When you’re looking to buy a property there’s a process. Trawl through listings online, make a shortlist, decide which ones are worth inspecting, go to open house inspections, inevitably be disappointed by 90% of what you see, go back online and adjust your search criteria, then rinse and repeat until you finally find ‘the one’.

So what happens when you can’t actually get out to do the inspection? In March 2020 Australia banned both real estate auctions and open house inspections to manage the global COVID-19 pandemic. As of May 2020 they’ve been reinstated, with social distancing measures in place, but as anyone who’s been through the home buying process will tell you, rushing around to view ten different properties on a Saturday morning isn’t that much fun anyway.

Luckily there’s a lot you can assess about a property for sale without going there yourself.

More and more agents are offering video walk-throughs and VR inspections – realestate.com.au has started incorporating “digital inspections” on the platform – but let’s be honest: a generic video is always going to be a sales pitch for the house. It won’t tell you everything you want to know, so you’ll still need to define your priorities and get into the nitty-gritty yourself.

Using the property listing, some good old-fashion internet stalking and a few other tricks we’ve learned along the way you can do an inspection for your potential new home from the comfort of your current home. Of course, you won’t be able to see every detail without some assistance from the selling agent, but a thorough remote inspection will save everyone time, keep everyone safe, and help you know when it’s appropriate to book a private inspection.

Firstly, it’s important to understand that the key to successful house hunting is working out what you’re looking for, then making each assessment against that same set of criteria. You need to standardise your data so you’re comparing apples with apples.

We’ve compiled a comprehensive open house inspection checklist in TheOneSpot app to use as a framework. The checklist has been designed to cover the major factors we all consider, either consciously or subconsciously, when buying real estate, and you can work through most of them without setting foot on the property.

Here’s how to get into the detail for a selection of the questions you’ll find on TheOneSpot Inspection Checklist:

Does the property have enough natural light?

Start with the listing photos, but keep in mind these are often heavily staged and edited to make the space look bright.

> Look at the number and placement of windows, and consider the aspect of the property. In Australia a north or north-east facing property generally gets more light overall as the sun moves from east to west during the day. Read more about aspects here.

> Note if lights are turned on in the images and if there are any skylights. If in doubt, ask the selling agent for extra snaps of the property taken on a phone.

Are the external noise levels manageable?

You don’t ever really get visibility over how much the neighbors like to party, but you can make a reasonable assessment of how noisy the area will be.

> Check flight paths and distance from main roads. Even seemingly quiet suburban streets can become thoroughfares if they’re a shortcut to a school or the local shops, so plug the address into Google Maps for directions with a few different arrival times and check if the prediction for traffic density changes.

> How dense is housing in the area? A street of apartment blocks will be more noisy than a street of houses simply due to the number of people going about their lives. It’s likey people are going to be working from home more and more, so think about how the noise of daily activity might affect your concentration. Check out Street View to see the surrounding buildings.

> Check out the demographics of the area and read a suburb review to get a better understanding of the vibe of the neighborhood.

Does the neighborhood meet your needs?

When you’re not in lockdown, where do you normally go?

> Add your regular commute destinations to your property shortlist in TheOneSpot to see how long they’ll take from each new property you’re looking at.

> Check Google Maps for the location of supermarkets, service stations and everyday utilities (as we now know how important it is to be walking distance to the shops to stock up on toilet paper!).

> Check public transport services in the area. Don’t forget to actually look at the location of the stop or station compared to the property, not just the route.

Another thing to consider is whether there are any planned developments in the area, which could affect lifestyle, traffic and value in the long term, or construction disruption in the short term.

> Search for “development application” plus the suburb. If you’re watching a property on your shortlist you can sign up for email alerts from Planning Alerts.

Are there enough powerpoints?

You’re only as good as your phone battery, and these days we share our houses with more devices than people so power points are in hot demand.

> What’s the age of the property? When were the last major renovations done? New builds are designed with ample power outlets, but older buildings often don’t have as many. Ask the agent when the wiring was last updated.

> Keep in mind it’s not difficult to get a few extra power outlets put in, so this shouldn’t be a dealbreaker anyway.

TIP > If you’re looking at an apartment or unit you can get more detail by looking at others in the building that have been sold in the past. Look up the building address to check out old sale listings. While not every apartment is the same you can use these listings to get an understanding of what features are original vs renovated and see different pictures of communal spaces.

What else should you be thinking about?

Of course, everyone has different personal priorities when they’re looking at a property. We asked around to find out what else seasoned house hunters zone in on at every inspection.

Think about these questions when you’re doing a virtual inspection, and ask the agent for more details or photos as required:

How can I use the outdoor spaces?

Paul, TheOneSpot’s CEO, makes his assessment before he even walks through the (virtual) front door.

“I want to know how the different spaces on the block can work for me – including the front yard. If it’s securely fenced the kids and dog can run around safely without me having to worry, so it’s like having an extra room!”

> Inspect this remotely using the listing photos and Google Street View.

How much foot traffic is in the area? Will the street be noisy?

Jonathan, a Sydney electrician, knows he can replace appliances or make renovations easily so his first points of assessment are about lifestyle.

“How busy are the surrounding streets? Will it be loud in the evening when people are turning out from bars and late venues*?”

> Inspect this remotely by looking up the property address on Google Maps and searching for venues in the area. Check the opening hours of each venue.

*We asked Jonny about this before any sanctions on pubs and clubs – but it’s important to keep thinking long term!

TIP > Also consider schools, shops and services. If you live near a school both pedestrian and vehicle traffic will be high between 8-9AM and 3-4PM, and keep in mind that shops don’t only function during business hours. For example, florists look beautiful but have very early starts – be prepared to trade a view of fresh flowers for early morning delivery vans.

Is there good internet and mobile service?

Stan, a software engineer, has his priorities in order.

“Is there decent internet access?”

> Increasingly important as people work and study from home, you can inspect this remotely by looking up the property address on the NBN or your preferred internet provider. You can also check mobile service coverage.

Is the space light enough, and is there any damage from damp in the bathroom?

Stat, a hospitality marketer, looks holistically at the space, but isn’t so blinded by the light that he overlooks signs of damage.

“First thing: does the house get adequate natural light? There’s only so much fluorescent light you can take before going crazy. Living in a dark environment can really mess with your mental and physical health. I also always check the bathroom door frames. If they’re soft this could indicate moisture issues in the rest of the bathroom. Not trying to breed a mould colony!”

> We’ve covered natural light above, and for bathrooms ask the real estate agent about ventilation sources (extraction fans and windows) and for photos of where the door frame meets the floor. If there’s any swelling, distortion or severely cracked paint this is a red flag.

Is there any sign of the property sinking, and is the wiring & plumbing ok?

Geoff used to be a real estate agent in London, so uses his eagle eye for structural stability when looking for a place with partner Trish, both doctors.

“When inspecting a property I’m looking out for cracks in the corners of rooms and uneven floors which could indicate ground movement. I’ll always open the fuse box to check the state of the wiring, and run the taps to fill a sink, checking both water pressure and drainage.”

> Inspect this remotely by asking the real estate agent specific questions. They can talk you through rooms, take photos of corners, floors and the fuse box, and a video of the sink. The seller may even be willing to share the historical Building Inspection Report to help you get an overview of the structural integrity – but keep in mind they’re under no obligation to do this, and the condition may have changed over time. You should always get an independent building inspection before you buy.

Is there a good space for a BBQ?

James, an app developer, has something else front of mind.

“I just need to know one thing: is there space for a decently sized BBQ?”

> James, the floorplan is your best mate here. While the floorplan in the listing may not be millimetre perfect the scale should be accurate enough to get a good understanding of the available space for your BBQ or anything else. Step out the measurements in your current house to compare the size of rooms. If you really want to get a feel for the layout and how your furniture will fit you can draw up your own floorplan with a tool like Floorplanner.

If you’re looking for a home to live in of course you’ll want to see it in real life before you decide whether to make an offer, which at the moment means booking a private inspection, so you want to save that for the real contenders. Refine your shortlist by completing a thorough inspection checklist first and you’ll be a lot less likely to be disappointed when you get there!

If you’re buying an investment property and won’t personally be living there it pays not to get caught up in cosmetic details – a remote inspection may be all you need to make a confident choice.

By the way, this author’s first point of inspection? The cupboard under the kitchen sink for any signs of water damage…you’ll have to ask the selling agent to send you a photo for this one!