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How to Do a Long-Distance House Hunt

Moving is a challenge, even at the best of times; when you are simply moving from one neighborhood to another, within the same city limits it is stressful enough. Add moving across the country, though, and it can seem like an indomitable task, bringing about challenges that may seem insurmountable even at the best of times.

Fortunately, today's buyers and sellers have such an assortment of information available to them online that your search is simply as far away as your fingertips, diminishing some of the challenges. My goal within this article is to summarize what could take you days and days to sort through, ideally giving you somewhat of a cheat-sheet, pointing you in the right direction, when faced with the challenge of moving across country or even state-to-state.
A Job Offer You Can't Refuse

In most cases the reason you are relocating is because you were offered a job that will require you to move out of the area. If this is the case, what I would stress to you before accepting the position is to be certain that you will be able to afford to live in your new city. For example, if you are moving from a small town in New Hampshire to a big city within Los Angeles and you are not being offered a salary increase to compensate for the much higher housing costs, chances are you will not be able to afford this particular move; however, if you are moving from New York City to Los Angeles, chances are good that your salary will be comparable and thus the move will not cause you any financial hardship!

I do digress of course, but I want to be certain that if I am going to offer "tips and tricks" that I cover the gamut, even those that may seem obvious! Okay, now back to the job offer at hand! Now that you are considering this move, continuing to use New York to LA as our example, my first suggestion is of course, prior to accepting the job offer, to begin your home search online.

Where Will You Live?

Whether you plan to rent or buy, it is always a good idea to research online, at least a few cities that you may be living in or near. (If it is available, it is also a good idea to contact your company's relocation department and find out if they have any city information that they can email or mail to you.) Basically, before you make your final decision as to whether or not you want the job/move, be certain you are going to like the area to which you will be relocating! Moving across the country like this is a major step of course and not one that is easily reversible if it doesn't go as planned!

Again, the majority of the city information can be found online; you can research area demographics, average residents' income, schools, weather, crime statistics, local industry and so on. Typically, there are links to area real estate as well, which can also give you a good idea of what to expect; however, as we move forward in this article into the real estate portion of it, I would like to issue a caveat that there are a lot of websites that do not carry accurate real estate listings (homes currently for sale) and that your best bet when searching online for a home on your own, is to search via Realtor.com – Realtor.com is the only real estate search engine that has a relationship with the National Association of Realtors, which means you are viewing live and current information. (I did a search online recently just for the experience and I came across sites with homes for sale that had sold a few years ago; the major issue with this is of course, if you are using this as a tool in which to negotiate for your new salary, you will not be looking at what the current prices may be (especially in Los Angeles, in light of the downturn, some areas have increased in value) and as such you may not negotiate the appropriate salary or relocation terms/package!)

Looking for a Home

Skipping ahead, assuming your relocation package, salary, etc, is all negotiated and you have decided to move, what next? Realistically, you typically can't just hop on a plane, land and hope to find a home staring you in the face! There is a lot of research that will need to go into the area you choose as well as the type of home you want and of course, can afford. In the event your company has contracted with a relocation company, you will be contacted and then assigned a representative who will assist you with a myriad of things; because every company's relocation package is so different I am not even going to get into that here, but suffice it to say, in some regards this can be a big help and in others, it can be a total nightmare (this is of course coming from my perspective, having worked with relocating clients for many years now and the stories I have been told as well as my own personally experience with relocation companies).

Working with a Realtor

So, how do you search for a home from the other side of the country? How can you tell what you are looking at? How do you know which neighborhood is the best for you and your family?

The most obvious answer is of course, your realtor. Again, if you are working with the relocation department at your company, they will "assign" a realtor to you (as a side note, the Realtors that are assigned must take certain courses and be in good standing with the local Board of Realtors as well as the Department of Real Estate in the State in which they are licensed; this doesn't mean of course that they will assign the type of agent or personality you would have chosen and if you are having a conflict, please contact your relocation department case manager for your next steps). If you do not have a relocation package or assigned realtor or you would like to do your own research as well as choose your own realtor, do a city search, review the realtors in the area and choose a few to contact (again, Realtor.com is also a good place to start for this as well; you can also log onto the California Association of Realtors site (CAR.org) and search for an agent there as well); some realtor's may have a website but may not necessarily be active on it and thus will not respond to you within the time frame you desire. If you select three that you feel will serve your personality type, etc, send an initial email introducing yourself, identifying what you are hoping to achieve and of course, stressing to them that you will need a lot of the legwork to be completed by them, prior to ever meeting! Based on the responses you receive, you can then make a decision on who you feel the most comfortable working with (I do not recommend working with more than one agent at a time as there are laws/codes of ethics that we as Realtors must follow and doing so could cause major (legal) issues for all parties involved).

Your realtor will be your greatest asset when moving into an area; they (typically) live in or near the area, may have children who have attended or are attending the schools and so on and so forth! You will need to rely on the realtor to be your eyes until you can actually visit the city and have a look for yourself. Again, visit the various city websites to give you an idea of what to expect. Since you may have found your realtor by viewing their personal website, you will also want to use that same site in order to obtain information about the city/area, as described above. Most agents have a whole host of local information available of their sites and there may be some of the information you are seeking readily available to you.

The best thing you can do for yourself as well as for your realtor, is to create a list of what you are looking for in a home; be certain to be as detailed as possible and most importantly, share this information. It is also a good idea to list things you do NOT want in a home/area as well, so that your realtor has a complete understanding of your ideal home and neighborhood. One thing you can do is view homes online that are roughly in your price range to get an idea of what you like – even if you're not a first-time homebuyer, this is still a useful exercise, as your tastes may have changed over time. How many bedrooms is optimal? How important are updated kitchens and bathrooms, or are you willing to do some of the work yourself if these rooms need it?

Now Create Your List!

Decide what is the most important feature to you. For example, if you have three children and also occasionally work from home, you will only want to look at homes with four or more bedrooms. If this is the most important thing to you, put it at the top of the list!

This "home search before the home search" is hugely important, and will give you confidence when you really start putting your nose to the grindstone.

Now determine what you don't want, such as traffic noise, a two-story if you truly only want a one-story home, or a large or small backyard.

Now that you have a list of things you want and don't want, put it in writing and share it with your real estate agent in order for them to know what you want to see, rather than wasting your time seeing homes you don't – and perhaps just confusing you as you continue the search.

As a side note, if you really don't know where you want to live, maybe renting a home/apartment for six months is your best bet in order to get to know the various neighborhoods.

Before You Get Started: Get Prequalified

It's not as easy to get pre-qualified for a loan now, so I suggest you start this process pretty early in your search. You may even want to contact a loan officer at the same time you contact a Realtor (again, the Realtor you contact may be able to recommend one or two as well as the fact that your relocation package may have some stipulations on whom you can use for your loan as well).

Be sure to give your loan officer all of the documentation they request, in a timely manner. Some loan officers take a cursory glance at your credit report, assets and income and give you a pre-approval based on that.

However, I suggest you find a loan officer who's willing to actually have your loan underwritten before you even begin your home search; this alleviates a lot of stress and you don't run the risk of losing money if the escrow cancels due to the fact that you were not able to obtain a loan.

Once you are pre-qualified, please be sure to share this information with your realtor in order for them to show you homes only within your price range. Your realtor will need a pre-qualification letter from the lender and sometimes the letter may need to have certain information contained within it (for example, if the home is bank owned, they may require approval from a direct lender as well as wanting asset and credit score verification) so be sure that there has been contact between these two parties. Your real estate agent is on your side and although sharing private information may not feel completely comfortable, it is necessary. I ask my clients to give me the loan officer's contact information so I can speak with them personally to make sure I have the prequalification information I need in order to present the best offer possible.

It is of course challenging to move out of your area and comfort zone, especially when a job change is coming with it. There is so much to consider of course, so much more than can be placed into a brief article; however, this should at least give you the basics and get you more than started on your way!

Suzanne Grace is a licensed real estate agent in Southern Calif.

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In the Press

A Moving Company's Moving Story
June, 2012

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