My husband and I recently moved — in a giant moving truck stuffed with our belongings, our plants, and our little old dog — from Los Angeles to Philadelphia after living in Southern California for over a decade. The long-distance move was a big enough deal on its own, but it was an extra-big deal because we were buying our first home — and moving during a pandemic.

The coronavirus added two unique layers to our home-buying experience: It motivated us to move in the first place (because low mortgage rates made borrowing money cheap, and quarantining together gave us ample time to reassess our priorities), and it meant we couldn’t easily see our house before we bought it.

With FaceTime tours, Google street view, and online property listings, we weren’t overly worried about buying a house sight unseen — we felt like we could get a good picture of the property by using every tool at our disposal. But there were two things we paid for that really helped seal the deal.

1. A realtor who had experience with out-of-town buyers

It was more difficult than I expected to find the right realtor for our cross-country move. I emailed many and heard from few, and the ones we did connect with weren’t necessarily right for us, either in terms of personality fit or professional experience. The realtor we ultimately worked with — Allison at Philly Home Girls — was exactly right for us on both fronts.

We were looking particularly for someone who had experience working with out-of-town buyers, and Allison had it in spades. Before us, she helped a couple in Japan find their home in Philly. They were a military couple coming back to the US and wouldn’t make it across the world before their closing day. So they, like us, were buying a house sight unseen. They were thrilled with their home when they saw it for the first time.

She’d also worked with several other out-of-state buyers, so we were confident that she would know how to help us. She explained all of this during a lengthy, thorough Zoom call that she scheduled right away when we first reached out — the first sign of a wonderful relationship to come.

Allison also had the right personality to handle us and our needs. As a journalist, I always have a ton of questions, and she was endlessly patient with me. She also had a sixth sense for the type of property we were looking for, pointing out details during FaceTime walk-throughs that we might have missed or had questions about, like how big the kitchen felt and whether or not there were any original details in the century-old homes.

Her brokerage firm charges a fairly typical 2.5-3% commission (paid, in our case, by the seller) plus a $495 fee paid by us. That fee was worth every penny.

2. A thorough home inspection, plus follow-up visits by specialist tradespeople

A home inspection is a pretty standard part of the home-buying process (though more people are forgoing it in hot markets, hoping to get their offers accepted). In our case, paying a hefty sum ($625) for an inspection from a top company was worth it.

Our inspector not only sent out a super-detailed report, but he also took the time to speak with us via video after he completed the inspection, walking us through a couple of issues he thought were significant. His report ultimately formed the backbone of our negotiation with the seller — it provided us the detail (and cost estimates) we needed to argue for repairs and credits. 

The inspection revealed some pretty serious problems with our home’s electrical wiring, and repairing it all seemed like it would be an expensive job. We weren’t looking to buy a fixer-upper (and didn’t have the budget for it) so we needed as much information as possible to figure out a) what repairs we could afford to make ourselves, and b) what repairs we could ask the seller to make or pay for. 

Because our home inspector was only qualified to make general observations, we decided to bring in an electrician to take a more detailed look at the wiring and give us an estimate on the cost to repair it. The electrician’s report cost us $150, and it helped us negotiate a significant amount from the seller towards the cost of rewiring the house. That small expense saved us thousands in the long run, got us a fully-rewired house, and ultimately helped us move forward with our home purchase.

While we could, in theory, have flown out to Philadelphia for the home inspection or at any other point before closing day, it didn’t seem safe or responsible. COVID-19 cases were on the rise in both LA and Philly, and we felt we could get enough information from our many resources to make a decision. We got to see the house about two hours before we signed for it, and I’m happy to say we were thrilled with every square foot.

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