Home-Buying FAQ: Your Top Questions About Purchasing Property During the Coronavirus Pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown millions of people's financial plans off the rails, and that certainly includes home buying. If you were hoping to purchase a property soon, you no doubt have a lot of questions—about whether it's possible to buy or tour a house now, COVID-19's impact on home prices, and more.
We're already written a guide to home buying in the age of coronavirus to help you navigate this new reality in real estate, but we know there's a lot you still want to know. So here are the answers to your most pressing questions about buying a home right now. Whether you're wondering what's up with home prices or open houses, read on to learn everything you need to know.
1. Is it possible to buy a house now?
While buying a house today may be more challenging due to health and economic concerns, it is certainly possible. In fact, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has declared that residential and commercial real estate services are an essential service that should be allowed to continue. (State orders, however, may overrule that guidance.)
Furthermore, the real estate industry has quickly adopted new technologies to help home buyers and sellers stay safe for as long as this pandemic lasts.
However, certain aspects of the home-buying process might be restricted or look a bit different these days. For instance, as COVID-19 outbreaks gained momentum, certain hard-hit states (such as New York) banned in-person home viewings. And while home closings typically involve the presence of the buyers, the sellers, their agents, and a notary, some states (such as Florida) loosened restrictions and allowed remote or "curbside" closings, where documents are slipped through car windows to lower the exposure levels of all parties involved.
Aside from federal and local restrictions, a lot will depend on the home sellers' comfort levels. Some sellers might be fine with your touring their house. But others might not be comfortable letting strangers in their home, even if property tours are allowed in your area.
A local real estate agent will have the best handle on what home buyers can and can't do in your area, so feel free to consult an agent for the most up-to-date information. Here's more information to help you answer the question, "Should I buy a house now?"
2. Is now a good time to buy a house, financially speaking?
From a financial perspective, there are certainly some advantages to buying a home right now. For one, mortage interest rates are historically low, which means your monthly housing payments will be lower, too. And putting a property under contract now and locking in a low interest rate gives buyers more control than living in a rental where rents might go up.
Another big consideration on the financial side of the home-buying equation comes down to competition. The coronavirus has dissuaded some home buyers from home shopping for the time being. So buyers who do venture out face less competition, which could put them in a stronger position to negotiate with sellers.
In addition to surveying the housing market and mortgage rates in your area, you should also take a good, hard look at your personal financial situation. You'll want to gauge whether now is a good time to buy for you. Are your job and income stable, or are you worried about layoffs or the stock market?
If your own financial future is uncertain, you might want to take more of a wait-and-see approach to home buying. Or consider buying a home well under what you can afford just in case the coming months throw you a curveball.
3. How has the coronavirus affected home prices?
The coronavirus has the world economy in turmoil. But so far at least, this does not mean that home prices have plummeted across the board or that buyers can lowball their way to a bargain. Instead, in most real estate markets, home inventory remains very tight.
"I don't expect the slowdown to be like the last recession where prices fell," says realtor.com chief economist Danielle Hale. "There are more than enough buyers out there to keep home sales from slowing in any major way."
Some sellers have pulled their listings as they wait for better market conditions. On the flip side, a home seller who doesn't have the luxury of time is facing a smaller buyer pool, due to safety concerns and limited physical access to touring homes. So buyers could have the upper hand for a short period when it comes to homeowners who need to sell.
The only way to test a seller's level of motivation is to make an offer. But play it safe. Buyers should not assume that because of the pandemic they can automatically lowball a seller—this could turn the seller off. You might want to try offering a modest discount below asking price to simply start a dialogue.
Here's a breakdown of how to negotiate an offer on a home in the age of coronavirus.
4. Is it safe to buy a house now?
While no one can guarantee you won't catch the coronavirus, the real estate industry has worked to prioritize buyers' and sellers' health by eliminating personal interactions almost entirely during the pandemic. Even as different states reopen, you can still do most aspects of the home-buying process remotely, or at a safe social distance, when it comes to your home search that you may not have considered doing in the past.
First, you can find local real estate agents online and interview them virtually. While showings may not be easy to arrange because of shelter-in-place orders or continuing health concerns, most real estate listings now offer virtual tours.
When possible, video chats allow agents to walk through a prospective home while you watch from the safety of your current residence. Virtual tours may not be as good as walking through a home, but they can give you a good idea of whether or not you want to see the house in person when it's possible. And it's also a great way to pare your options and skip visiting some homes.
When it comes to the financial aspect of home buying, many lenders had already made the entire mortgage process digital long before anyone heard of social distancing.
Another new term? "Desktop appraising," which allows the appraiser to stay home and review available data that allows lenders to approve mortgages remotely.
And in many states, drive-through or even video closings are temporarily permissible during the pandemic.
Remember, whether all of the above is available depends on your area, so always consult with your agent each step of the way. And read more on whether or not it's safe to buy a house now.
5. Are open houses or home showings allowed?
Whether open houses are allowed in your area all comes down to how local authorities enforce their lockdowns. Under many quarantine orders, such as in Los Angeles and New York City during the height of the pandemic, open houses have been completely banned. Other states currently allow open houses as long as capacity allows for social distancing. The National Association of Realtors® offers guidelines on open houses, recommending that they be limited to fewer than 10 people, if they're hosted at all.
In general, in areas where open houses aren't allowed, individual home showings with just a buyer and an agent are OK. Keep in mind that even if showings are allowed, agents and home sellers must all be willing to make them happen. Check with your agent and local government for more information, and know that what's permissible could change as this pandemic progresses.
If you do choose to attend an open house or tour a home, here's what you can do to stay safe:
- Don't touch anything in someone else's home. Ask that the owners open cabinets and closets prior to a showing.
- Stay six feet away from your real estate agent at all times. If the home is small, ask your agent to open the front door for you and wait in the kitchen while you tour the house on your own. You can ask questions via cellphone as you look around.
- Wear protective booties; agents generally provide these even in normal times. Carefully throw them away when you’ve finished touring.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap after you leave the home.
Or instead of attending an open house or private tour, you can conduct a virtual house hunt. You can also drive through a neighborhood and check out the area from the safety of your car.
6. Should I buy a house sight unseen?
While buying a house sight unseen has long been the only option for people relocating due to a new job or military service, the trend has been on the rise for more and more folks. In fact, according to a realtor.com survey of 1,300 consumers during the week of April 5, 24% (or 1 in 4) said they'd be willing to buy a home without seeing it in person.
Buyers who consider buying a house sight unseen generally have some comfort level with the neighborhood and know the market. And according to realtor.com senior economist George Ratiu, the comfort level of buying a house sight unseen may come down to age.
"Younger cohorts are more inclined to rely on detailed photos, virtual tours, or live video instead of an in-person visit, with 31% indicating they would be willing to buy sight unseen," says Ratiu.
Even if you're buying blind, you shouldn't operate completely in the dark. Here are some features that buyers find most helpful in such a home search.
- The ability to take a virtual tour of the home
- Listing and neighborhood information that is accurate and detailed
- Plentiful, high-quality listing photos that show the property's interior and exterior
- An agent or landlord who can walk a buyer through the property via video chat
Check out more advice on how to buy a home sight unseen before you commit to a purchase.
7. Can I buy a house if I’m unemployed?
Generally speaking, if you are recently unemployed you should think twice about buying right now. But there are some ways you can proceed, albeit with caution.
For instance, home buying is possible when you're between jobs if you have enough money in the bank to make an all-cash offer—due to a previous home sale or inheritance—and can skip the mortgage process entirely.
If you do need a mortgage, you'll need not only a high credit score and a low debt-to-income ratio, but also a source of funds to prove to lenders you can make your monthly mortgage payments. If you are a dual-income family with a spouse or significant other still working, that person could apply for a mortgage. Many lenders also allow for a monetary gift to home buyers from relatives. Sometimes a sizable gift satisfies lenders' application requirements even if the borrower is currently unemployed.
Here's more on how rising unemployment may affect the housing market.
8. How long will it take to close on a house?
Yes, the length of time from an accepted offer to home closing during the height of the pandemic is taking longer. Closing times used to average about 26 days in January, then hit 43 days in February, and shot up to 60 days in March. They're likely to take longer still in the coming months.
The simple fact is lenders are buried under paperwork as refinancing applications skyrocketed due to the historically low mortgage interest rates.
In addition to lender backlogs, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have complicated the home closing process. While home inspections and appraisals are possible, everything is just taking longer during the pandemic. Here's more on the home closing process.
9. Is moving allowed right now?
According to the American Moving & Storage Association, moving has been deemed an essential service by the federal government.
Still, while moving is legal in the big picture, it might not be allowed for your specific circumstances depending on what stage of the pandemic you are in. For instance, during the height of New York City's epidemic, some apartment buildings decided to ban residents from moving due to safety concerns and shelter-in-place orders.
Check with your local and state governments (and your HOA or condo board, if applicable) before scheduling any move. And if you have to move, read all about how to move safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
10. How can I prepare to buy a house?
You may be interested in buying a home, but simply don't feel comfortable getting out there and house hunting right now. Luckily there are still things you can do to prepare so you're ready to spring into action later this summer or whenever you decide you're ready.
- Check your credit score: The very first step in preparing to buy a home is to check your credit score. Credit scores are what mortgage lenders look at to determine whether you are creditworthy, and will dictate your interest rate. So do everything to protect your score. Many companies—from credit cards to utilities—are working with consumers who can't make payments. If you are having trouble making payments, don't just skip them. Call your lender and work out a plan.
- Figure out how much home you can afford: The pandemic has roiled markets and caused tremendous economic uncertainty. So you'll want to carefully consider how much home you can afford and err on the conservative side. Check an online home affordability calculator, which will help you determine your monthly mortgage payment.
- Secure mortgage pre-approval: Now it’s more important than ever to get pre-approval to show sellers you’re serious when you make an offer. Pre-approval shows how much a lender will loan you, assuring the seller that you’re financially capable of buying a home.
- Avoid any major changes: A major tenet of preparing to buy a home is to not make any major changes in your life or your finances. But with the coronavirus pandemic, some upheaval—such as getting furloughed—may be out of your control. Yet much of it is not. For instance, do not buy a car or pricey new furniture, or apply for a new credit card. All of those can lower your credit rating, meaning you may not be able to qualify for a home loan.
- Check online listings: On real estate sites like realtor.com you can see what properties are available in your area in your price range. And take advantage of the virtual tours many agents are offering to house hunt from your couch.