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‘No reason for them to touch anything:’ The new rules of buying and selling a house in a pandemic

Sometimes selling your house and moving is essential even when much of the country is on lockdown.

Just ask Ashley Holub, who put her Rochester, New York, home up for sale on March 12 just as the threat of COVID-19 went from cold to hot.

The 27-year-old, who was moving for a job slated to start this summer, had a unique perspective on the situation. She was graduating with a PhD in epidemiology from the University of Rochester.

“I think when dealing with an epidemiologist, the realtor kind of understood that I was having a lot of hesitation,” said Holub, who owned the house with her husband.

To be safe, Holub and her husband came to a mutual understanding with their realtor that prospective buyers would arrive on appointments with ample space between people to avoid overlapping parties coming into contact with one another.

Ashley Holub put her home on the market for sale as the coronavirus pandemic heated up. She still sold the house.
Ashley Holub put her home on the market for sale as the coronavirus pandemic heated up. She still sold the house.

Home tours and open houses are all about optics and are designed to allow prospective buyers to envision themselves living in the space. COVID-19 has effectively popped that bubble and ushered in strict instructions for contactless viewings.

Holub put up signs, requesting visitors to remove their shoes and wash their hands upon entering the house. She also took contactless touring one step further.

“We left all of the cabinets and closet doors open and all of the lights on so there was no reason for them to touch anything,” she said. “They're gonna come in and they're gonna want to see the space. So we figured, okay, let's just leave it all open.”

‘The good news is that with real estate, you can do it safely’

Holub’s mandates didn’t negatively affect the sale of her home— it was under contract after 24 hours on the market— and her mandates are consistent with how the broader real estate industry is tackling how to sell homes during a pandemic.

“The good news is that with real estate, you can do it safely,” Bess Freedman, CEO of Brown Harris Stevens, a residential real estate firm, said.

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The majority of open houses are momentarily discontinued and homes are now shown on appointment on a staggered schedule, according to the NAR.

In many cases, couples are no longer permitted to tour homes in tandem. Instead, the agent can only tour the property with one person at a time. It takes a bit of joy out of the process, as moving can be an exciting time for couples and individuals, but experts don’t foresee it being a permanent change.

Virtual board interviews in Zoom

About 35% of sellers have continued listing their properties during the pandemic, according to a recent Flash Survey by the National Association of Realtors. More than half of this subset have resorted to virtual home showings to ease buyer concerns.

While the process from virtual showing to closing, takes longer than it would take, some agents report success.

“I just closed three deals,” said Christopher Totaro, real estate agent at Warburg Realty. “We did virtual board interviews and it was done in Zoom.”

Real estate agent Dana Scanlon conducts a virtual tour of a house with a client over Facetime in Washington, DC, on April 27, 2020. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)
Real estate agent Dana Scanlon conducts a virtual tour of a house with a client over Facetime in Washington, DC, on April 27, 2020. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Totaro, who sells in the New York City market acknowledges that the housing market may take a positive turn in a couple months.

“We saw a market that tanked for three to six months in Tribeca after 9/11, but then started a radical upward trend,” Totaro said. “I think things bounce back really quick.”

‘You can't just video conference in and think people are going to sign off’

But not all experts are sold on the idea of buying a place before you’ve set foot inside. Freedman said there are some qualities that get lost through virtual tours.

If the practice is an important measure for public health, it lends itself best to renters whose decisions are less permanent than owners, she said.

Almost 1 in 5 sellers are still hosting in-person showings, like Holub did, according to the NAR. More than 7 in 10 sellers request that buyers take precautions such as use hand sanitizer and wear gloves before entering.

“For the most part, when people are going to buy a piece of property, that will be their home,” she said. “Even if it's not a full-time home, they need to walk into the space, they want to see the space, they want to look out the window. People care deeply about those details and those are things that you can't just video conference in and think people are going to sign off.”

Stephanie and Dhara are reporters for Yahoo Money and Cashay, a new personal finance website. Follow them on Twitter @SJAsymkos and @dsinghx.

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