Touring a house is like going on a first date: It's your chance to get a sense of whether this home is the one. Can you envision baking cookies in that kitchen, or cracking a beer on that back deck?
But in this day and age, with so many houses to see and so little time before they get snapped up, the prospect of finding this dream home in the real estate haystack can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming. Add in the coronavirus pandemic, and the idea of checking out houses all around town might feel unsafe, too.
But here's the good news: The rules on how to tour a house have changed in ways that can save time, lower your exposure to COVID-19, and curb your workload and stress levels, too. Here's what you need to know to ace your house-hunting game for the modern day.
How to schedule a home tour
Most home buyers start their house hunt online—that's a given. But once you spot a home you love, what's next?
In the olden days of real estate, a home tour would kick off with several rounds of phone/email tag. You'd call your real estate agent, who would then contact the home's listing agent, and once they'd talked you'd get looped in to when you can finally see the house. Talk about complicated! And that's for just one house; most home buyers are juggling multiple home tours.
But today, the process is much simpler. For one, many real estate listings have a button you can click on to learn more about a property, sans the annoying phone games. On some listings, you can schedule a tour simply by clicking on your preferred day and time to visit. (See the Schedule a Tour option on the right side of the sample listing below.)
In short, the process of scheduling a tour can now happen in a few seconds, no harder than ordering lunch on Seamless. After you submit your information, you'll be assigned a local real estate agent, who will reach out to you directly to confirm your tour time and format. (More on your options there next.)
Should I schedule a virtual tour or visit in person?
It wasn't long ago when the only way to tour a house would be to visit in person. But today, you also have the option to take a virtual tour. You just schedule a tour as you usually would, but request a virtual home showing where a real estate agent shows you around the house via a live video stream on Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Zoom, or other app.
So should you opt for a virtual tour, or go for the real thing? According to many real estate experts, a virtual tour is the faster, easier, and safestplace to start. While buying a home "sight unseen" as they say is a risky move few are willing to take (although it is done now more than ever), virtual tours are still a great way to whittle down your options and spend less time running around town.
"Virtual tours can act as a clearinghouse for buyers to narrow down their search," says Jack Smith, a real estate agent with Shorewest Realtors in Milwaukee. From there, if you like what you see, you can proceed to an in-person tour to get a closer look.
What to look for on a home tour
Whether you're conducting a virtual or in-person tour, it's important to get to know every nook and cranny of the property. Breezing from room to room is not enough—particularly if you're doing a remote tour where small details might be out of view.
As such, you'll want to check out some less obvious features to make sure the house is in good shape. Here are some areas to home in on that many buyers might miss:
The HVAC and hot water systems: The age and quality of these big-ticket systems can make or break your budget, so while they're not quite as fun as that gigantic kitchen island or the bonus room above the garage, they should be top priorities during your tour, even if you plan to hire an experienced home inspector.
The exterior: Don't limit your tour to the house itself. Be sure to check out the garage, front and back yards, and any structures on the property such as swimming pools or gardening sheds.
The neighborhood at large: You're not just buying a home, but the neighborhood. Try to see the homes surrounding the one for sale to get a sense of what your life there would be like. Tons of traffic whizzing by might be a deterrent if you have kids or a dog; nearby restaurants and bars might be nice but will add to ambient noise. To get to know this area better, check out local neighborhood apps like Nextdoor.com.
What role does a real estate agent play in a home tour?
A real estate agent can serve as an excellent sounding board when touring a house. Plus, if you're conducting a virtual tour, your agent may be able to visit the property on your behalf and answer any lingering questions you have, says Tony Mariotti, a real estate agent with RubyHome in Los Angeles.
"Buyers have asked us to check the number of electrical outlets and data ports in a room they intend to use as an office," Mariotti says. "We've also measured and 'reality checked' rooms that looked big in listing photos due to wide-angle lenses."
What to ask when touring houses
During a home tour, you'll want to delve deeper by asking your real estate agent questions about the house. Here are some topics to hit.
How old is the home? How old are the various systems and structural elements, like the roof and the water heater?
Has any renovation work been done? If so, were the proper permits pulled and can I see them? Was the work performed by a licensed contractor, electrician, plumber, etc.?
Are there any previous insurance claims that could affect insurability? Are there any special insurance policies required for the home?
What were the average costs of utilities (water, electric, gas, sewer, and trash) over the past 12 months?
What is the home's listing history, including any price reductions or contracts that fell through? Why did the seller drop the price? Why did the home fall out of contract?
Are there homeowners association fees? If so, what do they cover? How are the fees billed?
How home buyers can make the most out of touring homes
When touring bunches of homes, it can be hard to remember which house had that spa bathroom or sunroom you adored. To keep one home tour from blurring with the next, keep a notebook where you can make notes and reminders to help keep all the homes straight. Give each house a name if that helps you, and be sure to highlight any important concerns that jumped out during the tour.
And lest you get swept up swooning over home features that won't really matter that much in the long run (e.g., that outdoor hot tub is nice but not all that necessary), it may help to write down a list of your top house-hunting priorities.
"Buyers should have a list of their 'must haves,' their 'like to haves,' and things they are willing to compromise on in a property," says Cara Ameer, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in California and Florida.
Similar to dating, you should probably just accept that you can't have it all, and that some flexibility will be needed if you want your house hunt to end anytime soon.