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

Are people still waiting for unemployment payments?

Yes. There is no way to know exactly how many people have been waiting for months and are still not getting unemployment, because states do not have a good system in place for tracking that kind of data, according to Andrew Stettner of The Century Foundation. But by his own calculations, only about 60% of people who have applied for benefits are currently receiving them. That means there are millions still waiting. Read more here on what they are doing about it.

Are we going to see another wave of grocery store shortages?

Well, public health officials are warning that we could see a second wave of the virus before the end of the year. And this time retailers want to be prepared if there’s high demand for certain products. But they can’t rely totally on predictive modeling. People’s shopping habits have ebbed and flowed depending on the state of COVID-19 cases or lockdowns. So, grocers are going to have to trust their guts.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out Tuesday from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

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