If you’re on the hunt for a new home right now, there is no way to get around virtual tours. With lockdowns and travel restrictions in place in countless areas, checking out a potential new home online is often the only way.
Unfortunately, scammers know that too.
From glossing over dubious areas of the property during 3D walkthroughs to flat-out lying on listings, swindlers are leveraging virtual-only home searches. Here are five ways to protect yourself.
1. Verify, verify, verify.
The first thing to do when you come across a listing you like is to do a background check. On the property. And on the person listing it.
Run the images that come with the listing through a reverse Google image search. This will show you if scammers have stolen them from other (real) listings to use in their fake ones. Also run the text from the listing through Google. Many swindlers use the same phrasing for multiple scams.
Check out the reviews and credentials of the real estate platform or agency where you found the listing. If they’ve been dishonest with customers before, there’s a good chance that someone took to the internet to vent.
If you’re in the US, you might also consider platforms that offer background checks on prospective landlords. That way you can find out, for example, if the person you’re considering renting from is involved with any civil court cases, and/or on the national sex offender registry.
2. Check resolution and coverage of virtual tour footage.
Are the photos of the property grainy? Does the video have low resolution and odd angles? Do you notice that certain areas of the property are left out of a 360° view?
Low-quality virtual tours can indicate that the property owner is technologically incompetent. But there’s also a very good chance that you’re seeing a massive red flag for a scam.
When looking at virtual tours, make sure that the entire thing is in high resolution, that the camera angles give you a comprehensive picture, and that the entire property is covered.
If any of this isn’t the case, nope right out of there.
3. Pay attention to detail.
When watching a virtual tour, pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes or on the cast of CSI. Look for tiny clues that something isn’t as it appears to be.
Even when done fairly well, virtual tours can’t give you a full picture. There are countless defects that you can’t see on footage. Once you move in, you’ll definitely smell and hear them, though.
From the roar of polluting traffic just outside your bedroom and the neighbors’ conversations heard through paper-thin walls, to the stench of sewage emanating from the bathroom sink.
Look closely at vulnerable spots. Do the floors look old and warped? Are there yellowed patches on the walls, signs of previous water damage? Can you see mold lurking in a bathroom corner?
Many of such defects can be fixed if you’re aiming to buy the property. But before you have to go out and find a contractor for mold rehabilitation, you should know what you’re in for.
4. Ask for a live tour.
If you are seriously considering a property, ask for a live tour. Especially if you have any doubts.
Being on a Zoom call with the landlord or a realtor while they walk you through the property is a game changer. You can gauge the noise level, see the real-life lighting conditions, and feel the property’s atmosphere. More importantly, you get to ask for a closer look into dubious areas and grill your guide with in-depth questions.
If they try to evade these questions, or don’t want to show you a particular area of the property, you know you’ve just dodged a bullet. Pro tip: Come prepared with apartment hunting questions.
5. Keep recordings.
Finally, even if everything seems above board, keep records. Save the photos and videos from online listings. Screencap everything. Record Zoom calls. Save emails in a separate folder.
These files could be lifesavers. If you do move into a new home, and it doesn’t live up to your expectations, you have solid evidence for a potential dispute.
And often, even the knowledge that they’re being recorded is enough to scare off scammers.
When on a virtual home hunt, maintain constant vigilance. Be critical of everything.
Yes, you could be missing out on a decent offer – but this fear of missing out is exactly what scammers count on. Set your standards and stick to them.
The search for an apartment or house might take longer that way. But you can also be sure that once you do find the right fit, it is entirely above board, and you run no danger of losing thousands to a virtual scam.
You’ll be able to cozy into your new home – and leave swindlers standing out in the cold.