For Army spouse Spencer Helsel, buying a house sight unseen was a wild ride and a logistical nightmare. According to a newly released study, which says that 89% of active-duty service members have PCSd to a new home without personally stepping inside and visiting, Helsel’s experience is a common occurrence.
“The process of buying from OCONUS isn’t great. But we were so eager to have a home locked in with our impending PCS that my wife and I were willing to take that leap,” he said from his new home near Fort Stewart, Georgia.
The study, which featured analysis from 500 active-duty military families, was conducted by Realogy, the largest full-service residential real estate services company in the country, in collaboration with PCSgrades, a ratings and review platform for military and veteran families.
Here are six tips to help ease the process of selecting a home sight unseen:
Divide and conquer and be specific
This spring, Air Force spouse Candra Burns moved from Ramstein, Germany to North Carolina. While living overseas, she and her husband purchased a home in La Grange, North Carolina, a short distance from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
“We took a divide and conquer mentality,” she said. “Figure out where to spend your energy, because you’re going to be spending a lot of your energy on the move itself.”
Burns recommends heavily involving your partner and dividing the responsibilities of homebuying. While she worked closely with the realtor on finding the property, her husband worked on the financing.
Her advice to families is to be specific before you even begin searching for your next home — such as coming up with the style of home, number of bedrooms, and desired commute. “And then work on what you’re willing to compromise on. My husband and I compromised on more than I anticipated to get our perfect home. And in this market, we felt it was okay to do that,” she said.
“Because if you don’t, you’re not going to get your perfect house.”
Pick a military-connected realtor
Also in Germany, Helsel narrowed down his preferred location and homebuying “wish list” for his family’s new duty station in Georgia. He relied on the Vetted VA Facebook group for tips and tricks about utilizing a VA loan in the homebuying process.
“In this group, we were meeting people who were literally in the same situation as we,” he said. The success stories of sight unseen purchases proved helpful. Additionally, he connected with a military-affiliated realtor to use in the process.
Marine spouse Lizann Lightfoot says that it’s important to connect with a real estate professional who understands your unique needs from the beginning. “Don’t feel like you have to do the real estate process in a certain way. Because a lot of times that doesn’t work for military families,” she said.
“We are a military family. We’re living in a different time zone. We’re going to have trouble doing any type of in-person event. The documents will all have to be done by email and the virtual walkthroughs by video.”
Lightfoot says she and her spouse were looking for someone who would come up with creative solutions. “Ideally, you want someone who will say, ‘why don’t I accommodate you in this way,” rather than you being the one who has to come up with all the innovative ideas.”
In 2018, Lightfoot purchased a post-military retirement home sight unseen in Pennsylvania while living in Camp Pendleton, California. To further complicate matters, her spouse was deployed to Japan during the process.
When she found the perfect home, her realtor did a variety of virtual tours. “I could ask questions and say, ‘hey, what’s in that corner over there?’ Our realtor was very helpful with sending questions back and forth,” Lightfoot said.
When they were finished, the realtor would go through the property again and upload a video for her husband to watch via YouTube in Japan since the time difference made speaking live too challenging.
Lightfoot says she remembers a lot of communication also happening via email and luckily, her spouse had access to the internet and phone pretty regularly. She says this allowed them to talk through the pros and cons of different properties. “Because that way, you know, you could write something coherently when you’re awake, and they can read it coherently when they’re awake.”
Have friends and family help you make your own luck
“Part of it is luck. We lucked into this house,” Helsel said. “But a big part of that luck was family willing to help.”
His wife’s mother was willing to drive from her home in Virginia to Georgia to walk through the house for them. “FaceTime isn’t always great. So it was a huge help to get her opinion. That really made a difference to give us that big picture of what we were looking at buying,” he said.
In the process of purchasing her home, Lightfoot also leaned on family when they hit hurdles. Her father had power of attorney to sign the closing documents but since the house was purchased was in Pennsylvania, and her father is a Maryland resident. He had to meet the signing agent at the state border to sign the documents because the law office required that signatures be complete within the state of purchase. Initially, the paperwork wasn’t completed properly so her father had to go through the process and signing twice.
Be prepared for the work required
Lightfoot said the process was overwhelming and required a great deal of time. “I was the hub of all these emails. I’m getting everything from the realtor, everything from the mortgage company, everything from the bank, everything from my dad. And then from my husband as well, they’re all kind of filtering their questions and their needs through me. And this is during deployment when I’m taking care of four kids at home,” she said.
“I felt surprised and intimidated by the amount of paperwork. You think that when you’re buying a house that house, hunting is going to be a time-consuming thing. But really for about a solid month, I felt like the paperwork and finances were almost a part-time job.” She says that it ended up being a daily process of answering emails and sending out documents to ensure the sale went through properly.
Lastly, be flexible
As things do with the military, Lightfoot’s plans changed when her husband was selected for promotion last year, extending his service and delaying his retirement. By the time they move into their dream home, it will be 2023.
At that point, she and her husband will have owned the property for five years with renters paying the mortgage on the property. “By the time we move in, our mortgage will be mostly paid off at that point. We didn’t quite plan for it to work out that way. But it did work out in our benefit,” Lightfoot concluded.
For more information about the survey, visit Realogy.com. For moving resources visit PCSgrades.