The first half of 2020 has been a strange time to buy a home. With travel limited by shelter-at-home orders, home sales initially stalled at the start of the year. But as people adjust to the new normal, sales may soon pick up again—although the process will change considerably. Many people are now buying homes “based solely on photos, video, and FaceTime,” according to the Wall Street Journal, never setting foot inside their new homes until closing.
For obvious reasons, buying a home sight-unseen has generally been rare. In 2019, only 3.5% of American buyers bought a home without seeing it first, according to the National Association of Realtors’ (NAR) 2019 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers. But by April 2020, that number had increased dramatically. A recent survey of NAR agents found that 31% had worked with at least one buyer who put in a contract without ever visiting the home. And many experts say these changes will be the new norm for years to come.
While video tours and VR walkarounds are great alternatives to an in-person visit, they can make it hard to spot certain trouble areas without a trained eye. First-time homebuyers especially may have a hard time knowing what to look for, especially considering that brand-new problem areas are emerging as the country spends more time at home. Over the last few months, people have spent up to 3x more time at home than in the past, putting extra strain on their homes and appliances according to a recent Hippo survey of homeowners. And now that 43% of full-time employees say they want to continue to work remotely even after the crisis has passed, these issues may be here to stay.
Fortunately, many of these emerging problems can be solved if caught early with a little preventative maintenance—but first, you have to know where to look. Based on our recent homeowners’ survey and the thousands of proactive actions taken through virtual home maintenance checkups with our Hippo Home Care team, we’ve compiled a checklist for buyers and their agents when considering a new home in 2020.
First, recognize that homes are operating differently than before. Especially now that many home showings are virtual, it’s important to ask your real estate agent for certain information upfront. If the seller is open to sharing, ask about their family size and usual traffic patterns—this could give you clues as to how much stress the house has been under (and where) during the past few months of shelter in place. A good place to start is to think about the kinds of things you use regularly that you’re now using all the time because more people are at home. It’s very likely whoever was living in the home you’re considering buying was doing the same.
Know the signs of home strain. Some home strain is almost inevitable if the home has been lived in over the past few months. According to our research, 28% of homeowners in the U.S. have noticed more strain on their home appliances, equipment, and electronics since the pandemic. There are also lesser-known areas to keep a close eye on like plumbing fixtures like toilets and sinks. While you can take a proactive approach to mitigate future home strain, it’s important to find out how things were handled by the current owners to prepare for any hidden maintenance costs.
Pay close attention to kitchen and family room appliances. Ask about the age of certain key home appliances like dishwashers and washing machines which saw heavier use during lockdown. Pro tip: You can include coverage for equipment breakdowns in your home insurance policy to cover appliance malfunctions or unwarranted break-downs, outside of basic wear and tear. In our recent homeowners’ survey, most repairs made under shelter in place orders were for appliances. Frequently-used appliances like dishwashers, clothes washers, and dryers fail first. Check for signs of malfunction in these units as well as other issues like water damage and blown fuses.
Budget for home maintenance. According to HomeAdvisor, U.S. homeowners paid more than $1100 on home maintenance in 2018—and after the extra strain of lockdown, it might be wise to put aside a little extra for this year. Find out how much certain appliances cost to repair in your area, especially those that are more likely to break down from overuse. Start with some of the basics by looking at refrigerators, ovens, leaking pipes and faucets, and HVAC units. As a seller, if you find something that needs repair or replacement, take care of it proactively to avoid having the buyer find it and use it as a point of negotiation. It may also be worth investing in a preventative home maintenance service to save you money in the long run on unexpected repairs.
Check the pricing for standard utilities like electricity and heating. As more companies become comfortable with work-from-home setups, some utility bills can increase quite dramatically. In addition to researching the local utility costs, consider installing smart IoT devices like thermostats to help you regulate the temperate more efficiently. In some cases, it may even lead to discounts on other expenses like homeowners’ insurance.
Know your rights. The Real Property Disclosure Statement included in every home sale is a good starting point for any agent looking to protect a buyer from unforeseen costs. It lists all known issues, defects, or previous repairs for the home—emphasis on “known.” Problems the seller doesn’t know about are not included on the form, of course, and unfortunately, sellers are often advised against doing inspections that could reveal them because it might reduce the apparent value of the property. So while a clean Real Property Disclosure Statement is encouraging, it may also suggest that the seller just hasn’t looked very closely. Which brings us to our next point…
Find a good home inspector. Real estate contracts generally include an inspection contingency, which allows the buyer to back out of the deal if the home inspection uncovers any new problems. A good home inspection is thorough, honest, and complete—but some home inspectors may choose to ignore or gloss over issues to protect the deal. With so many sales now entirely virtual, choosing a good home inspector is more important than ever.
One way to find a trusted home inspector is to ask your agent. All good real estate agents have at least one vetted, reliable inspector they can recommend—after all, it’s in their best interest to have the inspection go well, too. You can also find a Certified Home Inspector on your own by checking the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) directory. ASHI certification requires 250 documented, completed, and paid home inspections plus an in-person exam, so you can be sure they know what they’re doing. Once you find someone you like, you can ask for a sample report from a similar home to see how thorough your inspection will be. Comparing reports from different inspectors will help you decide whose reports are detailed and whose are not.
Get virtual help. If you do find a maintenance issue, consider a telemaintenance visit with a Home Care Pro. Moving is stressful enough without letting a bunch of strangers into your home—especially now. Telemaintenance calls are a smart way to get that expert help remotely.
When you’re ready to buy, invest in the right homeowner’s insurance to keep your long-term costs down. If you’re not sure what to insure, ask a licensed agent for a personalized recommendation that covers all your bases, like home office coverage if you’ve been working from home more often and putting more wear and tear on your appliances. With a little savvy and the right questions, you can avoid taking on a surprise maintenance expense when you buy your next home.
Andrew Wynn is the Director of Hippo Home Care, a preventive home maintenance service helping homeowners save on time, money and stress.