A Silver Lining: Virtual Homebuying in COVID-19 and Beyond

Apr 14 2020

This installment is part of an ongoing series about the challenges buyers face during COVID-19 and how the homebuying process is adapting to meet their needs.

With the housing market adjusting to life under quarantine, the business of homebuying is going digital. Real estate agents are offering virtual tours of houses that are for sale, for example, while sending paperwork to buyers via email.

And though not getting to see houses in person might be a big change for some, for others, like Anna and Aaron Arcello of Amherst, Massachusetts, virtual homebuying was already the plan.

The couple toured their current house in Amherst via Facetime before moving to it from Milwaukee in August 2018. They’re now headed back to Milwaukee this spring and were already taking the digital approach before the virus broke out. Due to work and family responsibilities, the Arcellos simply can’t hop on a plane every weekend to look at houses in another part of the country, Anna explains.

Luckily, their experience in touring their current home virtually gives them an advantage with a process that has become necessary during the COVID-19 quarantine – but not everyone has that comfort level.

“If people were accustomed to [phyiscally] going into homes and hadn’t even thought they’d have to buy a house remotely, that could be a much farther thing for them to imagine,” Anna says.

But Vickey Barron, an associate real estate broker with Compass in New York City, assures that remote buying is not as complicated as it may seem. In fact, it can make life much easier, she says. Why spend the time bouncing around from house to house when you can tour them without setting foot out your door?

The key is for buyers to simply be open to the idea. “I’ve personally bought two homes in my lifetime that I never set foot in, but I’m the type of person that can do that,” Barron says. Powering through the current conditions, she’s also helped several clients buy homes since COVID set in.

The mentality is similar to the way some folks are fine with buying clothes online while others really prefer to try them on in a store. “More buyers will join the ‘virtual group,’ but there will always be people who want to emotionally touch and feel and walk through that home,” Barron explains.

“It’s a silver lining that’s going to come out of this awful virus,” says Vicky Barron, an associate real estate broker with Compass. “We are learning that a lot of our business is going to be done in a much more effective and efficient way.”

(Hold up! Barron is a broker, so what separates her from an agent? Where do brokerages and Realtors come into play? We break down these terms in our post “Broker? Realtor? Agent? Choosing the Right Partner.”)

The virtual shift

To keep the housing market moving during COVID-19, everyone from the government to real estate firms and banks are rushing to make digital buying and selling available to the masses.

The national brokerage Compass unveiled a suite of online tools for its sales agents, including virtual open houses and interactive home tours, and Redfin reported a 494% spike in requests for agent-led video home tours during just one week in March.

On the mortgage side of things, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae eased up their appraisal requirements to allow drive-by and desktop home appraisals, and a recent Congressional bill would, if passed into law, legalize electronic notarizations (known as remote online notarizations, or RONs) in all 50 states to make virtual closings possible across the country.

Meanwhile, buyers are becoming more comfortable with Facetiming with general inspectors rather than being physically present for inspections, or just reading inspection reports (which can be sent via email) and hopping on the phone for clarifications afterward.

Turning virtual into reality

So how exactly does one go about touring a home virtually? If possible, start by enlisting some trusted helpers, Barron suggests. Find a real estate agent who knows how to produce a home tour video, or who is savvy with Facetime (or Zoom, or Skype, or Twitch, or Facebook video, or whatever program you prefer).

In life after quarantine, if you’re buying a house in a faraway place, try to find someone there who can work with your agent in-person on your behalf, she adds.

This was an initial tactic for the Arcellos. When they started their Milwaukee house-hunt in February, a friend in the midwest city met their agent at each house and served as another pair of eyes (and ears, for any drip-drips from leaky pipes) in the homes. “She was kind of our proxy, so it was two people who were on this mission to help us,” Anna says.

And how exactly does a virtual tour work? “They would start from the outside the way they would with a normal showing, like, ‘here’s the street, here’s the entrance, here’s walking in, here are the light fixtures,’” she explains.

Virtual buyers should prepare a list of questions in advance of a virtual tour so they’re prepared to inquire into everything they need to know about a house. Ask to peek around doors and behind wall art, and inquire into the condition of gutters, the windows, the roof, the floors. Have your proxy, whether it’s an agent, a friend, or both, look beyond the aesthetic and “feel” of a house, Anna advises.

In ‘closing’

OK, now you’ve toured a house virtually, you’re in love, and you want to take the next steps. Will COVID-19 get in the way? Not necessarily, Barron assures.

To help buyers close on a co-op under COVID quarantine last month, she organized a board interview via video chat. It actually made the process easier, Barron notes, as the parties involved didn’t need to find time in their schedules to be physically present in the same room to conduct the meeting.

The same method can be applied to closings, she says. Rather than having the seller and buyer, their agents, lawyers and any additional individuals involved all gather in person, a Zoom or other video chat allows the meeting to take place remotely.

Until a national law is passed, virtual notary laws vary by state, so inquire with your agent about whether your closing documents can be notarized remotely.

Generally, the approach to virtual home sales goes back to the old adage of “when there’s a will, there’s a way.” But the more people who are willing to try the method, the better it will be for the real estate market in the future: “It’s a silver lining that’s going to come out of this awful virus,” Barron says. “We are learning that a lot of our business is going to be done in a much more effective and efficient way.”


Confused about the mortgage process? Our post “7 Steps to Take Out a Mortgage” serves up the tea.

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