Ask Brian: Home Buying Tips During the Coronavirus



Ask Brian is a weekly column by Real Estate Expert Brian Kline. If you have questions on real estate investing, DIY, home buying/selling, or other housing inquiries please email your questions to askbrian@realtybiznews.com.

First time buyers point to a down payment as the reason for not buying homes

Question from Jordon in Missouri: Hi Brian, This spring, I was planning to buy my first home. I’ve taken the time to understand the process and gone to a lot of work to get my finances in order. Now this dang pandemic has turned everything upside down. I don’t know if this is a good time to be looking for a home to buy or how the process has changed because of the coronavirus. Help!

Answer: Hello Jordon. You’re certainly not alone in being confused about trying to buy a home during these difficult times. The reality of it is that the residential markets are looking different depending on the state, city, and local area you are looking to buy in. Let’s look at the situation from a broad point of view that includes as many local situations as is practical right now. It’s a complex situation that’s changing not just by the week or even the day, it’s changing by the hour. Jordon, you’re going to need plenty of resilience, flexibility, and the ability to deal with frustration as things change frequently.

Here is one broad-based fact, as of March 28 the Department of Homeland Security classified residential real estate as an “essential business.” Almost every state is allowing at least some real estate services (at the time of this writing only Michigan and Vermont were not allowing any real estate services). In most places, you’ll find services available from real estate agents, appraisers, title agents, and other industry professionals.

With interest rates for highly qualified buyers hovering substantially below 3%, you certainly want to be considering buying a home. How you go about it in these perilous times is the key. You may even want to take a close look at a 15-year fixed rate mortgage rather than a traditional 30-year fixed rate mortgage. At today’s super-low interest rates, you might be surprised how affordable the monthly payments on the shorter term mortgages have become. Who doesn’t want to pay less to borrow money and pay the loan off sooner? But first…

Almost certainly, we are already in a recession and we have no idea how severe it could become. One of your primary considerations needs to be how secure your job will be going forward. If you’re confident that you’ll be able to make the mortgage payments as the pandemic plays out, then this looks to be a good time to pull the trigger to close on your home purchase.

On the upside for those still looking to buy a home, a mid-March survey by the National Realtors Association found that 48% of real estate agents have noticed a decrease in buyer interest attributable to the coronavirus. Of course, that means competition from other buyers is less. But at the same time, some sellers are taking their houses off the market. The overall effect is still unknown and almost certainly varies at the local level.

The real dilemma is that no one knows what will happen a month from now or six months from now. Prices might go down or there might be a resurgence in active buyers. A lot is going to depend on the direction the economy goes in. However, it is highly likely that interest rates will remain extremely low for many months to come. Now is a good time to shop around for a good rate.

Here are some tips for buyers based on what is known:

  • The stock markets are going to remain volatile. You should keep your down payment and closing costs in a safe FDIC insured savings account or money market fund.
  • The home buying process is taking longer than usual and you could end up missing out on opportunities if you don’t get a head start. Real estate professionals are now working from home, which can slow down the process.
  • Be prepared to embrace digital technology in every step of the process.
  • To stay as safe as possible, use video and virtual tours to initially screen houses. The preferred method is having a live chat with the agent so that you can ask questions such as the type of kitchen counter material or the gallon capacity of the hot water heater.
  • But you’re not going to make a purchase offer based only on video. You’re going to want to visit houses that you have a strong interest in. COVID-19 assurance letters from the seller are beginning to emerge as a safety precaution. These might include a clause that no one in the house has or has had the virus and that the house has been sanitized.
  • You should also take precautions to keep yourself and the home you are visiting safe. You should use hand sanitizer before entering and again when leaving. You may want to use shoe covers. In general, follow all social distancing guidelines. Some agents are wearing plastic gloves and opening all cupboards and closets so you can see inside.
  • When you do make a purchase offer, consider adding a new addendum that allows the offer to be terminated if something happens related to the COVID-19 virus.
  • Many buyers accompany the inspector during the house inspection. You still want to have the inspection performed but you might not want to be there physically. Instead, use a video chat app like FaceTime or Zoom to have the inspector walk you through the inspection.
  • Normally, the appraisal also requires a physical visit to the house. However, mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have eased their standards for property appraisals. In some cases, computer algorithms are now being used value properties instead of sending appraisers to inspect homes in person.
  • The final walkthrough is another time that you probably want to physically walk through the home. You can use plastic gloves and hand sanitizer but also ask the seller to leave all doors and closets open so that you can see the entire house without touching anything.
  • The final closing is the last step in the transaction. Many states allow this to be done remotely using electronic signatures. In states that don’t allow e-signatures, some title companies are now offering drive-through closings that comply with social distancing requirements.

Jordon, I hope you find these tips helpful and I’d like to hear from you about how the process worked and what changes you noticed.

As a reader or real estate professional, here’s your chance to help people understand what to expect during these unique and challenging times? Please leave your comments.

Our weekly Ask Brian column welcomes questions from readers of all experience levels with residential real estate. Please email your questions or inquiries to askbrian@realtybiznews.com.

Author bio: Brian Kline has been investing in real estate for more than 35 years and writing about real estate investing for 12 years. He also draws upon 30 plus years of business experience including 12 years as a manager at Boeing Aircraft Company. Brian currently lives at Lake Cushman, Washington. A vacation destination, near a national and the Pacific Ocean.

Comments

  1. Thanks for such a great article! As a realtor in south Florida,this is the kind of information that I’d like to share with my own clients. People need to be made aware that the real estate market is still alive and well, in fact, thriving during these times, thanks in part to the absolutely incredible lending rates that are currently available, as well as the huge influx of new home listings on the market. The market has shifted from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market, and it’s a fantastic time for home buyers to get an incredible deal, not only on the financing, but also on the purchase price of their new home, which is a tremendous double bonus that likely won’t ever be seen again. Thanks again for this article!