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Canceled open houses and virtual home tours. Realtors pivot amid pandemic to keep selling homes

Berkshire Hathaway realtor Cindy Caskey is photographed next to a sign marking a pending home sale on Saturday, April 4, 2020, in Norfolk, Va. Caskey has made changes to the way she does business due to the coronavirus pandemic, working with mostly vacant homes and conducting virtual tours. "We're very concerned and cautious about our clients," she said, "and we take it very seriously that it is important."
Berkshire Hathaway realtor Cindy Caskey is photographed next to a sign marking a pending home sale on Saturday, April 4, 2020, in Norfolk, Va. Caskey has made changes to the way she does business due to the coronavirus pandemic, working with mostly vacant homes and conducting virtual tours. "We're very concerned and cautious about our clients," she said, "and we take it very seriously that it is important."(Kaitlin McKeown / The Virginian-Pilot)

The spring buying season — when the market is flooded with people looking to buy and sell homes — typically is the time of year real estate agents look forward to most.

Locally, the housing market got off to a great start at the beginning of the year, and all signs seemed to point to a bright spring. And then the coronavirus pandemic struck.

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Like so many other businesses and industries, the residential real estate market has had to scramble to adapt.

Social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders have led to many canceled open houses and home visits. Instead, in most cases, potential buyers are offered virtual tours.

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“Facetime showings, 3D photography, virtual open houses, and sight-unseen contracts have become the new normal,” said Kathryn Kramer, a Realtor with Howard Hanna. “With the help of technology, we are adapting as quickly as we can to continue to get people into homes.”

In-person visits are largely limited to serious buyers, said Andrea Moore, a Realtor with Rose and Womble in Norfolk. And if a house is toured, doors are left open and touched surfaces are disinfected, she said. Some companies are even asking buyers and sellers to sign a release acknowledging that they understand the potential danger of entering a home during the pandemic.

Still, there were several open houses scheduled throughout Hampton Roads this past weekend. One, however, cancelled after a reporter from The Virginian-Pilot inquired about it. According to redfin.com, there were 10 in South Hampton Roads, one in Hampton and two in Smithfield.

Agents, appraisers, home inspectors and others in the home buying process also are having to discover new ways to work with little-to-no personal contact. Home inspectors are carrying cell phones to stream video to buyers as they tour a property. Much of the paperwork is being signed electronically and funds are being deposited online.

Helping matters has been the ability for attorneys to sign off on closings electronically since Virginia allows online notarization and for court houses to accept electronic recordings.

The move to more online dealings and more people working from home, though, has slowed the process considerably, Moore said, and has led to once-unheard of deadline extensions.

Buyers and sellers are deciding whether to forge ahead or wait until personal visits are considered safe.

For the most part, only those who truly need to buy or sell at this time are choosing to move ahead, said Realtor Cindy Caskey, with Berkshire Hathaway in Virginia Beach. That’s led to an exceptionally low inventory of homes, she said.

Inventory was scarce even before the virus took hold. As of March 1, there were 6,131 homes for sale across Hampton Roads, according to Residential DataBank. That’s more than a 10-year low and down more than 20 percent from a year ago.

Even in the last two weeks of March, the number of settled residential sales in the region rose 4.5% to 1,371 and pending sales were flat at 1,674 compared to the year prior, according to the Real Estate Information Network of Virginia Beach. The group cautioned, though, that it was too early to draw any conclusions from the numbers.

“We will see a temporary slowdown in all activities related to housing as the military has put all non-essential orders on hold and the banking industry, while trying to figure out how they will be affected, are raising the costs/fees to borrow until we come through this pandemic,” said Barry Nachman, REIN’s president.

As far as new home construction, Terry Gearhart with Residential DataBank said companies are learning to quickly adapt to showings by appointment only, highlighting virtual video walk-throughs online and setting up online and phone chats with prospective buyers before arranging one-on-one meetings.

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Through the first three weeks of March, “we are year-over-year (year to date) ahead of 2019. And that’s saying something,” he said of home sales in Hampton Roads. In the second week of March, 605 homes were sold, up 1.7% compared to the year prior, he said. In the third week, the number dropped to 590, a 14.7% drop compared to 2019.

“But what I find amazing? In week three there were still almost 600 people out there buying homes,” he said.

That was before Gov. Ralph Northam’s order for many non-essential businesses to close and his latest demand that Virginians stay at home as much as possible through at least June 10. Gearhart said the orders certainly add some complexity to the home-buying process.

Still, he said there’s no lack of people wanting to buy a home, partly fueled by low interest rates.

The low available inventory also has made it a good time to sell, Caskey said. Houses that are priced right are getting snatched up fast.

Moore said she hopes sellers who’ve decided to hold off on listing their homes will use this time to make improvements, spruce up, and de-clutter their homes.

“Now’s the time to get off the fence and do what they need to do to get their house ready to sell,” she said.

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