Is it a good idea, or even possible, to buy a new home, site unseen, during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place lock-down?
The adage, “where there is a will, there is a way,” certainly holds true – both buyers and sellers can successfully transact and protect themselves from the uncertainty of this volatile marketplace. However, you should also know some of the risks inherent with moving forward now as opposed to waiting.
Typically, a home buyer visits prospective properties multiple times over various times of day, scouts out the surrounding areas and neighborhood, and thoroughly looks over the community before making an offer. Obviously, none of this can be done while in quarantine.
Nonetheless, for those who have an immediate need to move or are looking to scoop up a potential deal in a troubled marketplace, here are the details you should consider as you decide if you should buy or sell a home during the global pandemic:
Personal financial situation.
Whether you can identify the right property from a distance.
Contingencies needed for a contract.
Mortgage approval timeline.
Changes to closings.
Personal Financial Situation
A buyer with the financial ability to move quickly in any market has the upper hand, but never more so than in this housing market where an eager seller is looking for the quickest possible transaction. If you have cash to make a purchase, it remains a fairly simple process regardless of the current state of the market.
For the buyer who plans to finance his or her purchase, mortgage preapproval is critical.
Regardless, before jumping into this arena, a buyer should evaluate the following:
Do fluctuations in the stock market impact my ability to make a purchase?
Is my job secure?
Do I have the wherewithal, both financially and psychologically, to weather the potential twists and turns of this uncertain time?
Whether You Can Identify the Right Property From a Distance
Real estate may or may not be considered an essential business during the pandemic, and in-person home showings are not allowed in many places, though this varies from state to state and shifts over time as governors take different stances on how to best fight the virus.
For the buyer who has not viewed the property in advance of stay-at-home orders, engaging the services of a buyer’s agent is more critical than ever. Video tours, online photos and videos, floor-plans and online street-views help paint a general picture of the property, but they do not reveal it all.
A seller’s agent will present the property in its best light on behalf of the seller, whereas a buyer’s agent will provide guidance in understanding the pros and cons of a home and will also have current market insight.
Some of the nuanced areas to consider are:
What are the light and views really like?
Do you have a strong enough sense of the room proportions and layout to buy the property site unseen?
Are there any unpleasant smells or noises from neighbors in the building or neighborhood?
Contracts and seller disclosures can address and protect some of these issues, but other aspects can be more of a gamble.
Contingencies Needed for a Contract
Selecting an experienced attorney to help protect the buyer and seller if the real estate transaction falls through is also critical. The buyer needs protection from losing the down payment, and the seller needs protection from a scenario where the buyer can walk away for an unforeseen cause.
“There is not one contract going forward without a COVID-19 addendum to protect buyers and sellers from issues that might arise during this pandemic,” says Steven Matz, an attorney and founding partner of Katz & Matz P.C. in New York City.
Both sides need protection from unforeseen delays or issues caused by, but not limited to, third parties involved such as appraisers, managing agents and the lender, or even medical complications caused by the coronavirus itself.
There are increased risks for the buyer such as job loss, loss of mortgage eligibility, financial losses from the stock market and more. Today’s sellers need to accept more provisions in the contract as more is demanded.
“One of the biggest issues is the inability in some markets to physically move in or out of the property,” Matz says. Even with all the protection in place from unforeseen forces, there has to be a point where one side can walk away. In addition, lawyers insert a post-closing survival agreement which allows the buyers to do an inspection at a future time when they are allowed in the property.
Mortgage Approval Timeline
Yes, interest rates are at an all-time low, but this has not impacted mortgage rates as much as one might assume. Nonetheless, financing may be appealing to you right now.
In a time when very little is done in-person to avoid spread of COVID-19, banks have had to adapt to this new dynamic – and some are moving forward a bit more smoothly than others. Many bank appraisals are being done remotely, via Facebook video or through photos sent by the owner, to keep the appraiser from entering the home where the seller's family may be social distancing. This may make some appraisals seem a bit more lenient or more strict, depending on the lender and the appraiser.
Keep in mind that the typical transaction timeline will likely be a bit longer than previously. If, before the pandemic, you expected a transaction timeline of 60 days, expect something closer to 90 days, as each party involved needs more time than ever before.
Changes to Closings
In North Carolina and many other states, closings traditionally consist of all relevant parties sitting around the closing table together. Instead, expect remote notarization of signed documents, electronic signatures and finalized details noting that they are pending the recording of documents and disbursement of funds, which will be wired. This may be a drastic change in some places, but may be one of the best advancements to come from this pandemic.
Clearly, the real estate marketplace is in a holding pattern as people try to figure out what's ahead for the economy and health of the U.S. For a home buyer not worried about his or her income, this could be a great time to get a deal. The buyer pool has shrunk, which gives the ready and able buyer a real advantage.
Many sellers are fatigued financially and psychologically, and as a result, those who can identify the right home, have the financial ability to buy and can protect themselves legally might snag the deal they have been waiting for. In a few months, when this pandemic subsides, buyers will trickle back to the market. But today, those who have the guts and wherewithal may reap the highest rewards.