We were on a mission and refused to see the signs. For years, my husband and I have dreamed of selling our small house in the Bay Area and moving someplace more rural, more affordable. After we had a baby, those dreams finally got upgraded to plans. We chose a real estate agent. We settled on a price. And we spent every free hour getting the house ready, planning to put it up for sale just in time for the annual spring rush, when families look to resettle between school years.
Even after the coronavirus started to spread in the United States, we convinced ourselves it would still happen and kept going — cleaning the grout, repainting the patio, starting to pack up. Then six Bay Area counties, including ours, became the first in the nation to issue stay-at-home orders on March 16. Open houses were shuttered. At that point, we had to admit that our plans were, at best, on hold.
Leonard Steinberg, an industry veteran at real estate company Compass, likened the day the pandemic was declared — 3/11 — to 9/11, a turning point that united people and upended business. As back then, the initial effects on the housing market were chaotic. Supply dried up as sellers pulled homes off the market or didn’t put them on. New construction slowed. As millions lost their jobs and programs started allowing homeowners to suspend mortgage payments, lenders panicked and made it harder to get loans. Some states deemed realtors essential, some didn’t. By mid-April, the number of homes under contract had plunged 43% nationally, according to a report from real estate company Redfin.
About eight weeks in, the chaos is easing. People have figured out how to transfer property with minimal human contact, and the way we buy and sell our homes may never be the same. There are plenty of upsides to not letting 100 strangers traipse through your bedroom, and everything from drive-through title signings to virtual “open houses” could save time and stress. A kind of “Covid contract” has even come into use, allowing buyers to walk away if they successfully bid on a house without visiting it but don’t like what they see in real life.
Yet these glimmers of what the future may look like don’t quell the uncertainty that homeowners are facing. It’s hardly the most urgent problem in the world, but like many of the 65% of Americans who own their homes, our house is by far our most important asset. How much we are worth depends on what it is worth. There were spreadsheets of comparable sales in our area that helped us settle on a price in the old times. But this new reality is, in many ways, an incomparable one.
For the first several weeks, it was easy to decide what to do, because we couldn’t do much. Our plans to list the house were indefinitely paused. Even after real estate was deemed an essential service in California at the end of March, selling was all but impossible for us. According to our county order, showing occupied homes was still not allowed.
We were now occupying our home at an unprecedented rate, and the idea of moving out to sell it was laughable. Huddled in our Lysol-coated kitchen, we tried to strategize. Should we put the house on the market as soon as possible or wait until it became clear what letter of the alphabet our economy resembled?
It was heartening to see prices remain steady, despite economic tumult. Nationally, homes prices have been slightly up from last year, in part because a big chunk of buyers and sellers moved to the sidelines at the same time. “Supply and demand sort of reduced in concert with each other,” explains Richard Green, director of the Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California.
Plus, unlike during the Great Recession, “there was an acute housing shortage pre-pandemic,” says Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors. “And now there are even fewer listings.” Yes, some sellers are offering discounts to close a deal amid all the precarity, but many buyers “are essentially offering whatever the list price is.” Buyers in some markets are frustrated by a lack of choice, he adds. That could point to an opportunity. But most sellers also plan to buy a home, which means they too could be stuck with limited prospects.
According to the Redfin report, supply and demand have begun creeping back up in places that deemed real estate an essential service. Despite the pandemic, people remain motivated to move, for happy reasons and sad ones. Workers are still relocating for new jobs. Women are still getting pregnant. The newly unemployed — at last count, at least 33 million — are being priced out of expensive areas and going in search of fresh opportunities.
When I asked Yun if he’d try to sell soon or hold out until later in the year, he wasn’t bullish on waiting. His cited seasonal decline that tends to happen every winter. But there are additional considerations this year, including the nerve-wracking election, which could wreak more havoc on the economy, and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. In many places, stay-at-home restrictions are now being loosened; in our area, real estate rules are relaxing. Maybe the economy will have improved in several months. Maybe layoffs will have stopped and rehiring will have begun. Maybe people will feel more confidence to buy. But a second wave of the virus could also send us back into lockdown limbo.
Green says everyone has to consider their individual circumstances. If job requirements or financial pressures require a move, so be it, he says, despite the unknowns. “But if you don’t have to, I would hang on until we’re through all of this,” he says. The rub, of course, is that we don’t know how long that will be, or what “all of this” will look like day to day.
In places where realtors have been able to do showings, they’ve often been private tours. Agents might walk through with just two people at a time, after they open all the doors and turn on all the lights to discourage shoppers from touching things with their own hands. Title companies have started closing deals in parking lots, and notaries are figuring out how to notarize online.
In some cases, buyers aren’t even visiting their new house until after the contract is signed. There were always reasons that people were willing to do this. Consider: people who buy condos in luxury high-rises before the building is complete, or far-away buyers who rely on a relative to check a place out. But the pandemic has pushed more to consider it. “I thought people were going to tour homes virtually but then not really buy them,” says Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin. Actually, he says, they have been.
On a recent Friday, I signed up for a virtual “open house” conducted via Zoom by an agent in Portland, Ore. “Feel free to put any questions in the Q&A box, and I’ll check those after each level,” he said as he began a looping tour of a modern four-story townhouse. Flying in the face of typical marketing practice — in which all personal or chore-related things are hidden from view — he showed not just the highly styled living spaces but closets that still held things like hangers and half-deflated birthday balloons.
3D tours, made using cameras and software sold by companies like Matterport, are also helping buyers and sellers minimize in-person perusing. According to Matterport’s CEO, RJ Pittman, an estimated 10% of listings in America currently include one of their 3D tours. Unshockingly, the Silicon Valley veteran is willing to make bold claims about the future. “Houses will be bought and sold online just like everything else,” Pittman says.
Some agents have also been more transparent with their 3D scans during the pandemic, as they try to turn them into a replacement for the real thing. The inside of cabinets, the water heater, the creepy stairs leading to a storage area, it all gets snapped. “Now we need to photograph the good, the bad and the ugly,” Ruth Krishnan, an agent in San Francisco, told me while restrictions on showing occupied homes remained in effect.
While incredibly detailed, these tours can be wonky to navigate, much like Google Street View. (On one, I got stuck on a porch and couldn’t click my way back inside.) Still, they’re enough for some. A 3D tour recently helped convince a couple Krishnan represented to make an offer on a place sight unseen, after the sellers said no one could visit until a contract was signed. “We spent a lot of time online with the marketing materials, and come Monday we were one of four people that wrote an offer,” Krishnan says. “It was a multiple-counter situation. We ended up prevailing.” The buyers had the right to walk after visiting the next day, but they liked what they saw and are now the happy owners of a $2.2 million home, secured with a 2.875% interest rate.
These kinds of contracts are not new, but the pandemic has altered attitudes toward them, says Kelman. “Sellers used to dislike that and now they’re kind of relieved,” he says. “You don’t want twenty different looky-loos walking through your place.”
The pandemic didn’t just change the way we look at homes. The agent we’re working with, like many others, started requiring buyers to prove they have the funds to purchase a house before they can visit. Weeding out casual browsers before they reach the threshold may have lasting appeal, even if it disappoints some house hunters.
Sellers also face new considerations when it comes to the facts they’re required to disclose when listing a house. Typically, those include physical defects like termite damage or a wonky step. Now some realtor associations have started recommending that sellers tell buyers if someone on the property has tested positive for COVID-19. When I asked our realtor about this, she replied with a note from the company’s attorneys: “Until I see some governmental entity tell me I don’t have to, I would disclose.”
Many in the business world have been pulling for a V-shaped recession, one that sees things bounce back quickly, though pundits are now predicting that the rebound will come slower. While the usual spring rush isn’t happening, Yun believes it still will. Kelman is also optimistic, up to a point. “I just have an asterisk on San Francisco or New York,” he tells me.
Among the changes the pandemic has wrought are some that could cool such markets. One is attitudes about density. Even when packing a lot of people into one place is no longer forbidden, the shine may be off cramped, high-priced urban spaces that require a lot of interaction with elevator buttons. And after this grand remote-work experiment, some employers in those cities may have second thoughts about the need for workers to come into the office.
Kelman says that “a major tech company” he cannot name has told Redfin that it expects 25% of its workforce to start working remotely full-time after this. According to Buzzfeed News, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sent an email on Tuesday telling many employees that they could work from home forever. The company is headquartered in the heart of San Francisco.
We’ve half-joked with our realtor that the test for buyers is no longer asking if they can imagine living in a place but if they can imagine quarantining there. Will suburbs rebound as city-dwellers start caring more about their proximity to a backyard? Will young families abandon metros for unglamorous hometowns where Mom and Dad can help with the kids? The ability to have a high-paying job might be a reason to shell out $1.25 million for 900 sq. ft., but what if you can move to Boise and still collect New York City pay? For people like us, who are living a 30-minute commute away from downtown San Francisco, our fate could turn on whether such trends materialize and how they do.
Counties in the Bay Area recently extended the stay-at-home order through the end of May. But our realtor just told us that showings of occupied homes are now allowed, so long as the residents are not there when the home is shown. So we’re back to strategizing about what is safe and what is smart when it comes to this basket that so many of our eggs are in. We’re back to comparing the value of consistency and change. In the end, that may be the real calculation we rely on.