Would You Buy Real Estate Without Seeing It?


Your shrewd grandfather probably would have disowned you for it. And yet, it's so tempting.

Here in this time of beachfront condos and ski chalets at up to 40% off their old asking prices, combined with high-speed Internet connections allowing video tours and Google maps showing their neighborhoods, it would be easy to buy a piece of property without seeing it in person. There are no statistics for how many property buyers take that risk, purchasing a house before stepping foot in it, but it happens.

"It's a little like Russian roulette," says Ed Garcia, a real estate agent in Miami. "It's a huge gamble. You may come out of it with a gem, but can you afford it if you don't?"

Web sites like eBay (Stock Quote: EBAY) have brought the international real estate market to the comfort of one's laptop. If you're looking for an online timewaster, there's nothing better to do than to check out the site's property deals, like the 4,200-square-foot tudor-style home on a golf course in Canadian Lakes, Mich., for around $650,000 (including club membership). Or look for the Port St. Lucie condo with no reserve that can be had for about $48,000.

Of course, deals like these need to be done "now." If you don't act fast, you're going to be left out, as the ads always say. And it's easy to think "here we go again," since you didn't take advantage of the big Nordstrom sale a few weeks ago. But buying a house is much different than getting a new pair of slacks.

"Unless this is a business to you and the financial commitment involved isn't going to make or break you, buying a house sight unseen is something I'd definitely advise against," says accountant Steve Riley of St. Louis. "No matter how good the pictures on the Internet and all that, nothing can tell you for sure if you're right about a deal without going there yourself."

If you're determined to a buy a place without seeing it, use caution. Here are some tips:

Call a realtor: If you're looking to buy at an auction, it's not a bad idea to talk to a realtor in the area to get a feel for the neighborhood, the area's prospects and perhaps what that particular house is like. It's possible your agent friend could get you a better deal working with the owner than buying through the auction.

Beware of the details: There are lots of things a video tour can't show you. The bathrooms may be remodeled and beautiful, but the septic system may need a complete overhaul. A turn-of-the-century beach home may look quaint in the photos, but having all the electrical wiring replaced wouldn't be that special.

Get the report: Before signing a purchase agreement, have a home inspection first. This can take a few days more, but let's face it, even if it's a great deal, property's just not moving very fast nowadays.

Call the police: Some due diligence on the people you're working with isn't a bad idea. You may not have to go to the extent of calling the police for advice, but you can ask the agent or inspector for references with the local chamber of commerce or board of realtors.

Ask a friend: Buying a house sight unseen is a crazy, wild thing to do, even if you can afford a big loss. Don't feel too stupid to ask a friend or relative if what you're doing is the right thing. (Just don't blame them if it all blows up in your face.)



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