How To Reopen The Housing Market
Selling homes was deemed an essential service in some places and as of late May, physical home tours are now allowed in all 50 states. Sellers should limit tours and require buyers to wear protective coverings; buyers should ask key questions about ventilation and take advantage of virtual tours.
- “These risks that we are talking about, in the home or in the home buying or selling process, are low and manageable,” says Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
- Social distance, wear a mask and wash hands regularly.
- Sellers can open doors and windows to bring in fresh outdoor air, which can cut down on airborne transmission, Allen suggests.
- Space out home visits by a few hours or days, since the virus decays over time. This is most effective in unoccupied homes. Sellers could also consider temperature checks before allowing prospective buyers inside.
- Buyers should be extra vigilant in apartment buildings. Ask the building owner or manager about the ventilation system. Are they bringing in enough fresh outdoor air? What are they doing with recirculated air? Ideally, Allen says, buildings should have a high-efficiency filter, such as a MERV 13 or higher.
- Homeowners can invest in HEPA-based portable air purifiers. It’s an extra safety layer, and also a visible signal to buyers that you are taking the situation seriously.
What Industry Experts Say
- Sellers can reduce the number of people coming into their homes by limiting tours to financially qualified buyers with mortgage pre-qualification letters in hand, the National Association of Realtors recommends. (However, take care to not run afoul of fair housing laws, which are meant to prevent discrimination.)
- Require masks and provide shoe coverings. Turn on all the lights and open doors to limit touching surfaces.
- Provide online resources such as floor plans, virtual tours and lots of photos. Technology company Matterport recently released an iPhone app to make your own 3D tours.
- Buyers should do as much research as possible before requesting a visit. Instead of touring a dozen homes, which was typical pre-Covid, try to limit yourself to just a few.
- At the height of the outbreak some buyers did put in offers sight-unseen, though it is unlikely this phenomenon will last. If you do need to move quickly (or are eager to lock in low mortgage rates) ask for a viewing contingency clause in your contract, so you don’t get stuck with a house that does not meet expectations.
Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman got an early look at what coronavirus could mean for America’s real estate brokerages, since the company is based in Seattle, the epicenter of the first coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Ninety-four percent of homes listed by a Redfin agent have a 3D virtual walkthrough tour and buyers can also schedule video-chat tours with an agent or homeowner. The company reported more than 11 million weekly views of virtual walkthroughs at the end of May. “That saved our bacon,” says Kelman.
Back in 2015, virtual touring was a disastrous passion project and less than 2 percent of customers used it. Now, Kelman hopes the world is finally moving in his direction.
“When this virus is over, people think things will go back to normal, and mostly they will,” he says. But “they won't go completely back. If somebody has seen a bunch of houses from their iPhone, they'll still visit the house they're going to buy in-person, but their first five tours will be through a device.”
“The buyer, someone going into a home, should look for the same red flags they would anywhere else in society,” says Allen. You can tell right away whether a seller is taking precautions. “Are they wearing a mask? Do they have a code of conduct?”
The Silver Lining
Newfound comfort with video conferencing technology may mean more employers will allow people to work from home long term. “We may have a secondary boost to housing demand in the upcoming years,” says Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors. “There could be a shift away from job centers to more distant suburbs where people can maybe get a more affordable but larger home. For current homeowners, where they may have been content before but now, they want a little extra elbow room, dedicated office space.”
Written by Samantha Sharf