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Buying

How to Size Up a Home, Sight Unseen

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It sounds crazy to shell out thousands of dollars for a home you haven't even seen, right? Yet a recent survey of 2,134 Americans by BusinessWire reveals that this seemingly nut-ball approach is surprisingly common: During the past two years, one in five home buyers made an offer without physically visiting the property.

While buying "sight unseen" has long been the only option for relocating military families, the trend is on the rise, especially among millennials. This is often an emotional decision, according to Texas Realtor Benjamin Beaver, made by first-time buyers making an offer at "8 o'clock at night" after seeing a property getting buzz.

So what's the main reason these prospective homeowners feel confident taking what could be a huge risk? People shop online to begin with, says Beaver, who notes that initial inquiries on most homes for sale are almost completely Internet-driven.

So while you might be buying blind, you needn't be in the dark. Check out this advice before you add a house to your online shopping cart.

Go beyond a slideshow

We're all used to clicking through photos of a property, but listing photographs tend to show only a home's most flattering views. Buying sight unseen demands video, a more in-depth media experience and one that selling agents can easily provide.

Beaver is a huge believer in making video walk-through tours for his properties. Not only do buyers love to engage with it, he says, "with video, you see all the angles. I think it gives buyers that confidence of, 'OK, I know what I'm getting here.'"

The Realtor has even had people who weren't planning on buying without an in-person visit "ready to make an offer" after seeing a video. Just make sure the video tour you get covers all the bases -- including the outside of the house, closets, even the water pressure in the bathroom. The more you see, the better sense you'll have of the space even if you can't set foot inside.

Offer a bird's-eye view

The home isn't the only thing you'll want to scrutinize from afar. You should also virtually tour the neighborhood. Home may be where the heart is, but the location of the nearest yoga studio matters, too.

"I recommend [buyers] look at Google Earth and do Street View to get a good feel for the area," says Beaver. So ask your agent to do a video tour of the surrounding streets, as Beaver does for his clients. This can reveal potential noise issues such as a nearby highway or railroad track that might be hidden in listing photos.

Get an extra set of eyes

Of course, home inspectors help unearth all of a home's dirty secrets before you sign on the dotted line. But for remote buyers, they provide an added service: They can be your eyeballs on the ground!

Go to the American Society of Home Inspectors, where you can search by your home's address for an inspector nearby who can come over and kick the tires on your behalf.

Inspectors are typically hired after an offer is made, but buyers who can't visit the home should contact one even before they make an offer. Why? To ask them to skim the home's online profile -- photos, videos, the works -- since their trained eyes can pick out what home sellers may be trying to hide, says Frank Lesh, ASHI's executive director. This early recon can help you decide if you'd even like to make an offer, and hire them for a full-on in-person inspection.

And another nose

An inspector can also catch other issues that your senses can't detect from an online photo album -- issues such as lingering odors from dank basements, cooking habits, or pets.

Carpeting could look good in a photograph, says Lesh, "but if there is a cat smell, people need to know that, especially now that houses are made tighter than they used to be." These are smells an owner may be inured to, so make sure to ask your home inspector about any odors and address them before you sign a contract.

You can also use Google Earth to suss out smells. Scan homes from above, look for any ponds or other bodies of standing water nearby, and know where the prevailing winds come from, says Lesh.

Check comps in the area

While checking the comps, or selling prices of similar homes in the area, is a good idea for all home buyers, it's particularly important if you're not going to be cruising the neighborhood. Because let's face it: If there's a problem with the neighborhood, the surrounding homes' selling prices speak volumes. Plus, if you do show up at the home and hate it, good comps mean you can easily sell it so you can go find a place that does suit your fancy.

Ask for a walk-through contingency

At the end of the day, the only way you'll know a home is right for you is to set foot inside it -- which is why the best safeguard you can negotiate in your contract is a walk-through contingency, which allows you to actually walk through the property before signing the papers at closing.

Just keep this in mind: As with all contingencies, sellers don't have to agree to them. And they may demand a higher purchase price to compensate for the trouble. But if you're truly on the fence, ask! The worst that can happen is you'll hear a "no"; the best is that you'll no longer be buying blind.