In 2020, virtual showings became the necessary new normal for many people looking to buying a home, however for many military families relocating to a new duty station across the country (or the world!) are very familiar with this concept. In fact, according to a recent survey*, 89% of active-duty service members and their spouses who have PCSed have chosen a new home without personally stepping inside and visiting. This is often made possible with the help of an expert real estate agent serving as eyes and ears of the family on the ground.

Kate Christofides, a Century 21 REALTOR® licensed in Virginia and Maryland, is uniquely qualified to support military families in this way, as she was previously an Air Force officer herself spending most of her career in counter terrorism in the Middle East. Her client list is about 70% military and most of her team has some sort of military affiliation.

Kate shared some of her experiences helping military families purchase homes virtually, including some of the biggest challenges and tips to make the process as seamless as possible.

Have you helped active-duty personnel buy a home without touring it in person? 

Yes, I’ve helped many active-duty military personnel and their families purchase homes from overseas, including 5-6 over the past year. I am currently working with one in Japan, another state department employee in Mozambique and just closed last week with another client in Italy.

Has this become more common recently? 

In our area in Virginia specifically, we have a lot of bases, so we do get a lot of people who PCS here. Over the past few years, I’ve seen more people becoming comfortable with purchasing homes through virtual showings. Last year I had 12 transactions with military members and families who bought their house without stepping foot in it.

What type of tools do you use with your clients to help them feel comfortable making this decision?

Technology has come a long way, and we’re now able to use tools like WhatsApp, Facetime and Google Maps to make the process a little bit easier. People also are tapping into resources like military resources like PCSgrades, military spouse websites and blogs to find helpful information about their potential new neighborhoods. Most of my clients come to me having done their research first, in terms of specific areas or neighborhoods they would like to be in.

What are the challenges of buying a home remotely? 

A definite challenge can be finding an agent that your truly feel you can trust. We have plenty of technologies to help overcome the hurdle of not seeing the house, but the military members need to have trust and faith in their agent that they are going to do what’s in the client’s best interest. You’ll want someone that will look at the ceilings, the baseboards – all the little details that can go overlooked. You’ll also want an agent that is going to explain the good with the bad. If there’s something awry with the house, you’ll want an agent that is going to tell you that.   

When buyers aren’t here to see/smell/feel the home themselves, your agent needs to be that for you. I always aim to be as thorough as possible, so the buyers feel like they are in the home even if they are hundreds of miles away.

What are some of important considerations to keep in mind? 

For first-time homebuyers, education is huge when it comes to overseas or remote buying because there are so many steps to take. Be aware of what to expect, where you are in the process, next steps, and once everything is complete, what the timeframe is for the move.

A critical element in overseas buying processes involves the signing of contracts and paperwork. Be careful and understand that embassies and notaries around the globe are all different. Depending on your location, you may need to travel (by car or plane!) to get paperwork signed for your move. Understand the infrastructure of the country you’re currently in before you get into the contract phase.

Additionally, it’s helpful that buyers and sellers know where the other are located. This will make things easier for any discussions that need to take place so they can consider the time zone differences.  

What are some of the homebuying mistakes to try to avoid?  

A key mistake I see is that people sometimes assume that housing markets are the same. If a person from Kansas, for example, moves to Spain and then has to move to DC, it’s important that they understand what their money can buy and what they can afford in their new location. A trusted agent in that area can help you navigate the options that align with your budget. Finding someone who will be honest with you about the market and can help you set your expectations will make the process a bit smoother.

What is your biggest piece of advice? 

Start early! PCSing can come with its challenges, so you don’t want to wait until the last minute to start your search and then be disappointed if the process takes a bit longer than you expected. Do your research ahead of time and start the search as early as you can. If you come into this process with some of your homework already done, you’ll be one step ahead of the game.

Be sure to get a lender you can trust, understand what you can afford and what that looks like in different counties/cities. Take a look to see what your commute would be from your home to your base too. 

There’s also a kinship with working with an agent who has some sort of military experience, so finding an agent you can connect with and understands your needs is always a good idea.

* The survey was conducted by Wakefield Research on behalf of Realogy and PCSgrades among 250 U.S. active-duty service members and 250 spouses of active-duty service members, between February 25th and March 3rd, 2021, using an email invitation and an online survey.