This Is What You Must Know
By Margaret Heidenry | Apr 7, 2020
In the best of times, shopping for a house is a complicated and involved process—a big-ticket proposition involving lots of shopping around and meeting a ton of people so you're 100% sure you've picked the right place, at the right price. But, of course, these are not the best of times.
Now that the coronavirus pandemic has people across the country hunkering down at home to lower their exposure levels, even the most determined home buyer might be wondering: Is it safe to shop for a house right now?
We're here to help you navigate this time of uncertainty and instability with this second installment of our new series, "Home Buying in the Age of Coronavirus."
Here are all the ways in-person checkpoints to buying a home have changed to keep you safe during the coronavirus pandemic.
Finding the right real estate agent
When it comes to buying a home, pairing up with the right agent is always key to finding your perfect property. But today, you need one who is tech-savvy and comfortable conducting meetings and business online.
"Zoom, Google Hangouts, and other tools allow buyers to have consultations they would normally have in person with me from the comfort of their home," says agent Maggie Wells of Keller Williams in Greater Lexington, KY.
To find an agent to further help you remotely, ask candidates if they offer virtual consultations and home tours. They should also be able to help you with e-signature apps so you can send and receive documents to sign digitally through email.
"If an agent doesn’t offer these services yet, I highly recommend finding an agent who is [comfortable] working with technology," adds Wells.
Virtual home tours
Crowded open houses with a plate of cookies for everyone to grab are a thing of the past—at least for now. Instead, you've got virtual open houses and video tours.
There are several ways to virtually tour a home. Along with photos, many listings were already starting to incorporate videos or virtual reality tours. (For example, the listing for this house in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, features a VR icon you can click on, which will take you to a video.) You'll be able to tour the home, room by room, without physically stepping onto the property.
"The power of video cannot be underestimated at a time like this," says Cara Ameer, an agent with Coldwell Banker who is licensed in California and Florida.
However, these videos are filmed and edited, so you may not be able to see every nook and cranny. If you want to do a deeper dive, many agents will accommodate you.
"I’ve been giving live FaceTime tours of homes," says Wells. "This provides buyers a personalized experience of the property without having to leave their home."
Granted, we're not necessarily saying you should buy a house without seeing it in person unless there's no choice in the matter. Nonetheless, it's smart to do what you can remotely to whittle down your options so you can choose what's worth an in-person visit, now or later.
Also keep in mind that in late March, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declared residential real estate sales an "essential service," although certain state officials, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have explicitly forbidden home showings. And even if they are allowed, agents, home sellers, and buyers must all be willing to make them happen.
When in doubt, check with your agent and local government for more information, and know that things could change as this pandemic progresses.
Remote mortgage pre-approval
"One smart way to stay safe right now is to work with a loan officer who is set up to work remotely," says Andrina Valdes, executive sales leader and chief operating officer of Cornerstone Home Lending in San Antonio.
Some lenders had already made the entire mortgage process digital long before social distancing was needed. And now, many more have jumped on board out of necessity.
The first step is to interview a few loan officers over the phone or by video chat. Since mortgage interest rates are all over the map these days, it's extremely important to shop around and compare what they're offering—and make sure they're comfortable conducting all steps of the transaction online.
Ideally, you want a lender that allows you to track your loan progress, view educational resources, and stay in touch, all without leaving the house.
In order to get pre-approved for a loan, the lender will need to review your income, debt, credit history, and other factors—and you'll need to submit paperwork verifying all of the above.
Luckily, most of this paperwork should be available online, such as pay stubs, tax returns, and bank statements. If you're unsure how to access them, a tech-savvy lender should be able to help. (Here's more on the paperwork needed for mortgage pre-approval, and why getting pre-approved matters.)
Check out realtor.com/mortgage to find local lenders and to figure out how much home you can afford.
Remote home inspections
"We are offering clients the option of doing a remote inspection, where we inspect the house alone and review the findings with them via a videoconference," says certified home Inspector Welmoed Sisson of Inspections by Bob in Maryland and author of "101 Things You Don't Want in Your Home."
At a remote home inspection, inspectors take a lot more pictures than they might have in the past so clients can get a good idea of where the issues are.
"We also take videos if the issue is something moving that shouldn't, such as a loose handrail or wobbly toilet," adds Sisson. "While we're in the house, we use gloves, wash our hands, and wipe down things we touch with antiseptic cloths."
Once the report is completed, Sisson sets up a video call and emails clients PDFs of background information about why inspectors test what they do.
"Through screen sharing, I go through a slideshow of the pictures, answering questions as we go," says Sisson.
Virtual home appraisals
Home appraisals required by a lender generally include a site visit, which is not possible in some parts of the country where this is not considered an essential service. Luckily, appraisals pertain only to those getting loans, so cash buyers can skip this process entirely. But if you are getting a mortgage, fear not.
"In the last few weeks, we've seen an influx of virtual appraisals done via video as well as 'desktop appraising,' where the appraiser reviews available public and private data," says Nikita Idiri, a licensed real estate salesperson at New York's Elegran.
The appraiser then uses comparable properties for the reports. While these methods may not be to the penny in terms of value, they are relatively accurate and allow lenders to continue operating.
Remote home closings
In-person home closings—where all parties come together to sign contracts, swap keys and shake hands—are, for the most part, not happening right now (especially the shaking hands part). However, most closings require some face-to-face interaction, since people have to sign documents and notaries need to stamp them in person.
So while home buyers will probably have to show up on the closing day, it will look far different from the past.
Lynn "Ginger" Ruckman's, real estate associate broker at Julia B. Fee Sotheby's International Realty in Bronxville, NY, recently closed on a home at the buyer's attorney's office. But instead of everyone crowding into a room for hours, parties sat in separate rooms to finalize the deal.
"The sellers and I were in the reception area, and the buyers were in the conference room," says Ruckman. "The title company shuffled papers back and forth, and the entire process took 23 minutes."
Another agent in Ruckman's office had a closing where all parties showed up on the street where one of the attorneys lived.
"Papers were delivered to the appropriate cars for signatures," explains Ruckman. "Everyone had their own pen, and the intermediary wore gloves. It got done without a hitch."
And soon closings may be entirely remote, with states such as Georgia announcing that, as of March 31, video closings are temporarily permissible.
"The approval just happened, so nobody has done it yet," says Georgia attorney Ken Luther. "But this is my understanding of how it would work: The closing attorney would send links to all necessary parties for a secure videoconference. All parties would sign electronically, and the transaction would be witnessed and notarized by conference participants."