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Steve McLinden, the Bankrate.com Real Estate AdviserBuying home sight unseen? Get an expert's view

Dear Real Estate Adviser,
I currently live in California and plan to buy a home in Ohio. Can you advise me about buying without checking it out firsthand? Finances and a fear of flying are driving this decision. I can't afford to move twice, so renting before the purchase is out of the question. Plus, we have pets to consider.

Unfortunately, we don't know anyone in California to help us in this process. What are your thoughts?
-- Julie M.
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Dear Julie M.,
Realize you are flying blind here -- or in your case, driving blind.

Not that sight-unseen home purchases can't work out OK. Such deals are done more routinely than ever, particularly among out-of-town investors, according to real estate and mortgage groups.

But the inherent risks in these types of buys are obviously far greater than there are in the purchase of a home to which you've given intense personal scrutiny. Sight unseen, you are relying almost exclusively on the honesty and forthrightness of your agent, the marketing literature, some digital photos, and (or) a virtual tour and, possibly, satellite images.

In this sort of deal, I strongly advise against using the seller's agent because that agent, by nature, has the seller's best interests in mind, not yours. Ask the agent who is selling your California home to refer you to a relocation specialist in Ohio, or do some agent research of your own on the Internet, then call your top choices and screen each extensively.

Be very clear with the agent what type of house and amenities you're shopping for, and request information on schools, parks, crime statistics, taxes, utility costs, shopping, mass transit and anything else that will tangibly affect your quality of living. Always do a search for any sex offenders who might be living in the immediate area. Your Ohio agent should be able to refer you to the appropriate Web site.

Before proceeding, you'll need to add a few safety nets to your due-diligence list to make this less of a crapshoot: Carve out room in your tight budget to hire a home inspector to give the place a thorough going-over. You can't afford not to. You should also insist on a contingency in the sales contract that allows you to do a final -- or in your case, first -- walk-through in the empty house before you agree to sign those closing papers. Furnishings and other household items often obscure defects from agents and home inspectors -- and you, especially if you're only looking at pictures of the place.

But there are some things about home buying that you can only observe firsthand, such as neighborhood culture and noise levels, the condition of nearby houses, traffic on your street, funky/suspicious smells in and around the house, or the presence of busy roads or highways nearby.

In other words, you just can't get a real feel for your prospective living environment from afar -- and that's a big drawback in such sight-unseen purchases.

Good luck on the move. (You might need it!)

To ask a question of the Real Estate Adviser, go to the "Ask the Experts" page, and select "Buying, selling a home" as the topic.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: March 11, 2006
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