The fundamental rules when buying a home have always been to check the building and its location thoroughly and make several visits before signing on the dotted line.
Yet in today’s property market that kind of safety-first thinking is a thing of the past.
‘Buying unseen is the most dramatic Covid-driven property trend we’ve seen,’ says Ed Jephson of Stacks Property Search. ‘It’s happening because the huge demand for rural properties exceeds supply.’
Buying blind: With homes selling as fast as they come up for sale – and in many cases before they make a public appearance – the onus is on the buyer to act swiftly
With homes selling as fast as they come up for sale — and in many cases before they make a public appearance — the onus is on the buyer to act swiftly.
A personal visit slows down the whole process and is often in vain as the property sells before the buyer can get to the front gate.
Jephson has seen an escalation of purchasers ‘buying unseen’ in the expensive hotspots of Devon such as Dartmouth and the villages on its estuary.
However, this is by no means a local phenomenon.
An estimated 53,700 households have moved from the city to the countryside in the past year according to Hamptons International and it is going on nationwide.
‘I’d say one-in-ten buyers bid blind now,’ says Jo Ashby, of John Bray estate agents who sell property in north Cornwall.
‘Many know the area from holidaying here, but they’ll bid for a house without having viewed it.’
In Pembrokeshire, where prices do not compare to the south-west peninsular, the story is the same.
‘Buying unseen has been going on constantly in West Wales since the first lockdown,’ says Carol Peett, of West Wales Property Finders.
‘I viewed a property in Saundersfoot for a client the minute it went on the market and by the time I had driven back to the office — a 20-minute trip — it had gone under offer from someone who had not seen it.’
Buying unseen may seem like a foolhardy way of purchasing the most expensive item most of us will buy in our lives. After all, property details are written by estate agents, whose job it is to sell the property for the vendor, not to protect the buyer.
However, there are ways of minimising the risk.
‘Do as much research as possible on the internet,’ says Jephson. ‘Google Maps, Google Earth, floor-plans, virtual viewings are all your go-to resources.’
Jephson points out that you can find out an enormous amount about a property if you know what to look for and where to look.
An Ordnance Survey map will show public footpaths and the gradient of the land. Street maps show the proximity of neighbours, the length of the drive, width of the road, distance to the beach, pub, school; all of which may be important. It pays, too, to study flood maps, which are found at gov.uk/check-flood-risk.
Ideally, you should have a trusted friend in the area who will supply a warts-and-all forensic virtual walk-through, preferably conducted on FaceTime. This should take in the surroundings as well as the property and grounds.
Ask about the things the camera can not show such as the smells, the vibe on the streets and traffic or rail noise.
Buying unseen worked well for Scarlett Leung when she bought a new four-bedroom house from Anwyl Homes in Rhuddlan, North Wales, while living in Hong Kong, when the Covid travel restrictions ruled out a viewing in the normal way.
Her new home is located in the countryside, near hiking routes, a golf club and health care facilities.
‘If we had waited for the relaxation of the travel restrictions from Hong Kong we’d have lost the chance of buying the house in such a perfect location,’ says quantity surveyor, Scarlett, 42. ‘It also saved us travelling time and cost.’
Not all such long-distance deals go smoothly. ‘I met a lady last week whose daughter in Dubai had bought a property in Narberth, sight unseen,’ says Peett.
‘After the purchase, the mother had come down to see the house and was shocked at the amount of work that needed to be done.
‘She was also unable to park outside; something that wouldn’t have been obvious from the internet details.’
Is buying unseen ever worth the risk? ‘It isn’t a recommended buying method for 99 per cent of buyers,’ says Jephson.
‘It’s not for the faint-hearted; buyers require nerves of steel, deep pockets and an overwhelming desire to own a specific property.
‘But with prices on an upward spiral there’s significant protection from making a big financial mistake.
‘For those who don’t have the luxury of being able to look at a property, providing they do their research, it doesn’t have to be as crazy an idea as it sounds.’