Odors—pleasant or unpleasant—are strongly tied to our emotions and can leave a lasting impression when it comes to buying a house. Especially bad ones. Because some odious smells can be indicative of larger (and costlier!) problems.
“When we come across even moderately strong odors, the showing is basically over,” says John Gluch, a Realtor® and founder of the Gluch Group in Scottsdale, AZ. “Reasoning with someone that the odors can be remediated is rarely fruitful. People just move on in search of a better-smelling home.”
But what’s a potential buyer to do when you can’t actually be there to smell all the smells? As the COVID-19 pandemic increasingly turns open houses and home tours into virtual events, it’s more important than ever to ask your real estate agent to be your (very sensitive) nose.
These are the odors your agent should sniff out for you to save you money—and big-time disappointment when you move in.
1. Pet odors
“While doing in-person tours, the most common odor complaint we get is pet odors—by a wide margin,” Gluch says. Lingering odors from pet “accidents”—especially dry cat pee (because ammonium salts form in residue)—are particularly pungent. And nasty!
Unfortunately, a typical bottle of carpet cleaner isn’t likely to remove the odor. You’ll have to call in the pros.
Jack White, vice president of technical services at Rainbow International Restoration, says urine removal costs depend on several factors, including the type of flooring, the degree of saturation, and the materials used in installing the floor. Even so, new carpet and flooring might be the only route for a fresh start and peace of mind.
2. Cigarette odors
Coming in a close second is cigarette odor, Gluch says. Tobacco odors seep into porous surfaces like carpeting, drapes, rugs, walls, and especially ceilings.
“Ceilings can be the biggest culprit in a persisting smoke smell in a home, as cigarette smoke tends to travel upward and latch onto the first surface it comes in contact with,” White explains.
Professional cleaning is prudent, White says, since carpets have different fibers that can be damaged with a DIY approach. And tobacco-stained walls (including wallpaper and paneling) not properly cleaned and treated with a nicotine stain–blocking primer will come back to haunt you and bleed rusty stains through any newly painted walls.
A smoker’s house doesn’t have to be a deal breaker, but there will be added costs and elbow grease to remove the odors.
3. Mold, mildew, and musty odors
These three odors not only smell bad, they also leave a seriously negative impression, regardless of how attractive the house is. The odors suggest uncleanliness and a damp, cold feeling—plus the scary possibility of mold growing beneath the surface.
“When we have mold, there is always a moisture concern somewhere. This needs to be addressed first, so the challenge does not reappear in the future,” White says.
An indoor environmental professional should be called in to capture air and surface samples to see what types of molds are present and determine the type of mold remediation necessary. At the very least, call a pro to check for leaks and professional cleaning of porous services, and then run a dehumidifier.
4. Rotten eggs or a sulfur smell
First things first. If your agent is overwhelmed by a rotten egg smell, he/she should hightail it out of the house for safety, since the odor might be a sign of a gas leak.
However, if your agent smells a milder version of rotten eggs or sulfur, it could point to plumbing issues. If the house has been vacant for a while, the drainpipe water trap might be dried up, leaving the pipe without a water barrier to stop offensive odors from farther down the pipe wafting up.
The real budget buster? If your agent notices the stench coming from multiple drains.
“This could be a problem with the plumbing equipment or with the local sewer authority,” says Mark Dawson, COO at Benjamin Franklin Plumbing.
If the problem lies with the sewer, a sewer inspection—possibly digging in the yard or basement—might be needed to resolve the issue.
Ask about visual evidence of possible odors
You put a lot of trust in your agent during your home-buying journey, but even more so when it comes to video tours. Expect full transparency, but also keep your eyes open for visual indicators of lingering odors.
While your agent is showing you video of the house, don’t hesitate to ask about odors—say, if you see a litter box in the laundry room, a dog bed in the living room, or an ashtray on the coffee table. When your agent shows you the basement, ask if there is an overwhelming musty odor.
You can handle the truth!
“I encourage clients to ask their agents to give them the pure, unvarnished truth when doing a video tour,” Gluch advises. “That way, everyone can avoid wasting lots of time and energy on a house that the client will end up hating when they finally visit in person.”
Even in the age of the novel coronavirus, the process of browsing online listings hasn’t completely changed. Sure, there’s much more of an emphasis on new features like virtual tours, but a listing page is still likely to show all the specs you’re used to seeing—things like price per square foot, year built, and, of course, days on market.
For buyers, a property’s days on market, or DOM, is an important figure. Before the pandemic, a house on the market for more than 30 days was considered stale. But in these historic, uncharted waters we’re currently navigating, does DOM carry the same significance it once did?
“Historically, days on market has been one of several indicators of the value of a property,” says Dave Wetzel, MLSListings president and chief executive officer. “But COVID-19 is a particularly unusual circumstance, and such a drastic and sudden change in the housing market makes it much harder to determine the level of importance of DOM.”
Technically, we’re in prime buying and selling season, but currently, social distancing and masks are the new norm, open houses are rare, and buyers are hesitant to buy. Therefore, the rules on how much weight DOM carries have changed a bit. Here’s what real estate experts have to say about the current conditions.
Days on market 101
First, let’s go over the basics. DOM is the number of days a property is listed for sale on the multiple listing service until the date when the seller has sold the property.
The DOM can vary dramatically with market conditions and by price point. (For example, some luxury properties can sit on the market for longer because the pool of viable buyers is smaller.) But, in general, a high DOM has been thought to indicate that buyers are reacting poorly to the house.
Comps have always played a big role in gauging how much weight to give a home’s DOM.
“Usually, an important indicator is how a property’s days on market ranks against the average in that neighborhood,” says Wetzel.
Should days on market matter during COVID-19?
Under normal circumstances, buyers will use DOM as a tool to determine if a house has been given an appropriate asking price.
“If a listing is priced well, offers will come in, and hopefully a deal can be struck,” says Steve Gottlieb, real estate agent for Warburg Realty in New York City. If it’s overpriced, the property will sit, and the DOM count will tick up.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to seriously reconsider buying, selling, and moving. Because of that, DOM may no longer signify as much as it did a few short months ago.
“It becomes tricky during COVID-19 to try to identify a number [of days on market] as good or bad, because the global health crisis requires everything to have an extra layer of examination,” says Wetzel.
Because the pandemic has radically changed the speed and ability of many properties to sell, Gottlieb says a climbing number of DOM can be “misleading and, therefore, not useful.”
Wetzel says in these unprecedented times the usual rules don’t apply, and there isn’t a DOM playbook for what it should be during a pandemic where houses can’t be shown.
Of course, DOM has never been the sole indicator of a property’s value. In a strong market, 45 DOM might be high, but in a slow market, 45 days might be low. Therefore, in these extraordinary times, it’s wise to rely on other key indicators like the property’s location, curb appeal, neighborhood comps, home improvement potential, and local market conditions.
Buying a home had always been part of my life plan, and in February, I thought I was almost home free: I’d made an offer on a condo in Philadelphia, and that offer had been accepted. All that was left was to close the deal, which I figured would be the easy part.
While it’s an unusual time to purchase real estate, I ultimately decided to move forward. But it wasn’t easy, and a lot of the usual steps of the home-buying process had changed. Here’s how I navigated this new reality in real estate, and what I learned along the way.
When I put in my offer, everything was normal
When I first submitted my offer on Feb. 26, everything was business as usual. At that point, the coronavirus was still little more than a side note on the evening news. The thought never crossed my mind that the virus would soon have a significant impact on my transaction.
In fact, for a little while, things seemed to be going my way.
To start, after submitting two previous offers that hadn’t panned out, I had finally managed to snag a unit in my dream condo building, an updated complex in Center City. Plus, of all the units I’d seen in the building—and there were many—this was the sunniest and most spacious.
In addition, the transaction was moving smoothly. I chose to waive my inspections in order to keep my offer competitive. My appraisal had also come back looking more than satisfactory. We seemed to be moving along just fine toward settlement, scheduled for the end of April.
How COVID-19 put my real estate deal on hold
But by March 19, Pennsylvania’s governor had declared real estate a nonessential business, meaning that all brokerage offices had to close and real estate agents had to work from home.
Since that time, the real estate industry in my area has been in a state of upheaval. The Pennsylvania Association of Realtors® followed governmental orders and provided guidelines to keep both industry professionals and home buyers safe, but as the virus spread, those guidelines seemed ever-changing.
For me, as a home buyer, this lack of certainty, while understandable, sent me into a tailspin of anxiety: Would my real estate deal even come through?
Originally, I wasn’t too worried. I was told by my real estate agent (who is also my mom) that an exception was going to be made for closings of existing transactions. In addition, her broker was intending to put precautions in place to keep everyone safe, including putting buyers and sellers in different rooms and requiring everyone to use a separate pen.
However, by March 23, the point was moot.
The governor had issued a stay-at-home order for Philadelphia and five of its surrounding counties. Since Pennsylvania doesn’t currently allow for remote closings, that essentially left my home-buying journey in limbo.
How we moved my real estate deal forward
Even though my closing was up in the air, I still did everything I could to move forward as though my settlement were going to take place. Fortunately, my lender was able to work remotely, so I was still able to communicate with my loan processor to gather the paperwork I needed to send my file to the underwriter.
However, because this situation is so unusual, I was left with questions that no one knew how to answer. For example, what would happen to my interest rate if my settlement got pushed back and went beyond the date of my rate lock? Even if I could close the deal, would I be able to move in if the city of Philadelphia was still under lockdown?
In the end, I lucked out. Even though real estate is still considered nonessential in Pennsylvania, the governor did eventually issue guidelines that allowed some transactions to move forward. In particular, any contract that was signed before the stay-at-home order—which included mine—could close.
Inside a coronavirus-era closing: What’s changed
Once I knew my closing could proceed, it was simply a matter of figuring out how to do it while keeping everyone safe.
For example, since my condo building was allowing only owners to enter the building, I had to do my final walk-through alone without my real estate agent. I did, however, use FaceTime with my mom so she could view the space and point out any red flags. Thankfully, nothing cropped up.
My settlement was also much different than it would have been if COVID-19 hadn’t cropped up. Instead of having my whole team of professionals there to support me, it was just me and the title officer at his office. He sat at one end of a long conference table, and I sat at the other. We both wore masks and gloves, and did everything we could to avoid getting physically close to each other as we passed paperwork back and forth. The home seller didn’t even come to the closing; he’d signed his paperwork the day before so he could avoid the office entirely.
Although I was nervous to be in an office building, the exposure levels seemed low enough to be tolerable, certainly much less than I’d typically face entering a grocery store. In other words, it was worth the risk.
I’m now a homeowner, but my journey isn’t over
Once everything had been signed, sealed, and delivered, I faced yet another challenge: figuring out how to actually move into my new home.
While moving is considered an essential service in my state, since no one is allowed in the building except for me, I would have to handle the move all on my own. However, since I have a physical disability, that’s pretty much impossible.
My condo association assured me that it was working on a plan to ease these restrictions so I could move in. Until then, I will be living with my parents—and paying a mortgage on a home in which I can’t live.
Even in the best circumstances, buying a home is a long process. With coronavirus, it’s even longer and more complicated than ever. Patience is key. Even though this is not at all what I pictured buying a house would be like, when I look back at all that’s happened, I still think: Was it worth it? Absolutely.
Motherhood can bring so many changes—not only to your relationship, career, and life in general, but also to what you look for when shopping for a home.
I should know: Six months ago, I moved from Los Angeles to New York City for my husband’s new job. While I was excited to dive into life in the Big Apple—and find a quaint apartment in a hip neighborhood—those plans changed dramatically when I discovered I was pregnant.
Almost overnight, my short list of pre-pregnancy home must-haves (a building with character that’s near fun wine bars) had to be tossed out. I suddenly went from being the easiest home shopper, just looking for a cute place to drop my coat, to having more requirements than I ever would have imagined, from a bathtub to a good school district.
And although we’d settled in our rental apartment before the novel coronavirus hit in the middle of my pregnancy, I saw my requirements for a home become even more stringent in its wake. While I wasn’t about to pick up and move again given that we’d just settled in, this will no doubt affect what I look for if we ever decide to buy a place, or move to a larger rental elsewhere (more on that below).
And I doubt I’m alone. When looking to rent or buy a home, many people might be surprised by how much their priorities in real estate morph overnight once they’re expecting. To help them prepare for this seismic shift, here’s an up-close and personal peek at how pregnancy changed how I shopped for a home, and where I wanted to live.
I learned to look closely at listing photos
I can’t count how many apartments I walked into, turned around, and walked right out. If you’ve ever shopped for a home, you know that listing photos can be deceiving. In a big way.
Not only were these tours often time-wasters, but in that early stage of my pregnancy, I was exhausted and sick all the time. It was hard to get out of bed most days. So a bad tour was a big blow.
In order to save time and energy, I started getting better at analyzing listing photos online. I learned to be wary of photos taken from a weird angle, because I learned that probably meant the room was small and the photographer was trying to compensate.
I started looking for how much of the floor I could see in the bathroom photos, realizing that the more floor was shown, the bigger the room probably was. Was there a photo of only the sink? That tended to mean the bathroom was tiny.
I also realized that as my belly grew, I’d probably want a bathtub to soak in. So those shower-only bathrooms I saw in so many apartments probably weren’t going to work for us.
I also started depending more on floor plans and square footage numbers than actual photos. I’d flip through a profile online and, if it didn’t have a floor plan, I’d wonder if they were hiding something. Usually they were, and usually it was a distinct lack of closets.
With a baby on the way, I needed a closet. Or three.
Location is still everything, but in a different way
Location can be a big factor in home shopping, especially in a place like New York City. There are so many different neighborhoods with different personalities. Originally, I wanted an apartment in a busy, but charming, part of town that would give me that big-city feel.
But after learning of my pregnancy, my ideas of the perfect location changed swiftly. I no longer wanted to be in a bustling area, because I knew that would mean extra noise. I no longer cared about being near fun wine bars or coffee shops, since I couldn’t drink wine or (much) coffee.
There were school districts to consider, wide sidewalks for pushing a stroller, plus proximity to doctors’ offices.
Plus, in a post-coronavirus age, there’s also delivery services to consider. I already knew that walking to the grocery store while pregnant would be tricky. But trying to go to the store while pregnant, during a pandemic, would be downright unsafe. It’s a good reminder of just how important it is to be not only close to grocery stores and pharmacies, but also within delivery range.
Old buildings can have unexpected dangers
Back in California, there aren’t many old apartment buildings. I can think of some “historic” apartments in Los Angeles, which were built in the 1950s. Meanwhile, New York City has plenty of apartment buildings that were built at the turn of the century. The past century, that is.
Most of them are old buildings that I loved the look of, but worried about living in. The reason: Some old apartments were built with lead pipes or covered in lead paint.
Of course, plenty of those buildings have been refurbished and had the lead removed, but not all of them. And even though their old walls may have been painted over plenty of times in the past few decades, a lead layer could still be buried underneath. A scrape on the wall might expose this toxin that could then find its way into a toddler’s mouth.
While I knew that plenty of families were living happily and healthily in old buildings, I decided not to risk it—and to start looking exclusively for newer buildings.
Stairs are a big turnoff
I’ve always been an active person. I love working out and am almost always up for a walk, a hike, or a kickboxing class. During my first week of home tours, I didn’t bat an eyelash at the idea of a five-story walk-up.
But now, walk-ups weren’t for me. An elevator became a must—not only to help me avoid too many stairs in the last months of pregnancy, but to avoid lugging a stroller up and down later.
A safe and convenient kitchen area
Of course, we’d all like a large, open-concept kitchen with a big island and top-notch appliances, but that’s not always possible. With a baby on the way, I had to focus my priorities on safety, storage, and convenience.
Some kitchens were way too small for a family, and I realized that closed-off galley kitchens might get too tight for my growing belly. I found that the look of the kitchen was often the deciding factor for whether or not we’d tour a home.
We became more budget-conscious than ever
Looking for a home while pregnant made my list of must-haves much longer. But it certainly didn’t extend my budget. In fact, my husband and I felt we should try to be saving more, because life was about to get pretty expensive. Because of this, it took us extra time to find a home.
After a month of living in an Airbnb rental followed by a few weeks staying at a cousin’s place, we finally found it: an apartment that was truly baby-friendly. It was hard to go that long living out of suitcases, but the lengthy search was worth it.
Addendum: How the coronavirus changed my priorities, again
Although we’d already settled in to an apartment by the time the coronavirus tore through New York, I noticed that enduring this pandemic while pregnant changed my priorities in what I wanted in a home yet again. Life in quarantine taught me that there are a ton of things to consider when it comes to staying home with your young family for long stretches of time.
One obvious thing to consider would be outside space. While I never liked the idea of yard maintenance, kids need some time outside. If a pandemic ever pops up again, or even if there’s a bad flu season one year, a big yard or a sizable balcony could be a home’s best asset.
And if outside play isn’t possible due to bad weather or otherwise, I realized I’d want a decent-size play space inside. Being inside all day, a little one would need space to stay active. Granted, such a space would fetch a premium in New York City, but would be doable if you looked for open floor plans where there’d be room to set up a mini slide, ball pit, or safe climbing structure like a Foamnasium (yes, that’s a thing).
Who knows? Maybe I’ll get to put these latest lessons into practice if we decide to move a year or two down the road. For now, I’m happy where I am.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown millions of people’s financial plans off the rails, and that certainly includes home buying. If you were hoping to purchase a property soon, you no doubt have a lot of questions—about whether it’s possible to buy or tour a house now, COVID-19’s impact on home prices, and more.
We’re already written a guide to home buying in the age of coronavirus to help you navigate this new reality in real estate, but we know there’s a lot you still want to know. So here are the answers to your most pressing questions about buying a home right now. Whether you’re wondering what’s up with home prices or open houses, read on to learn everything you need to know.
1. Is it possible to buy a house now?
While buying a house today may be more challenging due to health and economic concerns, it is certainly possible. In fact, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has declared that residential and commercial real estate services are an essential service that should be allowed to continue. (State orders, however, may overrule that guidance.)
Furthermore, the real estate industry has quickly adopted new technologies to help home buyers and sellers stay safe for as long as this pandemic lasts.
However, certain aspects of the home-buying process might be restricted or look a bit different these days. For instance, as COVID-19 outbreaks gained momentum, certain hard-hit states (such as New York) banned in-person home viewings. And while home closings typically involve the presence of the buyers, the sellers, their agents, and a notary, some states (such as Florida) loosened restrictions and allowed remote or “curbside” closings, where documents are slipped through car windows to lower the exposure levels of all parties involved.
Aside from federal and local restrictions, a lot will depend on the home sellers’ comfort levels. Some sellers might be fine with your touring their house. But others might not be comfortable letting strangers in their home, even if property tours are allowed in your area.
A local real estate agent will have the best handle on what home buyers can and can’t do in your area, so feel free to consult an agent for the most up-to-date information. Here’s more information to help you answer the question, “Should I buy a house now?”
2. Is now a good time to buy a house, financially speaking?
From a financial perspective, there are certainly some advantages to buying a home right now. For one, mortgage interest rates are historically low, which means your monthly housing payments will be lower, too. And putting a property under contract now and locking in a low interest rate gives buyers more control than living in a rental where rents might go up.
Another big consideration on the financial side of the home-buying equation comes down to competition. The coronavirus has dissuaded some home buyers from home shopping for the time being. So buyers who do venture out face less competition, which could put them in a stronger position to negotiate with sellers.
In addition to surveying the housing market and mortgage rates in your area, you should also take a good, hard look at your personal financial situation. You’ll want to gauge whether now is a good time to buy for you. Are your job and income stable, or are you worried about layoffs or the stock market?
If your own financial future is uncertain, you might want to take more of a wait-and-see approach to home buying. Or consider buying a home well under what you can afford just in case the coming months throw you a curveball.
3. How has the coronavirus affected home prices?
The coronavirus has the world economy in turmoil. But so far at least, this does not mean that home prices have plummeted across the board or that buyers can lowball their way to a bargain. Instead, in most real estate markets, home inventory remains very tight.
“I don’t expect the slowdown to be like the last recession where prices fell,” says realtor.com chief economist Danielle Hale. “There are more than enough buyers out there to keep home sales from slowing in any major way.”
Some sellers have pulled their listings as they wait for better market conditions. On the flip side, a home seller who doesn’t have the luxury of time is facing a smaller buyer pool, due to safety concerns and limited physical access to touring homes. So buyers could have the upper hand for a short period when it comes to homeowners who need to sell.
The only way to test a seller’s level of motivation is to make an offer. But play it safe. Buyers should not assume that because of the pandemic they can automatically lowball a seller—this could turn the seller off. You might want to try offering a modest discount below asking price to simply start a dialogue.
While no one can guarantee you won’t catch the coronavirus, the real estate industry has worked to prioritize buyers’ and sellers’ health by eliminating personal interactions almost entirely during the pandemic. Even as different states reopen, you can still do most aspects of the home-buying process remotely, or at a safe social distance, when it comes to your home search that you may not have considered doing in the past.
First, you can find local real estate agents online and interview them virtually. While showings may not be easy to arrange because of shelter-in-place orders or continuing health concerns, most real estate listings now offer virtual tours.
When possible, video chats allow agents to walk through a prospective home while you watch from the safety of your current residence. Virtual tours may not be as good as walking through a home, but they can give you a good idea of whether or not you want to see the house in person when it’s possible. And it’s also a great way to pare your options and skip visiting some homes.
When it comes to the financial aspect of home buying, many lenders had already made the entire mortgage process digital long before anyone heard of social distancing.
Another new term? “Desktop appraising,” which allows the appraiser to stay home and review available data that allows lenders to approve mortgages remotely.
And in many states, drive-through or even video closings are temporarily permissible during the pandemic.
Remember, whether all of the above is available depends on your area, so always consult with your agent each step of the way. And read more on whether or not it’s safe to buy a house now.
5. Are open houses or home showings allowed?
Whether open houses are allowed in your area all comes down to how local authorities enforce their lockdowns. Under many quarantine orders, such as in Los Angeles and New York City during the height of the pandemic, open houses have been completely banned. Other states currently allow open houses as long as capacity allows for social distancing. The National Association of Realtors® offers guidelines on open houses, recommending that they be limited to fewer than 10 people, if they’re hosted at all.
In general, in areas where open houses aren’t allowed, individual home showings with just a buyer and an agent are OK. Keep in mind that even if showings are allowed, agents and home sellers must all be willing to make them happen. Check with your agent and local government for more information, and know that what’s permissible could change as this pandemic progresses.
If you do choose to attend an open house or tour a home, here’s what you can do to stay safe:
Don’t touch anything in someone else’s home. Ask that the owners open cabinets and closets prior to a showing.
Stay six feet away from your real estate agent at all times. If the home is small, ask your agent to open the front door for you and wait in the kitchen while you tour the house on your own. You can ask questions via cellphone as you look around.
Wear protective booties; agents generally provide these even in normal times. Carefully throw them away when you’ve finished touring.
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap after you leave the home.
Or instead of attending an open house or private tour, you can conduct a virtual house hunt. You can also drive through a neighborhood and check out the area from the safety of your car. Here’s more on how to stay safe during your house hunt.
6. Should I buy a house sight unseen?
While buying a house sight unseen has long been the only option for people relocating due to a new job or military service, the trend has been on the rise for more and more folks. In fact, according to a realtor.com survey of 1,300 consumers during the week of April 5, 24% (or 1 in 4) said they’d be willing to buy a home without seeing it in person.
Buyers who consider buying a house sight unseen generally have some comfort level with the neighborhood and know the market. And according to realtor.com senior economist George Ratiu, the comfort level of buying a house sight unseen may come down to age.
“Younger cohorts are more inclined to rely on detailed photos, virtual tours, or live video instead of an in-person visit, with 31% indicating they would be willing to buy sight unseen,” says Ratiu.
Even if you’re buying blind, you shouldn’t operate completely in the dark. Here are some features that buyers find most helpful in such a home search.
The ability to take a virtual tour of the home
Listing and neighborhood information that is accurate and detailed
Plentiful, high-quality listing photos that show the property’s interior and exterior
An agent or landlord who can walk a buyer through the property via video chat
Generally speaking, if you are recently unemployed you should think twice about buying right now. But there are some ways you can proceed, albeit with caution.
For instance, home buying is possible when you’re between jobs if you have enough money in the bank to make an all-cash offer—due to a previous home sale or inheritance—and can skip the mortgage process entirely.
If you do need a mortgage, you’ll need not only a high credit score and a low debt-to-income ratio, but also a source of funds to prove to lenders you can make your monthly mortgage payments. If you are a dual-income family with a spouse or significant other still working, that person could apply for a mortgage. Many lenders also allow for a monetary gift to home buyers from relatives. Sometimes a sizable gift satisfies lenders’ application requirements even if the borrower is currently unemployed.
Yes, the length of time from an accepted offer to home closing during the height of the pandemic is taking longer. Closing times used to average about 26 days in January, then hit 43 days in February, and shot up to 60 days in March. They’re likely to take longer still in the coming months.
The simple fact is lenders are buried under paperwork as refinancing applications skyrocketed due to the historically low mortgage interest rates.
In addition to lender backlogs, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have complicated the home closing process. While home inspections and appraisals are possible, everything is just taking longer during the pandemic. Here’s more on the home closing process.
9. Is moving allowed right now?
According to the American Moving & Storage Association, moving has been deemed an essential service by the federal government.
Still, while moving is legal in the big picture, it might not be allowed for your specific circumstances depending on what stage of the pandemic you are in. For instance, during the height of New York City’s epidemic, some apartment buildings decided to ban residents from moving due to safety concerns and shelter-in-place orders.
Check with your local and state governments (and your HOA or condo board, if applicable) before scheduling any move. And if you have to move, read all about how to move safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
10. How can I prepare to buy a house?
You may be interested in buying a home, but simply don’t feel comfortable getting out there and house hunting right now. Luckily there are still things you can do to prepare so you’re ready to spring into action later this summer or whenever you decide you’re ready.
Check your credit score: The very first step in preparing to buy a home is to check your credit score. Credit scores are what mortgage lenders look at to determine whether you are creditworthy, and will dictate your interest rate. So do everything to protect your score. Many companies—from credit cards to utilities—are working with consumers who can’t make payments. If you are having trouble making payments, don’t just skip them. Call your lender and work out a plan.
Figure out how much home you can afford: The pandemic has roiled markets and caused tremendous economic uncertainty. So you’ll want to carefully consider how much home you can afford and err on the conservative side. Check an online home affordability calculator, which will help you determine your monthly mortgage payment.
Secure mortgage pre-approval: Now it’s more important than ever to get pre-approved to show sellers you’re serious when you make an offer. Pre-approval shows how much a lender will loan you, assuring the seller that you’re financially capable of buying a home.
Avoid any major changes: A major tenet of preparing to buy a home is to not make any major changes in your life or your finances. But with the coronavirus pandemic, some upheaval—such as getting furloughed—may be out of your control. Yet much of it is not. For instance, do not buy a car or pricey new furniture, or apply for a new credit card. All of those can lower your credit rating, meaning you may not be able to qualify for a home loan.
Check online listings: On real estate sites like realtor.com you can see what properties are available in your area in your price range. And take advantage of the virtual tours many agents are offering to house hunt from your couch.
Spring is typically a busy time for buying and selling homes, but the coronavirus pandemic has pushed homeowners and shoppers into new, uncharted territory. Shelter-in-place orders and concerns about contagion have forced many real estate agents to cancel open houses, while unemployment is at a historically high level.
But even in the midst of a deadly pandemic that is devastating the economy, many Americans still want or even need to buy a home in the near future.
“I definitely have clients that are still interested in viewing homes but have been honest that they won’t put pen to paper and write an offer until they know the health crisis has passed and they can assess the impact on real estate and the economy,” says Noah Grassi, a Realtor® for Compass in San Diego.
So, what does the current state of the housing market mean for buyers? With so much uncertainty these days, buying—or planning to buy—a home during a pandemic requires extra careful consideration. That’s why we reached out to real estate agents to get their honest takes on what’s really happening in the housing market in the time of COVID-19, how buyers can prepare, and what we can likely expect when the pandemic subsides.
There may be some reductions in home prices
The federal government has provided relief through cash payments, and lenders are also offering mortgage forbearance options. But with unemployment numbers rising, more people could be forced to sell their homes or enter foreclosure, potentially leading to reductions in home prices.
“Due to millions of job losses per week, and the long-term impact of COVID, I expect housing prices to shift into a downward trend,” says Justin Brennan with Brennan Real Estate Group, Pacific Sotheby’s International Realty. “To what extent they go down will be determined by how many job losses become permanent versus temporary.”
If the price cuts materialize, that would be good news for buyers in locations where affordability was already stretched thin.
More homes will come onto the market
A bigger inventory of homes on the market may soon be on the horizon for buyers.
“There’s an inventory of sellers on the sidelines, and it is growing every day,” says Grassi. “These are owners that still reside in their property and don’t want strangers—agents and potential buyers—walking through their home at the moment due to the health crisis. Once it is clear the risk is minimal, I think we are going to see a big increase in the number of homes for sale.”
There’s a chance that buyers are also waiting in the wings for the coronavirus pandemic to end and the economy to get back on its feet. But the likely big inventory of homes for sale could put buyers in a good position.
Interest rates are likely to stay low
Over the past few months, mortgage interest rates have been lower than we’ve ever seen. And experts expect that trend to continue.
“The general consensus of the experts is that mortgage interest rates will remain attractive for many months to come,” says Grassi. “If buyers are hoping to try to find a deal on their mortgage during this health crisis, they should be writing offers now.”
If low mortgage rates and being stuck indoors have convinced you it’s time to find a new home, this may be a time to consider buying.
Keep in touch with your mortgage lender
Serious buyers should always have their mortgage lender on speed dial, but in these unprecedented times, this advice is more relevant than ever.
“Make sure you are constantly speaking with your lender on updates in the lending market,” says Brennan. “If you fall in love with a home, focus on the long term and getting a great interest rate and payment versus trying to time the market.”
With entire states ordered to stay at home amid the coronavirus pandemic—and things like open houses and in-person showings considered major health risks—the business of buying and selling houses is not what it was just a short time ago.
The federal government considers real estate an essential business, but several states, whose mandates take precedence, have categorized it as nonessential. In either scenario, real estate agents have had to find new ways to do their jobs.
We reached out to agents around the country to find out how they’re doing their jobs differently in these unsettled times.
The real No. 1 challenge for agents
You may think the biggest challenge to selling a house during a pandemic would be getting the buyer in the house, but Amy Berglund, real estate associate with Re/Max Professionals in Denver, says that’s not the case.
“The biggest challenge has been projecting and encouraging a sense of calm for our clients,” she says. “Real estate deals are still happening, closings are happening, and multiple offers in some price points are still happening. We are closing deals—we just need the public to have confidence in that.”
Different attitudes toward showing—and staging—homes
In some locations, in-person showings are still happening, but that doesn’t mean business as usual.
Gina Guajardo, broker at Sterling & Johnston in Seattle, says she uses video walk-throughs to eliminate in-person showings for people who aren’t serious buyers.
“I’m doing this for buyers’ and sellers’ health,” she says. “I want showings only from interested buyers; this is not the time for lookers.”
Before the coronavirus, homeowners were encouraged to stage homes for showings and open houses so they felt lived-in. Recently, however, that policy has been turned upside down, says Katie Witry, a real estate agent and owner of Witry Collective in New Orleans.
“Homes that are vacant are easier to show, inspect, and eventually sell,” she explains. “However, homes that are occupied are being shown on a case-by-case basis.”
When in-person showings do happen, they require extensive precautions.
“I’m suiting up in a mask and disposable gloves to show property,” says Lara Cox, a Realtor® in Las Vegas. She’s also “using a disinfectant wipe to open doors, turn on light switches, and open blinds” while inside clients’ homes.
But Washington, DC, real estate agent Karen Szala notes that when clients wear masks, it’s difficult to get a good sense of their reaction to a property.
“So much of what we do as real estate agents is reading reactions and asking questions about those facial expressions when they first see a property in person,” she says.
The pros and cons of virtual tours
Traditionally, homeowners have had little to do with house tours—their only job has been to leave the premises so that real estate agents could take over.
Juan P. Rojas of JPR International Real Estate in Miami says that has all changed now that residents have been ordered to stay at home.
“We can coordinate to show a property virtually, by simply hosting a Zoom meeting where the owner is in essence the videographer and gives the buyer a live tour of the property,” he explains. “It’s been pretty exciting!”
Jo Ann Bauer, a Realtor® with the Ozer Group in Scottsdale, AZ, notes that while virtual tours are convenient for both buyer and seller, “the drawback is, people want to experience a home and how it feels, and that can be very challenging for buyers on a virtual tour.”
Some sellers are waiting it out
A house that’s been on the market too long has “gone stale” in real estate terms, which tends to have a negative impact on its appeal—and the seller’s negotiating power.
In a time when buyers are reluctant to shop for homes, more and more homes are at risk for this, but real estate agent Tomer Fridman of Compass in Los Angeles has found a way to combat that.
“We are holding off on launching new listings on the MLS and networking them off-market through our personal sphere and social media channels,” he explains. “No one wants the days on market to date a property unnecessarily, and agents looking for their buyers are aware to look at properties coming soon and on hold.”
In other areas, though, the problem is a lack of inventory.
Nancy Brook, broker and CEO of Billings Best Real Estate in Montana, says her area doesn’t have enough homes for sale in the median price range.
“With interest rates still low, buyers are ready to buy if they can find the right house,” she says. “Some sellers are either withdrawing their listing or waiting to list.”
Relationship maintenance mode
Real estate is a business based on relationships, and many real estate agents are just working on maintaining those relationships right now.
“I honestly haven’t been thinking about deals and haven’t been pushing clients to buy or sell. My main focus is reaching out to clients, friends, and family on a human level to check and see how they are doing and not discuss business,” says New York City broker Philip Scheinfeld.
Closing on homes without getting too close
Typical closings consist of buyers, sellers, and their agents meeting in a room with a title clerk. Understandably, that can’t happen right now, so agencies are getting creative.
“My title company partners have helped us by instituting drive-up closings where all parties remain in their car and title clerks in Tyvek suits go car to car, safely securing signatures and completing the home sale,” explains Dave Marcolla, principal of the Dave Marcolla Group at Keller Williams Real Estate in Newtown, PA.
A new outlook on ‘home’
The coronavirus pandemic is making huge changes to how business is done right now, but Ed Kaminsky, licensed real estate agent at Strand Hill in Manhattan Beach, CA, says its effect on what people are looking for in a home will be long-lasting.
“I do believe globally people will be looking at ‘home’ much differently for at least a generation or two,” he says. “A home now is not just a place to eat dinner and sleep, but it potentially is your office, your home gym, your children’s school, your play center, your place of rest, your place of worship. Home has taken on a whole different meaning, and choosing one that meets all of those needs is more important than ever before.”
When you’re in the market for a new place to live, finding the right neighborhood is everything. But in our current state, with shelter-in-place orders in full effect in many areas (and mere common sense limiting people’s excursions), scoping out a new neighborhood can be a little more challenging. But with some online detective work and the right tools, you can learn a lot about a neighborhood without leaving your home.
That’s because you’re not the first one to consider buying a home without being able to pound the pavement personally.
“As buyer’s agents, we will often shoot video of the neighborhood and/or home for our out-of-area clients,” says Katie Wethman, a real estate agent with the Wethman Group at Keller Williams in McLean, VA. “We also have video streaming apps like FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom to bring them with us.”
Even though you won’t be able to pop in to a local coffee shop or take a leisurely stroll down Main Street, exploring a neighborhood in the time of coronavirus is possible. So let your fingers do the walking—on your laptop—and get to digging. Here’s how to start your research.
1. Check out neighborhood publications and local social media
An active neighborhood community will sometimes have a print publication or local social media groups that connect residents. These can provide information on local events and activities that will give you a better feel for the neighborhood. For example, Carlsbad, CA, has a local publication called Carlsbad Magazine, which covers all of the cultural happenings in North San Diego County, as well as a Facebook page.
Browse Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for groups or accounts that document what’s going on in the neighborhood where you’re interested in moving. You can even interact with locals in the community who can give you their opinions of their locale.
2. Take a walk with Google
Want to take a stroll around your potential new neighborhood without leaving the couch?
“Google Street View is a great way to ‘walk’ the street and neighborhood virtually,” says Wethman.
Every listing on realtor.com features a link to the Google Street View for that address.
Another way to access Google Street View is to go to google.com/maps, type in the address of the house you’re interested in, and click on the photo of the property in the menu to the left of the map. If Google Street View is available for that address, you should be able to click and drag the image to move down the street.
“Search engines like Google also let you filter for videos when you search the neighborhood name,” says Wethman. “Try adding ‘review’ to your search terms, and also ‘neighborhood association’ or ‘homeowners association’ for better results.”
3. Browse websites with neighborhood data
You want to gather as much information as possible on your next neighborhood, and there are a lot of websites that can help you do that.
City-Data provides detailed city profiles about everything from cost of living to weather to average home prices, and its forums give useful insight from community locals.
Plug in your ZIP code at AreaVibes to get a livability score and help narrow down the best places to live.
Yelp provides not only reviews on local cafes, restaurants, and nightlife, but also unfiltered reviews from local residents.
4. Search other real estate listings
To learn about the typical architectural styles and ages of homes in a neighborhood, browse online listings on sites like realtor.com. Is the neighborhood full of ’50s ranch homes or hundred-year-old Victorians? Looking at the homes for sale will clue you in.
5. Call a real estate agent
It’s also a good idea to get in touch with a tech-savvy real estate agent—and these days, that’s most of them.
“A real estate agent can help by using technology to test-drive the neighborhood for you. This can easily be done by making a video of the neighborhood and sharing it with you,” says John Myers, a real estate agent with Myers & Myers Real Estate in Albuquerque, NM.
Myers says he has helped a lady from New York City purchase a home in Albuquerque by using a video calling app called Duo.
If you’ve identified a home you’re interested in, contact the listing agent for more information about the neighborhood. The pro will be sure to have an insider’s perspective on the area and extensive knowledge on homes there.
6. Investigate schools and educational data
Relocating with your family? Then you will want to research schools in the area. A good resource is GreatSchools, which provides data on K-12 schools and reviews from parents. Areas with great schools typically maintain property values, and its neighborhoods are highly coveted.
And if you want to research education statistics, U.S. News & World Report has rankings of high schools with data on more than 23,000 public high schools in all 50 states.
7. Check crime rates
Safety is a priority for both buyers and renters, and crime rates can give you a picture of how safe or dangerous a neighborhood is. Low crime rates are not only safer but can also help keep property values high.
Websites such as CrimeReports can provide crime data from law enforcement agencies.
To see if there are registered sex offenders living nearby, type the address of your potential new home in the National Sex Offender Registry’s online search tool.
8. Plan your daily commute
Wethman also suggests getting a feel for the neighborhood by monitoring traffic and your potential work commute.
“I recommend people ‘test-drive’ the commute using commuting tools that predict traffic like Waze or Google Maps,” says Wethman.
These tools will predict the level of traffic during your commute hours and give you an idea of how long it’ll take to get to work. Realtor.com also offers a similar commute time feature on every home listing.
The real estate market—and daily life—has been completely upended in just a few weeks. Yet maybe in spite of it all, you’ve managed to find a home you love and are ready to make an offer. Congratulations! But as you hover on the brink of what is potentially the biggest investment of your life, amid a global crisis, you may be feeling a fair amount of uncertainty.
We’re here to help you navigate this step with a new series, “Home Buying in the Age of Coronavirus.” Our third installment aims to help you answer the question: “How do I negotiate an offer right now?” It’ll also help you figure out how to get your offer to the closing table.
Here is everything you need to know about getting from offer to closing during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Banks have rolled out mortgage forbearance programs, so most sellers are not in immediate danger of losing their home, even if they just lost their job or their income has been significantly cut,” says Caleb Liu, who flips homes in Southern California with HouseSimplySold.com. “Other sellers have opted to pull their listings and wait for better market conditions, so inventory remains tight.”
On the other hand, a home seller who doesn’t have the luxury of time is facing a smaller buyer pool, due to stay-at-home orders and concerns about buying a home based on what may only amount to a virtual tour. So buyers could have the upper hand for a short time when it comes to homeowners who need to sell.
“Here in the Phoenix and Scottsdale region it’s still a very strong seller’s market with a low inventory of homes,” says Jo Ann Bauer, an agent with the Ozer Group Coldwell Banker Realty. “However, I think nervous sellers are going to be more open to price adjustments and negotiating with buyers, so there is room for buyers to be more aggressive in their offer price.”
Still, buyers should not assume that because we are in a pandemic they can automatically lowball a seller. Sellers may be more willing, however, to entertain offers on the lower end.
“While I’m not seeing lowball offers, I am seeing sellers—who may have held out for potential better offers if we were not in this crisis—quick to take offers they receive and get officially under contract,” adds Julia Henson, a real estate professional in Springfield, MO.
The only way to test a seller’s level of motivation is to make an offer, says John Grimes, an agent in Atlanta. But play it safe.
“Just remember that most sellers that don’t absolutely need to sell would rather not engage with a buyer that is seeking to take advantage of the situation,” says Grimes, who advises offering a modest discount of 3% to 5% below asking price to start a dialogue.
Be prepared for a longer closing
Ordinarily, once your offer is accepted, it’s a straight line to closing. In the age of coronavirus, that journey is more of a zigzag. That means buyers need to prepare for potential delays.
This is due to the health and safety concerns of appraisers, home inspectors, and repair contractors. They are adjusting their guidelines and availability, which can slow the transaction. (Many of these professionals are quickly adapting to doing their work remotely when possible.)
“Buyers may need to embrace a longer transaction process by setting the closing date out further than the typical 30 days,” advises Bauer.
She also recommends adding contingencies in the contract for the in-person viewing of the property.
“By anticipating a potential delay upfront and writing an extension into the contract, buyers can have a little more peace of mind in this uncertain time,” she says.
Ensure you have a mortgage commitment
Securing financing may be the biggest challenge right now, so make sure you have a mortgage commitment letter when you make an offer. This is a more detailed document than a pre-approval and, as the name implies, represents a firm commitment from your lender.
“Banks are issuing fewer loans in order to conserve cash to offset the imminent delinquencies,” says John Castle, an agent with Keller Williams Integrity Realty in Ottawa, Ontario. “Many buyers believe they have secured financing when, in reality, their lender may have only conditionally approved their loan.”
And many lenders are tightening up their terms and conditions. Minimum credit scores and required cash reserves have risen to new levels, making it difficult for many buyers to qualify.
Make sure your lender is staying on top of the fast-changing mortgage industry, says Nathan Claire, an agent at Momentum Realty in Jacksonville, FL.
“But as long as the buyer can qualify for whatever financing they are seeking to acquire, there shouldn’t be any issue with achieving a successful close,” Claire says.
Just don’t be afraid to over-communicate during this time.
“Make sure you touch base with your lender preferably every day, or at least every other day,” says Liu. “The credit markets are shifting rapidly.”
And if you have the funds, all-cash offers are even more desirable to sellers during this time, as they allow buyers to close on the home more quickly than an offer contingent on financing.
If you’ve been thinking about buying a home for a while, you may have marked your calendar back in the winter to start your house hunt right about now. After all, spring typically kicks off the busiest home-buying period of the year. But what a difference a few months make! Now, the coronavirus pandemic probably has you worried about how to safely check out homes without risking infection.
“For buyers that are in typically lower-inventory, high-priced markets, there has never been a more opportune time to take advantage of favorable interest rates and less competition,” says Cara Ameer, an agent with Coldwell Banker who is licensed in California and Florida.
So if you are in a position to buy, the third installment of our series explains how to conduct a virtual house hunt and how to protect yourself if you do visit a home in person.
Learn how to read an online listing and find out what it’s hiding
“My advice to buyers is to parse listing photos to determine whether something is a good enough candidate to consider a more in-depth tour,” says Kate Ziegler, a real estate professional with Arborview Realty in Boston.
An agent will help you get into the nitty-gritty of an online listing. But here are some red flags to look for as you click through pictures that may not always show the true details of a property:
Are there more photos of the exterior than the interior? The inside might need work.
Closed curtains and blinds in a photo are usually hiding a bad view.
If a picture of a bathroom focuses on a sink, it can mean the bathroom is painfully small.
If photos look stretched out, the seller or agent is trying to make a room appear bigger.
Some listing terms are red flags as well. A “fixer-upper” can mean a great investment or a money pit, and “cozy” generally means the home is small.
Squeeze the most out of virtual tours
The real estate industry is adapting quickly to the coronavirus outbreak, with many agents adding video tours to their listing photos. (Look for the virtual tour icon on the bottom of the listing page.)
“If you’re interested in a property with a video, ask the agent if they have more footage,” advises Ryan Serhant of Nest Seekers & Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing New York.”
Sometimes parts of the house are left on the editing room floor to keep the video short and dynamic.
You can also make a FaceTime (audio and visual) call during which your agent walks through a home, sharing footage of the features. You can also direct your agent to show you what you want to see and uncover any blind spots in the original video.
“In order to get the most out of a virtual home tour, buyers should ask their agent to emphasize the little details, like the finishes after a renovation or crown molding on a ceiling,” says Nikita Idiri, licensed real estate salesperson at New York’s Elegran.
Buyers should also have a floor plan of the space handy to help with determining how big a room is or how high the ceilings are.
Dig into disclosures
If you like a home from the photos and the virtual tour, ask your agent for the seller disclosure. This should outline any known problems with the home’s structure, as well as the age of various features and any improvements.
“Sometimes buyers will find out things about the house that help them to decide whether to move forward or rule it out,” says Maggie Wells of Keller Williams in Lexington, KY. “For example, the roof and the HVAC system may be at the end of their lives or there could be some sort of structural deficiency.”
Take precautions if you visit a home
If you are interested in a property and the seller will allow you to tour it, consult with your agent to ensure that visiting a home is allowed in your city or state. Many shelter-in-place orders prohibit nonessential workers from conducting business. Federal guidelines identify real estate as an essential business, but states have the final word, so the actual regulations vary and can change.
“If my buyer clients request to schedule an in-person showing, I accommodate it as best I can while taking every step to protect them,” says Wells.
First, verify with the listing agent that no one in the household is sick. But since you can’t know if anyone living in the seller’s home has asymptomatic coronavirus, take all necessary precautions to protect yourself and follow CDC guidelines. Ask the seller to leave all closet doors and kitchen cabinets open for you, to minimize the need to touch handles. Here are more tips you can take to protect yourself:
Don’t touch anything in someone else’s home.
Stay 6 feet away from your real estate agent at all times. If the home is small, ask your agent to open the front door for you and wait in the kitchen while you tour the house on your own. You can ask questions via cellphone as you look around.
Wear protective booties; agents generally provide these even in normal times. Carefully throw them away when you’ve finished touring.
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap after you leave the home.
Accept that you may not be able to visit a home
Showing protocols are changing quickly, and many companies have started to prohibit in-person home tours altogether for the time being.
“Also, many sellers may not be comfortable showing their homes during this time,” says Ameer. That doesn’t mean you’re at the end of the road, as you can buy a home sight unseen.
Is it risky to buy a home when you can’t tour the inside? Yes, but it happened frequently under certain circumstances even before the coronavirus.
“I do absolutely believe that buyers will consider buying ‘physically sight unseen’ if they have some comfort level with the neighborhood,” says Ameer, who recently had a listing go under contract by out-of-state buyers, on the strength of a video she posted. “Especially those buyers that have been in the market for a while or started to seriously search prior to the virus pandemic hitting.” That’s because after cruising enough open houses, buyers know what ticks their boxes when the right property comes along.
If you live near a home, you can certainly drive up and walk the home’s exterior with permission from the listing agent and home seller.
And if you’re truly nervous about buying sight unseen, consult a real estate attorney.
“Attorneys are working to draft necessary legal language, including relevant force majeure clauses, into the purchase contracts to protect the buyer,” says Teresa Alessandro, licensed real estate salesperson at New York’s Elegran. A force majeure clause allows a party to back out of a contract under specified circumstances that cannot be controlled (such as a pandemic).
If you really want to see a home with your own eyes, focus on vacant ones or new construction, since those are usually available to see even if your real estate professional hasn’t been deemed an essential worker.
Don’t forget to check out the neighborhood
Remember, the surrounding neighborhood is just as important as the house itself. So do a virtual deep dive on Google Earth to see if the home you’re interested in is near schools, shopping centers, restaurants, parks, and public transportation. Our interactive neighborhood maps are another great resource.
“You can also do a physical drive-by of the neighborhood without actually entering anything,” says Caleb Liu of HouseSimplySold.com. “You’ll want to survey the quality of the roads, and if there are any freeways or power lines nearby.”
There are some things you still want to be able to see with your own eyes.