Finding the right house or apartment is rarely easy, but it's even harder when you're conducting your search remotely. Just ask Marjorie Comer, 26, a military wife who's moved several times in the past few years. She and her husband tried to house hunt from afar before they moved from Kansas City, Mo., to Charleston, S.C., in January 2010. Not knowing many people in Charleston, the couple searched online before deciding to drive in for a two-day real estate blitz. "Everything was really gross or way out of our rental price range," she says. Finally, they settled on a rental in what she describes as a "semi-nice area."
When the family moved again to Florida in May 2011, Comer says she felt better equipped to find a place to live thanks to the military resources she'd uncovered and the strategies learned from their previous search. They searched online again, then spent a four-day weekend in the area north of Jacksonville, Fla., once they narrowed their search to 10 houses.
Here's a look at strategies for conducting a real estate search from a distance.
Do your homework online. The Internet has a wealth of information available about rental units and houses for sale, so try websites like craigslist.org or zillow.com to get a feel for the local market. "Know what you're looking for, how many bedrooms you need and what your price range is," Comer says.
Alerting your social network can also help. "Don't be afraid to post on Facebook that you're looking," Comer says. "You never know if someone is friends with someone whose brother-in-law lives in that location."
As Bill Deegan, CEO of renternation.com, a website that advocates for renters, points out, "people usually pick up stakes and move for a reason – for school, family or work – so try to use those networks to get recommendations." He also suggests using Google Earth to get a feel for the neighborhood, a potential home's exterior and what amenities are nearby. "If having art galleries or things are important to you, make sure that they're nearby, and you can have easy access to them," Deegan says.
"Also consider how close should it be to employment or public transportation or your sick dad."
However, don't believe everything that's posted online. Sometimes apartment photos can be staged, outdated or depict another unit in the building rather than the one that's actually available. "Some of the units that looked great in Apartment Finder looked really sketchy in person," Comer says.
Plan a quick trip. Photos and online listings don't tell the whole story. An apartment or house that looks great online may have a less-than-ideal location, rowdy neighbors or unpleasant smells from smoke or pets. That's why it's often a good idea to schedule a quick trip to your new town or city, especially if you'll live with roommates you haven't met yet.
Jon Mauney, 25, made a quick visit to New York City last April before relocating from Washington, D.C. "It was less about seeing the sublet and more about meeting the people I'd be living with," he says. "They wanted to be able to meet the person and approve them." Mauney had already emailed the roommates to get a feel for their living style and the apartment, so he had an inkling it would work out and didn't make plans to look at other places.
To make the best use of your time, come armed with questions and a list of properties you're interested in rather than starting from scratch when you arrive. If you're relocating for a job, your new employer may offer relocation assistance, like a list of local agents who can help show you potential places to live.
Recruit a local scout. When visiting properties in person isn't feasible, a local friend or relative can sometimes scope them out on your behalf. Deegan suggests that a local scout could take photos and email them to you so you get a more realistic picture of the house or apartment. He says the scout should give you the pros and cons of each place but ultimately let you decide.
A few years ago, when Obed Diener, 36, and his family moved from the West Bank back to Washington, D.C., Diener recruited his brother, Brian Diener, 35, who lived a few hours away, to spend a weekend looking at properties they prescreened online.
"We had put together a checklist for Brian of the features that were priorities for us," Obed Diener says. "At the time we moved, we had a 2-year-old and 3-month-old, so for us, child safety was important. We had notes for him to look for the handrails on the stairs and if there's a deck, make sure there's a railing." After each property viewing, Brian Diener would call his brother via Skype to discuss his impressions.
The rental home Brian Diener chose for them ended up meeting all their criteria -- and interestingly, was shown by a neighbor because the owner also lived abroad. "We were really fortunate to have someone like Brian ... We felt like he really nailed the kind of things we were looking for," Obed Diener says. "I just think the more specific you can be with whoever's doing that, the less you're leaving it to chance."
Consider short-term housing. Instead of immediately buying a new house or signing a 12-month lease, consider a short-term rental or sublet to buy yourself extra time for scouting neighborhoods and buildings. Obed Diener and his family bought a house a year after moving to Washington, D.C. Mauney found another apartment in the East Village after his sublet ended and says subletting first gave him time to explore the neighborhood before signing a lease.
Comer recommends renting for at least six months before buying in a new area. "It's really easy to get stressed out," Comer says. "Stay calm, because even if you don't find it that first time, you can rent and continue your search."