Buying and Selling in the Age of COVID


By Gary A. Miller

On the first day of showings for Stacy Berlatt’s former home in Florida, she could not help but be curious. She and her partner Jay knew listing their home in the middle of a global pandemic came with risks. So, on that June morning, she was probing to see if visitors followed the COVID guidelines that were included in the showing instructions for their home.

Those instructions asked visitors to wear masks and shoe covers, as well as to use antibacterial wipes on surfaces they touched. But at that point, “Florida [didn’t] really have any rules,” Berlatt recalls. She provided all the items being requested, just in case prospective buyers didn’t have their own.

Rather than leave the area on that first day, the couple went to a neighbor’s house, waited, and watched. The first group arrived to tour the home, exited their vehicle, and proceeded to completely ignore the instructions — no masks, no shoe coverings. The second group arrived, and as they also disregarded the instructions, they realized something more was needed.

Berlatt quickly assembled signs that asked all visitors for mask, shoe covering and antibacterial wipe use. She was thankful that use of safety measures increased after that nudge. She was also thankful that when she was moving to Chapel Hill, the precautions were seemingly taken much more seriously than what she experienced in Florida.

The pandemic certainly was taken seriously by the real estate industry in the Triangle. Although there were differences across the counties’ approaches in the early weeks of the pandemic, Orange County rules and guidelines were clear, even as they changed across phases.

Under the initial stay-at-home order in March, real estate services in Orange County were dramatically limited and only performed when necessary to “assist in compliance with legally mandated activities, for the functioning and operation of critical infrastructure sector services, or where failure to provide such services during the time of this Order would result in significant prejudice,” as quoted from the county’s stay-at-home order.

The county gradually opened up real estate buying and selling activities through Phase 2 and beyond, while providing a set of recommendations based on the National Association of Realtors and CDC guidelines.

When the Berlatts visited Chapel Hill in April, they were relieved to see safety being taken seriously. Unfortunately, around that same time COVID affected their home search process in a different, unexpected, way. Stacy was laid off from her job.

“We were already operating with a desired size and price point in mind when it happened,” she laments. The loss of employment affected their loan approval amount. So, the couple had to choose between changing those parameters and deciding not to make a purchase at all. 

They took a break from home searching and retreated to Long Island, New York, to stay with family while they figured out their next steps.

After making their way to Long Island and eventually deciding to restart their search, they were faced with another hurdle: quarantine. Indeed, they could no longer effectively see homes in Chapel Hill in person, somewhat stranded in their temporary Long Island quarters due to a 14-day quarantine if travelling from New York to North Carolina.

As with so many things during the pandemic, they could still use technology to make it work. While much has felt more awkward or difficult in a remote environment, virtual home shopping brings its own set of challenges. The Berlatts had met their real estate agent, when they previously visited Chapel Hill, and felt very thankful for having established a strong sense of trust with her.

When they discovered a townhome in their new price range in Chapel Hill online, the agent jumped at the chance to show it to them, albeit not in the typical manner for real estate agents. They used FaceTime to tour the property and the buyers put their faith in their agent.

However, buying a home that they were unable to see with their own eyes was certainly intimidating to the Berlatts, as it would be for most. Still, they took the leap.

During the pandemic real estate professionals adapted quickly to support clients through the process of home buying and selling.  More virtual tours became available online, especially in the early weeks and months. More video tours and previews helped people get an initial view of a home (or sometimes the only view, as with the Berlatts). Open houses became highly regulated affairs, and regular deep cleanings and wipe-downs became the new normal. Masks were required. Shoe coverings, gloves and sanitizer became regularly offered.

As the year progressed, agents and active buyers became more comfortable with using safety standards to guide their actions and get back into the market. However, many sellers never gained that same confidence, which is reflected by a notable drop in the inventory of housing coming onto the market for sale between March and October 2020 when compared to the same period in 2019. The housing supply in 2020 to date is down around 50 percent over 2019.

Along with the presence of historically low interest rates for home loans, the low inventory has made it a very competitive year for those active buyers, with homes commonly selling above asking price and in very short periods of time. Agents have to prepare buyers for the possibility of feeling like they are on a roller coaster and the need for adaptability.

Although it remains to be seen how the remainder of the year will progress, traditionally the holiday season is slower for real estate activity. Of course, there has been nothing traditional about 2020 so far. Safety, resilience and assertive offers will continue to be the story for now.

Gary A. Miller is co-owner of Red Bloom Realty. He has lived and worked in Chapel Hill off and on since 1994 and is an avid kayaker, traveler and former educator. His real estate column will appear monthly in The Local Reporter.

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