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Buying a house is tricky when you can’t leave the one you already have

Amy Scott Apr 1, 2020
Would you buy a house you've never stepped foot in? Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Buying a house is tricky when you can’t leave the one you already have

Amy Scott Apr 1, 2020
Would you buy a house you've never stepped foot in? Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Tuesday’s Case-Shiller National Home Price Index shows that home prices rose almost 4% in January —back when open houses were still a thing and unemployment was at a 50-year low.

But while almost everything has changed since then, low mortgage rates still make this is a pretty good time to buy a house, for those in a position to do so — providing you can figure out a way to see it, and realtors are getting creative about that.

Just how much the housing market has ground to a halt depends on where you live. In Houston, Texas, realtors can still do showings. But LaTisha Grant with TAS Realty said her firm has a new system.

“What an agent will do is go out to the property, basically wipe the property down, spray the lockbox, open the door for the client,” Grant said.

Then the realtor will go sit in the car and log into a conferencing app like Zoom or Duo.

“As the client is walking through the property, you’re touring the property with them virtually,” Grant said. It was just too hard to stay six feet apart.

Quentin Dane with Dash Realty Group works in three North Carolina counties with three different sets of restrictions. In places where he can’t show houses in person, he’s turned to 3D virtual tours and drone footage. Believe it or not, he said, people are making offers on homes they haven’t even stepped inside.

“It’s the new norm, I suppose,” Dane said. “It’s happening more often than you would think.”

There’s an option to back out if the pictures don’t match reality.  Zillow said the number of virtual tours created with its app have almost doubled this month.

In Baltimore, realtor Heather Comstock has lost some clients recently who didn’t need to move, but she also just put a listing under contract.

“There are people that have to move for jobs, they have to move because their lease is ending and someone else is moving in,” Comstock said. “We’ll have to figure it out.”

The industry’s also getting creative about closing deals. More lenders are allowing drive-by appraisals. Notaries will meet buyers in parking lots and pass documents through car windows. In Portland, Oregon, broker Brad Twiss with Neighbors Realty saw a big push last week.

“I think people kind of see a door closing, so everybody was kind of scrambling to get offers accepted [and] get inspections done,” Twiss said. “This week, I think we’re starting to see a slowdown.”

A slowdown he expects to get worse. Right now the process is just more difficult. As job losses grow, fewer people will be able to buy at all.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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