Exterior of Riverwest house

Why I Bought a House in Milwaukee Without Seeing It First

Modern technology can only take you so far when navigating this hot seller’s market remotely.

After three years of paying outrageously high rent in New York City, my husband Kumar and I were determined to move somewhere more affordable after he finished his medical residency in the spring—and to buy a house. We dreamt of a yard for our dogs, more than 600 square feet of space, freedom from crooked landlords and a neighborhood we could build connections in.

We were thrilled when we learned last winter that he’d matched for a fellowship in Milwaukee, which would start in June. But we weren’t prepared for the next challenge: securing a property while still living nearly a thousand miles away.

Our solution? We bought that house we’d dreamt of without seeing it in person until closing day.

Paige Towers and her husband Kumar; Photo courtesy of Paige Towers

Anyone who has ever moved to a different state or city knows how stressful it can be. Whether you’re relocating for work, school, the military, affordability or whatever, you ideally need time to familiarize yourself with the area — not to mention look at multiple properties with your realtor. It was a bit more complicated for us though: due to our tight budget and stressful work schedules, we were unable to travel to Milwaukee for more than one long weekend.

Making the situation even trickier: once we did make it here, we found ourselves in the midst of a very competitive real estate market.

Milwaukee was (and still remains) in the midst of a hot seller’s housing market. Some real estate agents in the area say they haven’t seen anything like it before. Gone are the days of showing properties for months on end; houses in popular neighborhoods now often receive multiple offers within just a couple of days.

“During the peak of spring 2017, if a well-priced home in a good location was on the market for more than one to two weeks, the first thing that was typically wrong in the equation was the price of the home,” said real estate agent Will Stallé, of the Stallé Realty Group at Keller Williams Milwaukee North Shore. “[In] some markets, homes would not last longer than a day.”

This is a great situation for those selling, obviously, but an issue quickly arose: low inventory. There simply aren’t enough houses available to accommodate those looking. Even now as the market cools off a bit as autumn approaches, there are still far fewer properties for sale than in previous years.

When Kumar and I flew into Milwaukee in February, there were only a handful of houses for sale that fit our budget in our preferred city neighborhoods—Riverwest, Bay View or the Lower or Upper East Sides. We could have considered options in the suburbs, but we feared that the transition from a hectic street in New York to a cul-de-sac miles away from a café or corner store would feel too alienating. Thus, due to the pressure of Kumar’s fellowship start date and the lack of houses available, we did put in an offer on a house at the end of our first day of looking. Unfortunately, the poor inspection results convinced us to back out.

We went back to the east coast that Monday, unsure where we were going to sleep come June.

One option, of course, would have been to rent for a month while we continued our house search. Renting before buying is a smart choice for out-of-town buyers, but we had trouble finding an affordable one-month rental near Kumar’s work that allowed two dogs. We also didn’t like the idea of dragging this stressful move out any longer. We weren’t searching for our “dream home” — just for a solid “starter home” — and bidding wars were occurring all over Milwaukee as soon as houses hit the market. (According to Stallé, they’re still occurring now.) Our chances of winning a bid in person didn’t seem much better than from New York.

So, we tracked the housing market from our computers and phones instead.

Like most realms of modern life, much of the business of house searching has now moved online. With real estate apps like Zillow, Redfin and Trulia, I was able to keep up to date with properties in our desired areas. These apps provide the list prices, details and descriptions of each property, as well as an array of interior and exterior photos. I spent hours zooming in on countertops, cabinets, and floors—trying to gauge their condition—and stared at photos of empty rooms, imagining which wall I’d push my bookcases and desk up against.

The Google Maps’ Street View function also came in handy; it allowed me to digitally explore potential neighborhoods that I’d only read about before. Additionally, I regularly checked crime tracker websites like SpotCrime in order to judge the safety of the blocks that had houses listed. I even scanned my Yelp app to see what sorts of businesses existed in the areas we were interested in. Riverwest, I discovered, had high-rated breweries and an eclectic mix of places to eat. Bay View reminded me almost too much of Brooklyn: Yelp listed more than a few funky second-hand shops and hipster-laden cafés selling matcha lattes. Judging from the mostly five-star reviews though, it also boasted excellent new restaurants.

Yet, even with all this new technology, it’s still a rare occurrence for clients to buy homes unseen. This doesn’t mean that most agents are opposed to working with absent buyers, though. It just requires smart thinking and preparation.

As Kumar and I discovered, it’s vital to find an agent who is tech-savvy and a strong communicator. Since you can’t meet in person to walk through properties, you need someone who is quick to reply to calls and messages, as well as able to fill in all the gaps that real estate apps and online research leave.

For instance, we hadn’t thought much about a car since we couldn’t afford one in New York, and so we didn’t take it into account much while researching. Our agent immediately warned us to think about parking, particularly in congested areas downtown. He also consistently reminded us about Milwaukee’s winters: did we really want to be scraping ice off the windshield at 6:30 am? We didn’t, so when we realized that finding a place on the Lower East Side that came with a garage was next to impossible in our price range, we nixed it.

We also learned our lesson about relying on the images of houses posted online.

“Photographers are able to enhance and make a home look much nicer online than in person,” Stallé said.

Although you may view, say, 20 different photos of a particular property on Zillow, it’s difficult to get a physical feel for a house based on photos alone.

One Riverwest house seemed to have it all: a fenced-in yard for the dogs, proximity to Kilbourn Park where we could walk them and a charming exterior, with original wood siding and ornate window sills circa the 1890s. But when we saw it in person in February, the yard was blemished with random patches of cement, the park had a “No Dogs Allowed” sign and the well-preserved exterior gave way to a less sound interior, with a makeshift staircase that literally shook when you climbed your way to the low-ceilinged master bedroom.

Therefore, in lieu of viewing the place with your own eyes, doing a video tour guided by someone you know and trust is the second best way to get an honest, non-edited view of the house.

In our case, that video tour was guided by our agent. He was the only person we knew in Milwaukee at the time and, luckily, we had total confidence in him. It worked out: we put in an offer on the second house that he digitally walked us through. We didn’t fall in love with its mismatched appliances, laminate countertops or cheap upstairs carpeting. But as our agent slowly moved around the space, we began to see potential everywhere: the beautiful old hardwood floors we could refinish, the spacious living and dining room that could be brought back to life with some color and new lights, the tub in the upstairs bathroom that probably only needed a hard scrub (not replacing like we’d suspected from the photo)… When he walked us through the back door, we were surprised to see that the yard was substantially larger than it looked in the photos. We were sold.

Parking the moving truck on our new street in Riverwest (a street that we’d only seen on Google Maps) and then walking into our new little home for the first time was surreal. I noticed with joy a few little details our video tour hadn’t shed light on, like the lovely soft creak of the old floors. Buying this house unseen was one of the riskiest things we’ve ever done, sure, but as it turned out, it’s also been — by far — one of the most rewarding.