Sometimes, going out into the world can feel like such a chore that we want to stay home and put everything in the “outside world” on hold. The good news is if you’re feeling this way, your home shopping journey doesn’t have to come to a halt. In fact, many people are discovering that spending more time at home than usual is motivating them to take concrete steps toward their next residence.
Most home searches start online anyway. That means you have plenty of tools at hand to support a virtual home search from early preparation to choosing the neighborhood, community, builder, floor plan, and lot. Since it takes six to nine months for a new construction home to be built, depending on the size, materials and local market, you may as well get started on the process sooner rather than later.
1. Do Your Financial Prep First
While you’re probably eager to start looking at homes, you need to know your buying power before you fall in love with a house that’s out of your reach or underestimate what you can actually afford. First, write down your financial information — gross monthly income and other assets, monthly expenses, etc. You’ll need to know where to access your financial statements and proof of all sources of income when you apply for a loan, so it makes sense to gather that information now.
You’ll also want to request a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting bureaus in order to look for errors in your report that may need correcting.
To estimate your buying power, you’ll need to know the size of your down payment and then use a mortgage calculator to get a general idea of your potential payment, including principal, interest, taxes, and insurance. Don’t forget you may also have to pay a homeowner’s association fee.
Contact a mortgage lender online or by phone to get a mortgage preapproval letter. You’ll need to provide documentation about your financial life and authorize a credit check, but this is the best way to get certainty about what you can afford to buy.
Mortgage applications and approvals can be done entirely online with encrypted, safe portals to provide information. A mortgage preapproval from one lender won’t commit you to that financial institution or loan. You can always apply for a loan with a builder’s recommended lender or another lender when you are ready to finalize your purchase.
Once you have your price range established, you’re ready for the fun part: shopping for your newly built home.
2. Search for a Neighborhood
You may already have a general idea of where you want to buy a new home, but if not, you can start gathering information online. Tools such as Google Maps can help you navigate locations within a radius of where you work to identify potential communities. You can then narrow or broaden your search on NewHomeSource.com to find new communities.
Google Maps also allows you to shift to street view to explore neighborhoods virtually. Zoom out to look for nearby parks, coffee shops, libraries, and restaurants, and zoom in to see a specific street. When you’re looking at a community in its early stages, though, you may need to rely more on renderings and images from the community developer or builder to visualize how the neighborhood will look.
If you have children, schools are typically a top priority. You can use GreatSchools.org to read school reviews and ratings (and check out our guide to understanding what those reviews and ratings mean!). Another good resource for school information can be the school system itself.
For example, if you want your child to have a bilingual education or attend a school with a strong focus on math and science, the school system’s website will have that information.
Other options for information about a neighborhood include the Homefacts App, which provides comprehensive school and crime statistics, demographic information, and environmental reports. The AroundMe app makes it simple to find restaurants, movie theaters, gas stations, and more in any location.
3. Compare Home Styles
See realistic renderings of new homes and community amenities that have yet to be built.
The prime considerations when looking for a home are location, price, and the home itself. While you may love Craftsman, contemporary or modern farmhouse homes, you can zero in on what your ideal home looks like by looking online. Check out our Home Style Guides to look at home styles and trends that are available in new construction homes today.
You can also evaluate the pros and cons of condos and townhouses to see if that lifestyle matches your preferences. Make a list of your “must-have” priorities and “nice-to-have” amenities for your home and neighborhood. If you’re buying with someone else, you can each make your list and then discuss the trade-offs that you may be willing to make.
4. Work with the Pros: Sales Representatives
Virtual Home Tours
Take a tour of your prospective new home right from your phone. Many virtual tours are based on the most advanced video game technology.
Now it’s time to connect with the builder or a sales agent who can help you throughout the process. Ask the builder to send you a link to a virtual tour or video of the model home. Virtual tours give a much more detailed look at what you’re buying than photos alone, and you can easily begin to picture yourself in the floorplan.
Want to get more interactive when shopping for a home online? Use FaceTime, Google Duo, or Skype for a video chat with your builder. If you want to loop others into the conversation, a Zoom meeting or other conference line works well. With a video chat, the agent can share more information directly with you about the home you’re interested in or give a real-time virtual tour.
You can also schedule a one-on-one private tour, or simply request information on upgrades or request an online consultation with a designer. Ask your builder if they have an online design center or can send you additional information on options and features.
Never be afraid to ask for more details! What other images, video, and content can the builder share about the new home? Is there a lot map with availability? What is the latest info on promotions? Your builder has all this information and more.
5. Find Your Community
Once you’ve narrowed your preferences for a neighborhood and a home style, it’s time to evaluate communities with amenities. Most new or master-planned communities have a website that provides extensive information about existing and planned amenities, as well as all the resources available for the area.
Typically, you’ll find a video of what the community looks like now, as well as how it may look in the future. Some sites may include a virtual walking tour of the neighborhood. Don’t forget to check for the amenities you’re prioritizing. For instance, if you want to swim year-round, see if there are indoor and outdoor pools. If you love to hike, see if there’s access to trails.
6. Explore Builder Resources
Interactive Floor Plans
See realistic renderings of new homes and community amenities that have yet to be built.
In single-builder communities, the community and builder website are one in the same. In master-planned communities with several builders, you’ll want to go to the individual builder websites to look at individual homes. Builder websites offer myriad resources for buyers including floor plans, renderings or photos of the various home styles and often a 3D or virtual tour of the model.
Often, the floor plans are interactive and allow you to see alternate layouts and options that affect the structure of the house, such as a sunroom addition or finished loft level. Many, but not all, include current pricing.
You’ll also often find a section of homes that are ready (or nearly ready) for move-in, if you’re looking for an earlier moving day. Looking at the photos and specifics of these homes can be valuable even if you prefer to build from scratch. You can see what optional features were chosen and how those look in the home.
Many builder websites include reviews from homeowners. Reading those reviews can give you insight into how the builder works with customers.
Probably the most important feature on the builder website will be the contact information for the sales office. As soon as you decide you’re interested in that builder’s offerings, contact the sales representative to discuss your options. The sales representative or, with smaller builders, the builders themselves will have more up-to-date information than the website.
You can find out current pricing, which lots are available, and which floor plans can be built on which lot. A phone call or video chat can provide essential information to help you decide if this is the builder you prefer.
If a virtual tour of the community and model home is not available, ask the salesperson to livestream a video tour via FaceTime, Google Duo, or Facebook Live. Alternatively, the salesperson can record a video and send it to you as a link that you can review later and share with friends and family.
7. Choose Your Floor Plan & Lot
Community Site Plans
View the available lots and which homes can be built on each lot.
Dissect the pros and cons of different floor plans and models, such as whether you want a home with a laundry room upstairs or a rear kitchen or any of the dozens of configurations that may be available. The builder or the sales representative is a vital resource to help you make these choices. In some communities, you may be limited to one or two floor plans or to specific exteriors for each lot so that the overall streetscape of the community is pleasing.
When reviewing floor plans, be sure to discuss which features are optional and which are standard. You’ll likely have some choices to upgrade the finishes and fixtures that can affect your final price, but it’s also important to understand which items, such as the fireplace you loved in the model home, are not included in the base price.
You can also discuss the lots themselves with the sales representatives. Ask the representative to video chat with you from the lot you’re considering to show you how the house would fit on the lot and what the view will be like.
Look at the online site plan and think about whether you want to be near the front of the community, near the back or near green space. Be sure to ask about future construction, because if you’re in an initial phase of the community, you may not realize that the green space that exists now next to your preferred location could be slated for a future retail site or a school. You may want to live adjacent to a retail site for walkability, so it’s important to learn as much as you can about any plans for the surrounding area.
Keep in mind that some lots have a premium due to size or location, which means you’ll pay extra for that site. Knowing your budget can help you decide if you want to pay more for a certain spot or view.
8. Make Your Design Choices
Interactive Room Visualizers
See various cabinet styles and colors, finishes, flooring, appliances, and fixtures in your prospective new home.
Depending on which builder you choose, you may have a “good-better-best” choice of finishes and fixtures, such as kitchen cabinets, appliances, counters, flooring, light fixtures, and tiles, or you could have a choice of curated packages or the opportunity for more customization. These design choices can also be made online.
Ask your sales representative if a design center manager can work with you via Skype, Facetime, or Zoom to work through options. You might need an allowance from the builder, extra cash or wiggle room in your loan amount to cover some options, so make sure you understand how you’re paying so you don’t go over budget. Get input from your design center expert and sales representative if you’re struggling to choose between different options. You can also return to those inspirational sites you visited at the beginning of the process.
While buying and building a home sight unseen isn’t common, it’s a process that many international buyers, vacation home buyers, and relocating buyers have accomplished with great success in the past. When you’re ready for a new home, get comfortable with your technology and start shopping.
Michele Lerner is an award-winning freelance writer, editor and author who has been writing about real estate, personal finance and business topics for more than two decades.