Tips for decoding the language of online real estate listings

If you're searching for a home virtually during the coronavirus outbreak, you might experience difficulty deciphering the images and agents' argot you encounter online.

It's possible to purchase a home without setting foot inside it, but it requires extra diligence to understand what's being described and shown - and what's being left out.

Here's a look at what some oft-used artful words really mean and other ways to navigate homebuying virtually:

- "If it says updated, it means that [the seller's] looking for you to pay for renovations that are already outdated," said Mary Elizabeth Adelson, a broker with Douglas Elliman.

- Newer, on the other hand, "makes me think [that the updates have been done] in the last decade," she said.

- If a listing claims that the abode needs little tender loving care, chances are it requires much more than that. "It usually means it needs a lot of work," said Lisa Lippman, a broker with Brown Harris Stevens. Perhaps, even, a complete revamp.

- Luxurious does not always denote upscale. Gerald Germany, a broker with Douglas Elliman, said it "sometimes translates to something that is overly ornate or old or tacky."

- A kitchen that is gourmet or chef's should come with oversized appliances and plenty of countertop and pantry space.

- Any room that is cozy could be either small or too personalized.

- Aside from the words that populate the description, pay attention to the ones that are missing, too. For instance, "if there's no mention of views or light, you have to assume there's no good views and no good light," Lippman said.

Ask for a specification sheet that enumerates all the materials and finishes throughout a home. If you are unable to obtain one (such lists are more common for new construction than resales), request a copy of the home's listing on the local multiple listing service, or MLS.

"The MLS goes into much more detail," than websites such as Zillow, said Manuel Sarkis of Douglas Elliman's Sarkis Team.

Check public property records, too, for up-to-date tax assessments, exact year of construction and above-grade square footage, among other things.

Look for what images reveal or conceal. "It's very hard to tell a lie in a photo," said Adelson. But it is not impossible.

These days, virtually staged rooms appear so authentic that you may not realize that the furniture, d├ęcor and even wall colors have been added digitally to photos of empty - or dilapidated - spaces.

"First of all, you want to ask if any of the pictures are virtually staged," Lippman said. "If they are, then you want to make sure you get some real photos."

Approach those with caution, too. Real estate photographers regularly enhance the brightness and hues of images - at the very least. Be sure to ask whether the photos were doctored.

While untouched photos are best, any images are better than none. "If there are no pictures of, for instance, the bathrooms, that usually means that the bathrooms need to be fully renovated," said Michael Franco, broker with Compass.

Ask for unaltered photos and enlarge them as much as possible to examine craftsmanship or identify defects you should inquire about.

Because agents may not be able to enter condo buildings or seller-occupied houses amid the coronavirus crisis, 3-D tours have ballooned in popularity. Companies like Matterport are generating immersive "digital twins" of residences - mostly their interiors - that users can walk though, zoom in and out of, spin and pan.

"You can wander through virtual tours [as if they are] documentaries," said Susan Sears, a Douglas Elliman broker. "You really get to see the details."

Depending on their precision, 3-D tours might let you open kitchen cabinets and even peek outside the windows.

Ask for the floor plan. George Sarkis, who co-leads the Sarkis Team, said buyers should consult "the floor plan with the measurements and compare it to the virtual tour." Franco echoed that advice, explaining that "sometimes the dimensions of the rooms can be skewed and feel bigger or smaller than they really are."

In today's coronavirus-dominated reality, if you ask for a private video tour of a home, you are signaling a strong interest in it because agents say they might strain to accommodate such a request.

Vacant homes in locales without shelter-in-place orders should be relatively easy for agents to access. But some cities have declared real estate showings nonessential, de facto banning them. Sellers who still live in the home, though, might agree to tele-walk you through the property.

During a video tour, remember to focus on both the interior and the exterior of the house as well as the neighborhood. Moreover, ask your agent to narrate what they are showing you and to point out any flaws.

It's all about "really building that mental picture for [buyers]," said Redfin agent Jill Thompson.

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