Yes, you can buy a house without setting foot inside—as long as your realtor addresses these details.
A virtual home tour may be a mainstay in today’s real estate market, but that wasn’t the case just a few years ago, according to Dina Goldentayer, a realtor and executive director of sales with Douglas Elliman in Miami. “Looking at a house virtually, and even more so in the luxury market, didn’t happen much before the pandemic because buyers wouldn’t feel comfortable making such a big purchase over FaceTime,” she says. “Now, it’s become standard operating procedure.”
At least one statistic indicates the increase that Goldentayer is speaking to: The National Association of Realtors saw a jump in the reliance of technology to market homes. This includes using virtual tours, which went from 17% before March 2020 to 27% in 2022.
Still, shopping for a home online—even with a detailed virtual tour— doesn’t always show you everything you need to know about the property before making a bid. “There are a whole new set of questions that buyers need to be aware of,” Goldentayer notes.
Below, top realtor tips on what to ask when you’re looking to buy a house virtually. Don’t sign the proverbial dotted line until you read this.
1. Skip automated tours
Many virtual home tours are pre-filmed. Skip these recorded versions, and ask for the listing agent to lead a FaceTime tour instead. “Automated showings are designed to portray the property at its best and cost a lot of money to create,” cautions Jack Pearson, a real estate agent with Compass in the Hamptons. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that you see the full picture of the house.” Pearson says that nothing can replace the value of a live tour where an agent walks you through every room, and you can stop them to ask questions about a particular feature or request a second look at the primary bedroom or another space.
2. Ask about the noise level
Do airplanes regularly fly overhead? Do the neighbors have a dog that barks incessantly? Are you near a venue where public events are held? And if you’re looking at an apartment, are you near the residents’ lounge or beneath the gym or swimming pool? Goldentayer says that asking about a property’s noise levels is essential. “It might be your dream home, but excessive noise could make it a no-go,” she says. “It’s a factor that you wouldn’t know about unless you ask the listing realtor detailed questions.”
Pearson likes to gauge how much noise a property sees by asking the realtor to conduct a silent tour. “Basically, you have the agent walk you through the house without speaking so that you have the chance to listen for noise,” he says.
3. Test the water pressure
The water pressure of the showers and sinks in a prospective home are a priority for many buyers. “People are obsessed with the pressure of the water, especially when it comes to taking a shower,” Goldentayer says. “You can’t turn the tap on to find out when you’re looking virtually so it’s important to have it tested by an inspector.” Do this mini-test: Run the faucet, then flush the toilet, and see if the water pressure changes. She also recommends checking for plumbing problems during the inspection period, which usually happens within the first week of your contract—a timeframe when your deposit is usually still refundable.
4. Check out the closet and storage spaces
Virtual tours tend to skip over closet spaces, according to Pearson. “You might see that walk-in closet in the primary bedroom, but you don’t see any guest bedroom closets, kitchen pantries and cabinets, and storage areas,” he says. “It’s imperative to have the realtor walk you through these spaces.” After all, it would be an unpleasant surprise to move in, and find out that you have nowhere to stow away bulky winter clothes during the summer or that you need to build extra shelves in the kitchen for all the pots, appliances, and dishes. Alternatively, you may find out that you have extra closets that can easily be converted into a vanity or even a mudroom.
5. Tap into tech systems
The home could have sleek features such as electronic window treatments, state of the art surround sound, or an automated projector. But these eye candy perks become expensive burdens if they don’t work, or you can’t figure out how to use them. A standard inspection almost never tests such amenities, but Goldentayer recommends hiring an audio-visual specialist to do the testing for you. “It’s a separation inspection, but one that’s well worth it,” she says.
6. Don’t forget about the exterior
Pearson says that most virtual tours focus strictly on a property’s interior and exclude the house exterior and barely glance at the front and backyard. Make sure that the listing agent thoroughly shows you all the outdoor areas so that you understand their layout and how they can fit into your lifestyle. If the property has a swimming pool, for example, you should know how close it is to the house, to the neighboring home, and whether you have space to add an outdoor kitchen. You should have an idea of whether you’ll have low-maintenance landscaping or need to add privacy fencing. Have the agent zoom in on the façade so that you can see what kind of condition it’s in. “You want to look at every border a few times over to get the big picture,” Pearson says.