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Social distancing causing some homebuyers to commit, "sight unseen"

The buyers of this Lloyd Harbor house didn't

The buyers of this Lloyd Harbor house didn't step inside until the day they closed on their house, says their real estate agent, Sari Eidelkind, with Lucky to Live Here Realty in Cold Spring Harbor. Credit: Sari Eidelkind

Alix Vance knew her family needed to buy a home with enough space for remote work and schooling, a backyard, proximity to a charming downtown and convenient access to New York City. So when she found a house in Locust Valley that checked every box, she felt confident it was the right choice.

So confident, in fact, that she and her husband, David, signed a contract last month to purchase the four-bedroom house without ever stepping foot inside it.

The Vances, who are relocating from California with their two teenage sons and their dog, expect to visit the house for the first time in August, when they come to Long Island to close the sale. They based their decision on online photos, floor plans, video tours and additional research by their real estate agent.

“It's very reflective of the time that we're in,” said Vance, who will be starting a new job at a Suffolk County publishing company in August. Vance’s husband will continue to work remotely, as he did in California. “I don’t have a lot of time for froufrou and nonsense. I want to focus on what really matters, which is everyone getting their jobs done and not going crazy and basically keeping peace in the household, being productive and … not getting too caught up in this decision.”

The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing shutdown of nonessential work – including in-person showings by real estate agents – has forced prospective homebuyers to make difficult choices. Many have delayed decisions or declined to make purchases, leading to sharp declines in contract signings and closed sales since the shutdown began in March. The number of closed sales dropped by 31.5% in Suffolk County and almost 44% in Nassau County last month compared with the previous April, OneKey MLS reported last month. New contract signings plummeted year-over-year by 62% in Suffolk and almost 70% in Nassau.

But the most determined buyers have moved ahead. Like the Vances, some enter the home for the first time when they do a walk-through right before the closing. 

Remote-only buyers have a range of reasons for declining to do their home-shopping in person. In some cases, they are moving from out-of-state and are seeking to avoid plane trips.

“Normally, I bring clients to a house, I arrange for them to see the property, walk the property, they drive around the neighborhoods, deciding what they like,” said Sheila Wenger, a real estate agent with Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty in Sea Cliff who represented the Vance family in their search for a home. But, she said, “with the pandemic, people just were not getting on airplanes.”

So when the Vances told her they would be buying a house without ever stepping foot in it, she said, “That's when the pressure was on.”

“It was really a fun challenge, and nerve-wracking on my part, too,” Wenger said. “All five senses are involved when you see a house. They didn't have that luxury, so I had to be all five senses.”

Other remote-only buyers are locals who know the area so well they feel they do not need to visit in person.

Sari Eidelkind, a real estate agent with Lucky to Live Here Realty in Cold Spring Harbor, represented a family that had relocated from Lloyd Harbor to Brooklyn two years ago and wanted to move back again. “This was early on in the pandemic, when nobody was allowing anyone inside their homes, and their lease was ending in July,” Eidelkind said. “They were buying a house, no matter what.”

The family signed a contract to buy a five-bedroom home on two acres in Lloyd Harbor based on online photos, floor plans, extensive documentation from the homeowners and more than 400 photos taken by an inspector, along with a walk around the perimeter of the house, Eidelkind said. The buyers, she said, “understood there was work to be done in the house. They weren't going to nickel and dime over little things.”

The buyers stepped into the home for the first time on May 27, the day they closed on it for nearly $1.29 million, Eidelkind said.

“There are always going to be the people that need to touch, to feel, to walk through a home if they're going to make any kind of large purchase like that, but there is a trend of buyers who are buying sight-unseen,” she said. “To be able to do that, you have to have a really good understanding of the market.”

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