Although real estate agents have long questioned whether open houses really work to sell houses, they are an established, widely loved tradition. And spring is when the most sellers put their houses on the market. Why not, with flowers blooming and people enjoying being out and about?
Unfortunately, we are not in normal circumstances. The coronavirus or COVID pandemic has put many regions of the U.S. on virtual lockdown, with people allowed to leave their homes only for essential or emergency activities. An open house does not fall into that category. Nor, in many states, does showing a home individually to prospective buyers. Numerous real estate agents are putting their business on hold, for their own health and that of their clients. Many sellers are also deciding to stay put for now.
Even in areas where restrictions are less stringent, the National Association of Realtors is telling its members to think carefully before holding an open house. Forty percent of those members say they’ve suspended such events, as reported in the “2020 NAR Flash Survey: Economic Pulse” of March 16 to 17, 2020.
This situation is likely to last through the months of spring, at a minimum. However, the real estate industry is probably looking at multiple adjustments over the longer term, until the public health situation improves (ideally bringing treatment options and a vaccine) and lockdowns are lifted.
As digitized as our world has become, this pandemic is a reminder of how many personal interactions go into marketing and selling a home.
For starters, there are the inspectors, contractors, stagers, house cleaners and photographers before a home “goes live” in the Multiple Listing Service (MLS).
There are the prospective buyers who, under normal circumstances, might not only walk through a house, but open closet doors and even test the light switches and water taps. Then, a buyer whose offer is accepted will want to bring in a home inspector, and the bank or lender will hire an appraiser. What’s more, it’s hard for buyers and sellers to avoid at least a few in-person meetings with real estate agents, title and escrow officers, or closing attorneys.
No virtual substitutes exist for many of these. In the coming months, the best that prospective buyers might expect when touring homes is limited access wearing masks, gloves, and booties, after making verbal assurances that they’re symptom-free and are serious lookers. The overall transaction is likely to take longer than before, too, with unpredictable delays based on the limited staff available from lenders, inspectors, and home movers, or the personal circumstances or health of those involved.
As Realtor and Nolo author Ira Serkes explains, “It’s a different world right now. After we get through shelter-in-place, you’ll see a more streamlined home buying and selling process, with more online home tours, digital documentation, online closings, and ideally faster loans and sales. We’ll also see more personal, if not in-person, connections between real estate agents and their clients, using phone calls and Zoom/FaceTime meetings and home showings.”