nearby. Mr. Fountas, who had not seen any other places in person, bid $142,000, and his offer was accepted.
Six weeks later, it was time to take a tour in person. “I think I was sweating because I was like, ‘Oh, my god, what if he doesn’t like it?’” Mr. Muller said. “He’d have lost his deposit.”
Mr. Fountas, who was moving to New York for a job as a risk manager after earning a business degree, said he wasn’t disappointed: “Having seen it through the phone, it was what we were expecting.”
Most buyers want to see a place in person at least once before committing. A home, after all, is usually an emotional purchase, with intangibles like the feeling it evokes key to a buyer’s attraction. But a growing number of house hunters across the country are making the biggest financial decision of their lives sight unseen.
According to a recent survey by Redfin, a national online real estate brokerage with more than 1,000 agents, 20 percent of buyers said they submitted an offer on a home without visiting it first. And in a survey of 45 New York City-based agents conducted by Realtor.com, more than half said that in the past six months they had worked with at least one buyer who was purchasing a primary home without visiting it first.
Of course, out-of-towners looking for investment properties — especially in hot markets like New York City and Los Angeles— have long bought homes sight unseen. (Their decisions are often based more on profit-driven factors like average rents and price-per-square-foot comparisons than emotional considerations.) And when it comes to brand-new construction, buyers regularly commit with little more to go on than renderings and floor plans.
But these days, agents said, more primary home buyers purchasing already-built properties are willing to go in blind, in part because technology has improved the remote-viewing process. And it tends to happen more in markets where properties sell quickly, putting out-of-town buyers at a particular disadvantage.
Graham Candish was living in Geneva, Switzerland, when he accepted a job as an innovation director for a beauty company that would require him and his family to move to New York. His agent, Nuno Ribeiro of Redfin, showed him several homes in the New York area when he was in town on business, but nothing fit the bill.
After returning to Geneva, he did some research on his own using Google Street View to get a sense of neighborhoods. He perused websites like Zillow to learn property sales history, something he was not able to do when buying a home in Europe, where less information is available through public records. “There are no secrets here,” he said.
Having identified the French language school in Mamaroneck that his 12- and 14-year-old son and daughter would attend, he set about looking for a home within a 10-minute drive.
Mr. Candish said he found a Tudor-style home in Larchmont listed for $1.32 million near the school and within walking distance of the train station. “That was the main thing, the right location,” he said. “And it ticked most of our boxes, including having the potential to renovate it and make it more modern.”
He put in an offer of $1.25 million, which the seller accepted. Mr. Candish and his family didn’t fly back to New York to see the house until partway through the closing process, with their deposit at stake. “At that point, we were $125,000 in,” he said.
One thing he didn’t realize about the home until he saw it in person was that the basement was very damp and dark — “much more so than in the photographs,” he said. “They massively overexpose the photographs and turn on all the lights. You get there in person, and it’s not as bright as you’d imagine.”
Also hard to capture in photos: “It smells like a basement.” He has since remodeled the space to make it more livable and said he is generally happy with his decision to buy the home.
Other surprises can come up, as well. When Mr. Fountas moved into his new apartment last August, he loved it, but he did make one disappointing discovery: Parking options nearby were very limited, with all streets forbidding parking between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., something he might have noticed had he walked around the area in person.
“Thankfully, we were able to find a parking garage nearby,” he said.
Real estate agents say the growth in sight-unseen purchases is partly driven by low inventory and high demand. In the hottest markets, houses and condos can go into contract within 24 hours of listing.
Leslie Turner, a real estate broker in Charleston, S.C., said homes in the downtown area are selling so quickly that it is challenging to get clients in for tours if they do not live in town and have immediate availability. “By the time you get on a plane to go see it, it’ll be gone,” she said.
When she received a call last December from a buyer in New Orleans who had been searching listings online and was interested in a $430,000 condominium downtown, her advice was blunt: “I told them, ‘You don’t have time to wait,’” she said.
The two-bedroom unit, on the building’s top floor, had 20-foot ceilings and views of the city. It was in a newer building near the medical school that the buyers’ son attended, and their daughter would soon be moving there for medical school as well. The layout made it ideal for roommates or siblings, with the bedrooms at opposite ends.
That same afternoon, Ms. Turner rushed over to give the family a FaceTime tour. “The daughter wanted to know about the closets, and the parents really wanted to know about security.”
Alan D. Kaye, the chairman of the anesthesiology department at Louisiana State University Medical School, who was buying the unit for his children, said he wanted to nab the place quickly because of its plum location. Although he had never bought a home without seeing it before, he said the FaceTime tour gave him a good enough sense of the place that he could confidently offer $420,000 in cash. The offer was accepted the same day.
“I realized that if we didn’t move aggressively we wouldn’t get it. I don’t know if prices were going up by the minute or by the hour,” Dr. Kaye said, but “if you drive around the medical school, which is an outstanding school, you’ll see there’s just not a lot of options.” His wife and children saw the place after the deal closed and said everything was as they expected.
Real estate experts say homes are indeed selling at a record pace in many cities. A typical listing sold in 36 days in April 2018, six fewer than in April 2017, according to Redfin. And in some markets it can be much faster. In Denver, for example, homes sold after a median of six days on the market this past April.
But the bidding wars and rapidly increasing prices in Los Angeles — the median sale price rose from $327,000 in April 2012 to more than $705,000 in April 2018, according to Redfin — make its real estate market one of the most challenging for buyers.
When Shachar Scott took a job at Snapchat, the social media company based in Southern California, she quickly learned that to be competitive as a buyer she would need to move fast. Ms. Scott, who was moving from Jersey City with her husband and six-year-old twins and had never lived in California, said she was not entirely sure what to expect, but she knew she wanted a house in a good school district that was close to her office.
While on a work trip to Los Angeles, she met with Natasha Barrett of the Agency, who looked at homes for her when she was back in Jersey City, often FaceTiming her or emailing her video tours.
“I felt like I was there with her,”said Ms. Scott, who found a listing online that sounded like a great fit: a three-bedroom, three-bathroom remodeled Craftsman-style home in a good school district just 15 minutes from Snapchat’s headquarters. With sliding glass doors that opened from the kitchen to a small backyard, it had an appealing indoor-outdoor living space that made the home feel larger than it was.
Ms. Scott’s husband flew to Los Angeles for six hours to attend the open house, FaceTiming her and emailing photos. The couple put in an offer right away, one of nine the seller received. She declined to say what they paid for the home, but said they offered more than the asking price and got the house.
Ms. Scott didn’t visit the home until after the closing. “I’d never seen the house or even been to the neighborhood,” she said. “I had to use Google Maps and Waze to even find it. I was totally nervous.”
But she and her family have been happy with the home, which they moved into last summer. “It’s even better than the pictures,” she said.
Some believe that a growing comfort with buying almost everything else online is affecting the way people shop for real estate.
“There’s an e-commerce mentality sinking into the American consciousness,” said Glenn Kelman, the chief executive of Redfin. “Zappos popularized the idea that you can buy shoes online. I think it’s true for almost any goods in America now.”
The company recently built software that allows agents to help buyers write up an offer in a matter of minutes — a significant improvement over the previous software, which took a few hours— in part to help buyers compete in fast-moving markets, he said: “People want to be able to trade a house like they trade a stock.”
Of course, not everyone is convinced that this is how buyers should think about home purchases. Robert Dankner, a Manhattan real estate agent, said he would handle sight-unseen purchases only for longtime clients whom he knew very well.
“If I don’t really understand them, I would rather not make money and disappoint them and insist they look for themselves,” he said. “If it’s a house to enjoy for themselves, it’s not a numbers thing — it’s personal and touchy-feely.”
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