Updated Feb. 4, 2021: Brad Wheel is an engineer at Policygenius. He recently relocated to Durham, North Carolina, from New York City to work at the company’s second headquarters.
He hoped the move would allow him to buy a home in a cheaper market. He didn’t anticipate having to look for that home in a pandemic. After weeks of searching, his family purchased a home — without seeing it in person.
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Starting the house hunt
Wheel and his wife had wanted to buy a home for some time, but their needs exceeded their budget in New York City’s pricey housing market. When Policygenius opened a second office in Durham, Wheel decided to move and buy a home.
He moved to an apartment in Durham with his wife and young daughter on April 2, and officially began the house hunt a week later. By this time, most states were fully or partially shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis.
The shutdowns applied to the real estate industry, as well. Prospective buyers couldn’t see a home in person unless it was completely vacant. Sometimes, the real estate agent could go inside the home and record a video, but not always.
Wheel and his wife were looking for a three- or four-bedroom home with an open kitchen and a family room. And apparently, so was everyone else. The Durham real estate market (and the surrounding area) was much smaller than New York, and had much less inventory, said Wheel. Homes were selling fast — often, without anyone seeing it beforehand.
“It’s actually a seller’s market,” he said. “We would look at a home and by the afternoon the home would be gone. It would have at least three offers on it. I’m thinking, ‘What the hell is going on? How do people feel comfortable enough to buy?’”
Weighing their options
Feeling discouraged, the Wheels began expanding their search to Raleigh, a city in the same county as Durham, and Chapel Hill, a city in a neighboring county. They also considered pausing their search, but their rental, meant to be a short-term home, was too pricey to stay in long term.
“Finding a good short-term rental may have actually been the most difficult part of this whole process,” said Wheel.
When they first moved down to Durham, the Wheels needed a short-term home that was furnished so they could leave their furniture in storage until they moved to a permanent home.
They found a short-term rental online. While it was in a nice neighborhood close to the office, the place itself “wasn’t very nice,” said Wheel.
“It ended up having a really bad bug problem,” he said. “So we ended up moving again into another temporary space.”
After relocating twice, the Wheels felt incentivized to continue the house hunt.
Finding their home
After a couple weeks of searching online, the Wheels found a four-bedroom home in Duke Park, just north of Duke University’s campus. They were only able to view the home via a video that the owners took themselves.
Wheel knew the home would go fast. A home down the street had multiple offers within the first day it was listed.
“We didn’t even get a chance to really consider the home,” Wheel said.
Wheel wrote an offer letter using Policygenius’ template. They went back and forth “over the course of seven hours,” Wheel said. By 5 p.m. the same day, they got the home. They closed on the house in June.
“It was super scary making an offer without going in to see the home,” Wheel said. “I’ve never bought a home before. It’s not a small amount of money.”
While they finalized the purchase, the Wheels had to coordinate breaking the lease on their temporary space, hiring movers and figuring out how to renovate the space. COVID-19-related closures made the process more difficult.
“Even something as simple as going to Home Depot to look at paint colors has been a journey,” he said.
The biggest takeaway from home buying during a pandemic? Trust your gut. As homes would go from listed to sold within shours, the Wheels often had a short window to decide if a home was right for them or not — often based on pictures. Having a strong understanding of the local housing market helped, but sticking to their initial impressions helped the Wheels from making an impulsive decision.
“You have to be both feet in,” he said. “There’s no way to be 100% successful, especially in a market like this. You can’t have any hesitation or you’ll be searching forever.”
Thinking of buying a home? Check out our guide.
Image: Nastia Kobzarenko