Armed with canisters of disinfecting wipes, gloves and the sort of healthy practices drilled into elementary students’ heads — keep your hands to yourself and don’t touch anybody or anything — real estate professionals find themselves leaning heavily on technology and an abundance of safety precautions these days to help buyers and sellers navigate the real estate market.
COVID-19 fears have permeated every aspect of life, but people are still buying and selling homes, industry professionals say, and that’s good news for the local economy.
“It’s really important for the overall health of our regional economy that the real estate market continue to work,” said Laura Lafayette, chief executive officer of the Richmond Association of Realtors. Real estate has always been an economic driver that can prevent recession, lessen the impact of a deep recession, and even lead the country out of recession, she said.
It’s still too early to tell how or if the coronavirus has impacted Richmond’s real estate market, which was strong through the majority of the first quarter of 2020.
The area’s median sales price rose 7% to $270,000, reflecting the largest price increase in two years. In 2019, the median price for a house was $259,000, a 5.2% increase from 2018. The median price means half of all homes sell for more and half sell for less.
Lafayette said March data will be available in mid-April.
In the meantime, the 6,300 members who make up the association and the Central Virginia Regional MLS were advised last week to stop hosting public open houses for safety reasons, she said.
Like the rest of the country, they were charged with following safety guidelines: wearing gloves when touching doorknobs or other surfaces, using sanitizers before entering and just before leaving a home, and not touching anything while inside the house.
“It’s really important that we don’t do the public open houses,” Lafayette added, “but do continue the practice of real estate.”
So how does that happen?
Technology is key, said Kristin Krupp, associate broker with Shaheen, Ruth, Martin & Fonville.
“It’s a new world of real estate, and technology is going to help us bridge the gap,” she said — not that those technological tools are new to real estate professionals.
Virtual tours — where agents walk the homes or properties and take videos and stream them live to clients or put them online — have been part of the industry for upward of 20 years. But such tools are vitally important now in light of COVID-19 concerns, Krupp said.
As the public practices social distancing, more people want virtual appointments and digital processes instead of face-to-face meetings.
“Housing is still a very basic need,” Krupp said, and people are still buying homes, in part, because of historically low interest rates. But both buyers and sellers have to feel comfortable going through the process, so “technology is leading us through this.”
Lafayette echoed those sentiments, saying today’s buyers and sellers are already using technology to do their own extensive online research. Public open houses, while not recommended, still happen, she said, but technology is helping potential buyers narrow their scope.
Instead of physically visiting eight homes, for example, she said, they can take virtual tours first, then visit only those they’re truly serious about to limit their exposure.
Agents have a variety of digital tools to send and receive documents, and many are relying on drop boxes rather than in-person deliveries.
In fact, from contract to closing, Lafayette said, much of that transaction “can happen ... in a digital environment.”
Juan Gutierrez and his family just moved into their new Mechanicsville home three weeks ago and are about to list their former residence — a town house in Henrico County that’s going for $223,000 — later this week.
Buying their new house was relatively seamless, he said, because they found it prior to the widespread pandemic concerns. Selling their old place is a different story. They talked about whether to list their home now or postpone it, and ultimately decided to list it “before things get way worse.”
Gutierrez said they have established a protocol for visitors — enter through the front door and leave through the back door and a backyard gate.
“They’ll see the whole house and then exit safely without interacting with other people,” he said, adding that they’re going to restrict access to one group in the house at a time and ask all visitors to practice social distancing.
“We’re taking every safety precaution we can,” he said, “making sure that whoever is seeing the house feels comfortable.”
Cathy Noonan, another associate broker with Shaheen, Ruth, Martin & Fonville, represents the Gutierrez family for their real estate needs. Noonan said the real estate market is much larger than just the buyers and sellers — it includes tradespeople like painters, plumbers, carpet and flooring installers, chimney sweepers and more. She said the Gutierrez family’s former home needed work before it can be listed this week, and she specifically called on her network of small businesses to get the jobs done.
“There’s only one trade in there at a time,” she said, to keep workers as safe as possible, but “we’re working as a team ... to give small businesses some hope.”
Krupp said real estate professionals and homebuilders are always watching trends. Many people already work from home, but that number has ballooned in recent weeks with quarantines in place, so it’s possible that future homebuyers may be looking harder at home offices, kids’ playrooms — even personal gym space — if teleworking becomes the norm.
Amid COVID-19 fears, there’s also the potential for new construction “to shine,” she said, by attracting buyers who previously only considered existing homes.
Simply put, she said, a new house is “clean, it’s fresh [and] no one has ever lived there.”