Should You House-Hunt During the Coronavirus Outbreak?

Local agencies are taking precautions to protect buyers, sellers and themselves.
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Image by Frank Winkler

April showers have come early. The local real estate market is dripping with listings worthy of House Lust, our real estate column (see: this cute log cabin on the aptly named Bearskin Farm Road. And this stunning Oak Hill Victorian. And — just for good measure — this edge-of-the-Earth family compound in Little Compton.).

But is house-hunting a good idea when we should, by all means necessary, distance ourselves from others to prevent the spread of COVID-19? On March 16, Governor Gina Raimondo urged Rhode Islanders to skip all non-essential activities. So browsing or open house-hopping on a lazy Saturday afternoon: Probably not smart. But if you’re truly in the market, realtors and agents are taking precautions to protect buyers, sellers and themselves.

“Supply remains low, so putting [your] home on the market now rather than waiting would likely be a good move, provided [you] have a place to move to and adequate funds/financing in place,” says Shannon Buss, president of the Rhode Island Association of Realtors, in an email interview on Monday.

Buss says brokerages are implementing their own precautionary measures. For example, Randall Realtors, where Buss is an associate broker, has provided guidelines on how to protect both clients and its realtors from the coronavirus. Some items in their toolbox include video tours, walk-through videos and/or FaceTime as an alternative to in-person showings. Client consultations may also be offered via live video.

The Rhode Island Association of Realtors has also shared the governor’s restrictions on gatherings of no more than twenty-five people with its members. Because of this, some agents are forgoing open houses and, instead, showing listings by appointment only as a means of reducing person-to-person contact. (The Centers for Disease Control recommends individuals remain six feet apart to prevent the transmission of upper respiratory droplets, the coronavirus’s main mode of transportation.)

A National Association of Realtors survey, released last week, reported that 78 percent of realtors saw no change at all in home buyer interest. But it did find that 6 percent of sellers are requiring potential buyers to use hand sanitizer or wash hands upon entering the home, and 2 percent of sellers are requiring that buyers remove their shoes or wear footies.

Another potential variable: Interest rates are all over the place. Just ten days ago, when the stock market was in the early throes of its downward slide, mortgage rates hit a fifty-year low at 3.29 percent. Last week, rates crept back up to 3.36 percent, with lenders hoping to stem the tide of refinance applications. A sharp increase or decrease in mortgage rates could be a motivating factor for buyers.

“And, since the Fed slashed rates to zero, stocks plummeted again [Monday] morning, it’s impossible to say what will happen to mortgage rates – everything is volatile right now,” says Buss. “One thing we know is that there is still a shortage of housing so there is more demand than supply, which should mitigate any slowdown on sales.”

Ultimately, Buss says, the decision is up to sellers and potential buyers. There are some real gems on the market and, in this seller’s market, they likely won’t be there for long.