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'We live in an HGTV world': How real estate shows and Zillow surfing have changed the homebuying process

'Don't let distance dissuade you from trying to find something that works for you.'

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"When I first read about people shopping for houses during Covid in April 2020, and that they were [buying after] just doing virtual video tours, I was like, 'That's absurd. I would never do it,'" says recent homebuyer Christopher Foster, 37. But, he says, a year later, "I think the circumstances of relocating during Covid just kind of pushed me to be about it."

Home website Zillow saw huge spikes in traffic during 2020, and "Zillow surfing" — using the internet to tour homes in far-flung places — has become so commonplace that it was parodied in a sketch on "Saturday Night Live."

This shift has given potential homebuyers more power than they've had in previous generations, says Jeff Knipe, a real estate agent and founder of Knipe Realty in Portland, Oregon. "We live in an HGTV world, where flipping a home seems entertaining, and it's not always that way," he says. And in the last few years, "the use of 3D virtual tours became mainstream, whereas it used to be reserved for luxury properties."

Surfing real estate sites has become more than a pandemic pastime: It's tangibly changed the way buyers approach their house hunts, and the way real estate agents do business, Knipe says.

The data backs that up: A recent survey by Omnis found that more than two-thirds of Americans started using Zillow more frequently during the pandemic, and almost half said they check it at least once a week.

'Zillow surfing' has changed the way Americans shop for homes

When Foster decided to move from Atlanta to Denver for work, he knew it would be a challenge. Foster had started a new job remotely in March from his Georgia home but since then, his Denver-based employer has been encouraging more and more people to come back to the office.

It was a move that Foster was willing to make. The Colorado native had eventually wanted to end up back home, but he also knew that a house hunt there would mean jumping from the frying pan into the fire. "Denver is hotter than Atlanta," he says. "And Atlanta is already hot."

Since Foster was doing his house hunt from almost 1,500 miles away, looking at homes online was the logical choice. Before he made the decision to move, he would casually look at sites like Zillow or Redfin. When he and his partner, Lucas, started really looking, it became a bit of an obsession.

"I feel like it kind of consumed some of our lives," Foster says. "All of our texts were about houses, it seemed. 'Did you see this one? I favorited this one. Oh, I don't like the house you just favorited.'"

Open houses are now largely done online

For starters, agents are showing far fewer homes in person, Knipe says. Before the pandemic, buyers "would never buy the first home they looked at, because they felt like they needed to go through a bunch of homes," Knipe says. Now that he's offering FaceTime tours upfront, "it's making them feel much more comfortable making the decision quicker."

"As an agent, we used to set up tours to take people through homes so they at least could see six, eight, maybe 10 in a day," Knipe says. But with so many buyers doing all their research from their couches, "we're doing much less of that now, and much more showing only one."

That one in-person walkthrough may be the only one a buyer takes before closing the deal — a trend that was almost unheard of until recently, Knipe says.

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Be wary of what the camera doesn't show

These days, buyers are coming to Knipe with a much better sense of what they want, he says. But their willingness to make a bid, or take a pass, without an in-person visit can come with potential pitfalls.

"As real estate agents, we know the good qualities about a home," Knipe says. "we also know the externalities about a home that might pop."

He means "pop" in the literal sense: It's hard to see physical warning signs in professionally shot photos. While DIY internet tours are fine for the initial stages of house hunting, buyers should still work with experienced agents to guide them to the finish line, Knipe says.

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That includes trusting your gut, and even pushing back, when an agent's virtual tour isn't thorough. During Foster's Denver house hunt, he found that some agents were willing to give him as much time as he needed, while others ran through the process very quickly, leaving him with questions.

One agent "spent 45 minutes in the house with me, and she was super-thorough. I felt like I didn't ever need to step foot in the house, because she did such a good job," Foster says. "There are other agents who just kind of breeze through, and they're like, 'This is the house.'"

If an agent seems rushed or shady, Foster says, stand your ground and don't be afraid to get answers. "Always have a standardized list of questions that you want to know about each house," he says. "And don't hesitate to ask the agent to double back on something. If you don't quite remember it correctly, text them afterwards to say, 'Hey, I just thought about this: Did you notice that the house had any odors? Or, were there any pets around?' or anything like that."

Most of the agents he's worked with were very open to answering those questions, Foster says.

Never skip an in-person visit or inspection

While Knipe is happy to offer virtual tours to anyone who wants one, he says it's imperative to do an in-person visit before making an offer.

"We're seeing a lot of people buying sight unseen, and I just really caution not to do that," Knipe says. "You can go through homes online and virtually and all those things, but there's still nothing like walking into the house — I always call it 'feeling a house' — and seeing how it feels to you."

We're seeing a lot of people buying sight unseen, and I just really caution not to do that.
Jeff Knipe
founder of Knipe Realty

Even though he did much of his house hunt online, Foster made sure to tour the house he's currently closing on before submitting his bid. He squeezed in the tour while on a business trip to Denver.

With prices through the roof and many houses going into bidding wars, buyers might feel pressured to remove a home inspection as a contingency on their offer. But that's something no one should ever forgo, Knipe says.

Foster insisted on having a home inspection, even if including that clause in his offer meant he lost the bid for the house. "If I'm spending $600,000 or $700,000, I want to know what's wrong with it," he says.

Typically, a buyer is present for the inspection itself, but Foster decided to skip that step. He had already seen the property in person and because the house is relatively new (it was built in 2016), he wasn't worried about unexpected surprises. When the inspection came back relatively clean, he believed it.

Foster and his partner close on their new house next week, and he says he's very happy with the way everything has worked out. "Don't let distance dissuade you from trying to find something that works for you," he says. "There'll be opportunities in the buying process for you to actually step foot in the house, if that's what you want."

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