Advice on buying out of state home

Like many who’ve left the Bay, we’re moving out of state shortly. What’s the best most efficient way to do this? We’ve been searching online and found a few properties we’re interested in. I’m thinking visit in person and if we like it make an offer. Pretty straight forward it seems, but I feel like its not that easy and giving me some anxiety. Both my husband have moved out of state before, but to rent an apartment in which I did the above process. It was fine, but being this will be ours to own and not rent seems daunting. Any advice is appreciated!

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If you are focused on a single area, you should connect with a realtor.  They will understand the local market and a lot of other things that you may not.  And, you should consider renting there first - your ideas about where you want to be may change dramatically. It's expensive buying and selling a house (closing costs, commissions, etc) so you don't want to make a big mistake.  

While buying a home out of state can indeed be less expensive than in the Bay Area, how easy this would be depends on the specific place you have in mind.

In general, it would be a good idea to for the first year rent an apartment in the desired location first, and become familiar with the neighborhood(s) where you will eventually want to buy a home.

Looking at property online can provide a plethora of inaccurate information.  It is a very bad idea to buy real estate sight unseen. (Don't get me started on family stories on this topic!)

Once you are situated in the new location, work with a buyer's agent who knows the local real estate market well. This costs you nothing.  The conventional system is that the seller pays their agent a commission, which the seller's agent splits with the buyer's agent. Yes, there are realtor-free deals done, and some of them work out OK. But it is very likely that using an agent will be a lot less painful for you, in your situation.

We moved to Berkeley 2.5 years ago and started putting offers on houses within months of getting here. THANK GOODNESS we didn't win any of those offers as we were bidding for homes in locations we now know would live to regret. We had no understanding of the community nor the nuances of each neighborhood. And now we are looking to leave as it's not the right fit.

My advice – move and do a long term Airbnb for a few months or just rent for a year. The latter makes much more sense, especially as we dive deeper into a recession and home values across the country continue to drop. Buy low! You can always refinance down the road, which is not saying much for those who bought when rates were 2.5% and were overpriced with no contingencies

I'm not sure how far you're moving or how possible a last minute trip to see a house is for you. We moved all the way to the east coast, so our experience may not be as applicable if you're moving right across the border to Oregon or Nevada, where you could drive in a few hours. Here was our process:

  • Research local (to the area we were moving to) real estate agents
  • Identify at least 3 possible matches and interview them over the phone (we wanted to be especially sure they were experienced and comfortable with long distance communication)
  • Identify a mortgage broker (we got recommendations from the real estate agents, then interviewed them, too) and get pre-approval letter
  • Plan a trip, in collaboration with the real estate agent, to view houses. We took 2 days and I think we were her only clients during those 2 days, so she could really focus on our needs. So our trip was planned around her schedule and ours.
  • During the trip, be very communicative about what you like and don't like about each house, must haves, good to haves, deal breakers, etc. Even if you see a house you love, make sure she knows exactly why you love it because you may put in an offer and it not be accepted. We made an offer on one house during our trip but it didn't go through, so we ended up having to do the rest remotely.
  • After returning home, we were in contact almost daily, she sent us houses she thought we might like, we watched Zillow etc. and contacted her about ones we were interested in. She did viewings, sent us videos and pictures, and called us after to discuss. She was able to schedule viewings quickly done she didn't have to worry about our schedules, which was a plus
  • Eventually we had an offer accepted, and she helped us arrange inspections, etc. but the first time we saw the house in person was the night before we closed. 

Keep in mind the housing market is super hot right now in most areas, so if you had a few you're interested in when you wrote your original post, they'll likely be gone by the time you arrange a visit, so getting an agent you trust who can do viewings for you is critical. I know in my area, houses that don't have major issues and are priced realistically are often under contract within 48 hours of listing, usually with multiple offers (over asking, waiving inspections, no contingencies, escalation clauses, etc.). If you can't do a viewing within that time frame, you'll want a proxy. And if you're just making one trip, you don't want to be limited in your selection or end up screwing yourself if your offer isn't accepted. We were first time buyers (no way we'd ever afford to buy in the Bay Area!), so it was really, really important we had an agent with lots of experience. It ended up working out great for us. Good luck!

We moved from Oakland to a suburb outside Pittsburgh, PA last year. It was a huge undertaking. This is how we did it: First we spent a lot of time making spreadsheets. We researched about 12 different areas over the fall and winter. We zeroed in our top needs (cheap real estate, low crime, and great public schools, in relatively blue city and state). Online we target about 3 areas and tracked hundreds of house sales in Zillow. We got a feel for home styles, sizes, and prices -- all very different from Northern CA! We interviewed realtors on Zoom and chose one to meet.

Then in early spring I flew across the country to visit the different townships on our list and interview the potential realtor (fortunately we hit it off). I drove for about 10 hours a day, and toured any open house I could.  I talked to everyone about what they liked about where they lived, and what they didn't. I learned a lot that was not at all obvious from online data or even home listings. For example, commute times were much longer than expected in some spots; the region is very hilly; older houses have common red flags ("grading," waterproofing, drains, and "wall anchors" are common in wet hilly places). Most importantly, the political/cultural character of neighborhoods is really not obvious until you are physically there. We were open to houses in two towns right next to one another, both with fantastic school districts. One town had cheaper, larger, newer houses/lots that we loved online, but turned out to be much less inaccessible commute-wise, and more conservative culturally (lots of school board fights). The town next door had older, smaller and slightly more expensive houses, so it seemed less desirable online. But when I visited, I fell in love with the charm and beauty of the town (so many trees!), and learned it was more diverse, more walkable, and a much better cultural fit for us. I also learned the importance of visiting each and every house. One home listed at 1800 sqft might feel cramped, while another might have a finished basement, sunroom and attic -- none of which could be included in the total sqft., but which added a huge amount of enjoyable and useful space. I took tons of phots and videos, and even videotaped my drives through neighborhoods along major arteries so my spouse could get a feel for the character and amenities.

After that first visit, my spouse, realtor, and I strategized and further narrowed down our parameters. I returned in May for a full week, ready to make an offer if we found the right house, or to try again later if we didn't. The realtor cleared her calendar for me -- and this was really important! Houses were selling so fast, that we didn't have time to travel for a specific listing. I had to tour everything that came on market the week I was there. I didn't sleep much that week, but we lucked out and found a wonderful home. We offered 10% above list price, but considered it a steal by Bay Area standards. This year should be easier for buyers, and if you're not limited to moving only when school is out, you should have even more options. Good luck!

I suggest you connect with a Realtor and have that person be your partner in this process. He/she/they can help alleviate the understandable anxiety involved here!  Good luck!

~Mai