Would you buy a house never having set foot in it?

Survey says that one-in-six would put in an offer without visiting in person. Plain daft in my view

With social distancing and other restrictions in place for the foreseeable future, moving house is now a very different experience. A recent study suggests that more than a third of Brits expect virtual viewings will be the norm when house hunting and one-in-five believes you can get everything you need from viewing a property virtually. Meanwhile, one-in-six are even willing to make an offer without setting foot in the front door.

While I don’t doubt the findings, surely that last statement beggars belief?The idea fills me with dread and needs further examination. Would you make an offer on a house you have only seen on video? Really? What if the sellers leave out the dodgy bits, showing the nice garden decking and ‘forgetting’ to swing the camera around to the jungle growing behind?

I think such figures need a little further drilling. For example, what is to stop potential buyers lining up a shortlist of properties they like the look of (let’s say three) from just video viewings and then putting in some ‘cheeky’ offers? Nothing, I would suggest. They offer, say, 10 grand less than the asking price on all three and, if one or more of the owners ‘bites’, then they have something to think about. My point is, of course, that it is one thing to make an offer; it is another to make a ‘serious’ offer. It is too easy in the English property market to ‘fly a kite’ and lob in any offer (I don’t think that is the case in Scotland). Even if you are taken up on it, you are not committed. I wonder how many prospective buyers would make an offer if, as a sign of good faith, they were required to deposit 5% of the asking price into an escrow account?

The survey of 2,000 adults was carried out on behalf of Purplebricks. It revealed that during a virtual viewing, Brits would like to get a detailed walkthrough of the entire space, a sense of any issues or repairs, brightness of the rooms and storage space. The functionality of the space, a sense of ambience or a feeling about the house and the décor were also important considerations to encourage people to buy a house from a virtual viewing. 

To help people navigate the new virtual housing market, Purplebricks has partnered with interiors expert and author of Mad About the House, Kate Watson Smyth. The collaboration aims to show people how they can make their homes more appealing on virtual viewings, without spending a fortune.  

Kate Watson Smyth said: “There are a number of practical things you can do to make a great first impression, but the hardest part of showing your home virtually is giving people that feeling or vibe you get when you step into a house. 

“While you can’t delight them with the smell of freshly baked bread or coffee brewing as they walk in the door, there are some clever tricks you can do. Place fresh flowers to brighten up a room, make sure all of the rooms are clean and tidy, show off any storage space, pull back the curtains to let in the light, and stage the rooms to encourage buyers to see themselves in the home with their family and friends.”

Angela Wallace, divisional sales director at Purplebricks, added: “The pandemic has thrown up many new challenges for buyers and sellers across the UK. But this has heralded a new era of virtual house hunting and homeowners are quickly adopting this new way of buying and selling homes. 

“Buyers are enjoying the speed and ease of doing viewings from the comfort of their own sofa, and sellers have welcomed a new way to show off their property. We’re seeing an increasing number of sales from virtual viewings where buyers have never even set foot inside the house, so it’s more important than ever to make a great virtual first impression.”

The study revealed that the top things sellers can do to appeal to potential buyers are:

  • Presentation is priority: Make sure all rooms are well presented
  • Bright is right: The whole home needs to feel light and airy 
  • Cleanliness is essential: The property MUST be sparkling clean

The study also found that buyers are put off by:

  • Dingy light: Very dark and cluttered areas
  • Overgrowth: Really overgrown and unkempt gardens
  • Laundry-free: Any clothes or washing left on the floor
  • Rainbow decorations: Gaudy or garish colours used indoors

Tips for sellers from interiors expert Watson Smyth on styling your virtual viewings

  1. First impressions still count: Buyers may not be walking up the front garden path but they will be starting in your hall. This sets the tone for the rest of the house so make sure it’s tidy – no piles of coats, bags and shoes spilling out. Make sure the doors to the other rooms are open so that it’s as light as possible.
  • Social media savvy: Buyers may well be users of Instagram and wary of what you aren’t showing or what is lurking out of shot. Make sure there’s a full 360O pan of each room so they can see the corners and understand the space and know that you aren’t hiding a broken window or a pile of laundry that has nowhere to go. 
  • Acknowledge problem areas: Kate advises: “If you have a small dark room then dress it to be cosy and inviting and show how you use it – e.g. as a kid’s TV room, a home office, or a guest room.”
  • The sitting room: While virtual viewers may not be able to smell fresh flowers, they still look pretty. Make sure any big leaves are shiny and remove any brown or droopy ones. 

The fashion for completely depersonalising a room has gone now but don’t fill every surface with pictures of your cute kids and pampered pets. House buying is still aspirational as well as practical; make sure your coffee table books reflect that. 

  • The kitchen: Storage is key. Make sure at least one cupboard is tidy (and open it to show viewers). Declutter the worktops so keen cooks can see there is plenty of prep and storage space. High-end appliances can help sell a kitchen so show off any that you have and while you can’t tempt viewers with the real smell of fresh coffee and baked bread, a coffee machine and high quality toaster may help. If you have a pantry or a utility room, then tidy it and show it off. Buyers want to know where they can store the ironing board, the muddy boots or a washing machine.

As well as online photo galleries, Purplebricks has a number of virtual viewing options to help you sell your home, including virtual videos, 3D tours and live virtual viewings. With the Purplebricks app sellers can track their sale 24/7. They have control over the whole process from viewings and offers to direct messaging with buyers. Combined with the support and advice from a local property expert, Purplebricks is committed to making the moving process easier. 

Tips for buyers on what to look for during virtual viewings

Kate Watson Smyth recommends:

  1. Don’t judge a book by its cover: Look beyond the décor – too ugly and it might put you off and too pretty and you might forget to look at what’s really going on in a room. Décor can easily be changed; you need to look at the ‘bones’ of the house to decide if it’s right for you.

  2. DIY disaster or delight? While introspecting the “bone structure” of the property, ask if there are there lots of original features? Does the fireplace work? Where are the radiators positioned in the rooms and will your sofa have to sit in front of one? Are there floorboards under that carpet?  

  3. Warm windows: Check the windows; are they double-glazed, uPVC? These things can be expensive to add or replace. If the property isn’t double-glazed, this will impact the temperature in the rooms and single glazing will, inevitably, let out a lot of heat, as well as letting the cold in.

  4. Orientation is key: Find out which direction the property faces – north or south? South will be hot in summer and the sun might shine in directly (lovely, but it will fade your sofa) whereas a northern light will be steady all day long. 

  5. Glance outside: Can you see views from the windows? You might be looking over a car park or a busy shopping street and, if it’s noisy outside, this is often one of the biggest deterrents when it comes to buying a property and something that might be hard to establish on a virtual viewing.

  6. Look into the lighting: Are the lights on or off? Does the room you are seeing need the lights on all day, or is it filled with natural light? You don’t want a gloomy, badly lit room if it is one you’re going to be working from. 
  7.  Size of furniture: Don’t forget to look at the size of the furniture – is that a two-seater sofa or a three-seater? How big do you need it to be to meet your needs? How many people can sit round that kitchen table? Can you add a bench or fit in a bigger one? Count the kitchen cupboards (and compare with what you already have). Is the fridge big enough and if not, is there space to add a bigger one? What is the state of the oven and might it need replacing in a hurry?
  8.  Investment points: Bathrooms and kitchens are the rooms we most often want to change, but they’re also the most expensive. You might have to live with what you buy for a while, so have a close look at all the appliances. In the bathroom, have a look at the state of the grout and limescale and decide if something(s) needs to be replaced. 
  9. Water pressure: Ask about water pressure in the shower (if it’s a live viewing ask the property seller to turn it on). Is there room for a bigger shower or a freestanding bath?
  1. Essential room for storage: One of the main things people forget to ask when viewing a property is ‘where is the storage?’ It’s always key, so make sure you keep an eye out in every room. Start with the hall – where are the coats? Where would you put yours if you were actually going round to visit? Where do they keep the big, awkward stuff like the vacuum cleaner and the ironing board?

All great advice, but here’s mine in addition … don’t even think about putting in an offer without checking out the property in person. Maybe it’s an old-fashioned attitude, but it works for me. I once bought a house in Petts Wood without fully appreciating the poor state of the plaster on the walls (difficult to hide in a video? Not entirely, especially behind large items of furniture). It proved to be an expensive oversight. I ended up paying for nearly every wall in the house to be re-skimmed. Have a good look around, go away, think about it and, if still interested, go back for a second look, at least! After all, it could be your home for a very long time.

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David Buckley

Dave Buckley is a career journalist. “I once went painting girders for a week and discovered I didn’t like heights,” he says. “Apart from that it has always been journalism for me in one form or another.” Past publications worked for include the South-East London Mercury*, Kent Messenger, Daily Express, Today*, News of the World* and Hong Kong Star*. All those marked with an asterisk no longer exist (trend emerging?). He owned and edited a Thailand-based property magazine before returning to England and currently works as a production editor for an East Midlands-based publishing group.

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