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An Un-Open House: Buying a Home Amid Coronavirus

photo of Phil Leiter
Real estate agent Phil Leiter says using technology to sell homes -- whether Zoom, Facebook Live, or electronic signatures -- is something the industry has been moving toward for years, pandemic or not.

Spring is typically the busy season for real estate agents. But the number of homes that are for sale is down between 8% and 20% in parts of Northeast Ohio. At the same time, the number of homes being sold is up as the coronavirus pandemic has changed the process of buying a house.

Ohio’s order to stay at home has been in place since March. That’s had a big effect on the ability of real estate agents to hold open houses. Last month, Howard Hanna Realty tried something new, with its first-ever virtual open house tour. One of the realtors participating was Lena Samuelson. She says close to 300 people viewed the video on Facebook.

“Compared to sitting there for two hours doing an open house, it took me 15 minutes to do this.”

A virtual open house
Social distancing is the main reason they tried Facebook Live.

“Many sellers are not comfortable [allowing] people physically into their homes. Buyers are very much relying on the online tools right now: virtual open houses, video tours of homes, more pictures than we typically supply.”

Like Samuelson, Phil Leiter is with Howard Hanna Realty, covering Summit and Cuyahoga Counties. He hasn’t been using Facebook Live, but says the real estate market has been preparing for this for years.

“We’ve been using Zoom before anybody knew what that was. We’ve been showing houses that way as a way to weed out what they don’t want to see in person. The personal aspect will always be a part of real estate.”

photo of Lena Samuelson
Lena Samuelson, hosting a 'virtual' open house on Facebook Live, says she reached hundreds of people in just 15 minutes, instead of the two hours a traditional open house would take.

Home inspections and social distancing
Leiter worked with Matt & Jessica McCann to complete their recent move. They still had to have home inspections – at their old place in Hudson and at the new house – which didn’t go quite as usual.

Jessica says they “tried to keep all of the doors already open so people didn’t have to touch doorknobs and things like that.” But Matt recalls during the walk-through at their new house, “I accidentally – me and the seller – shook hands by accident. We just totally forgot.”

Since then, the market has changed abruptly according to Sara Bennett Lerner, who covers a half-dozen counties in Northeast Ohio with Keller-Williams Chervenic Realty.

“I listed a property very recently and initially it had a ton of interest, things were moving along, we had an offer, everything was going wonderful. And then the lockdowns started," she said.

“I was on track to having a really, really good year – I had multiple listings and sellers and buyers. However, a lot of them have pulled out specifically because of the pandemic and the fears of how it would affect their job.”

Pandemic-driven house-hunting
Bill Snow is seeing the same thing. He’s based in Fairlawn and covers several counties for Stouffer Realty. And he says as people start listing their houses again, the pandemic itself may drive the market.

“At least from my perspective, I think we’re going to see less vacation travel – I think more people are going to be home – and with that, it brings that evaluation of their housing needs. I think you’re going to see more need for home office areas or homework areas. I think you’ll see some very aggressive interest rates.”

And when that happens, Brett Baskin from Lakewood might resume house-hunting. He’d been working with Sara Bennett Lerner before the lockdown.

“We were looking [on the] east side in the Solon, Aurora, Bainbridge area. Just to get more space indoors and outdoors. We’ve got four dogs, so living with four dogs in a 1,000 square foot house in Lakewood is challenging at times.

“I personally would not even think about putting an offer on a house until I had feet on the ground and I was able to go with my realtor and check it out. This is just me, personally, how I feel about that process.”

Realtors like Phil Leiter, Sara Bennett Lerner, Lena Samuleson, and Bill Snow agree that in-person visits will almost always be necessary.

But whether you may need to quickly relocate from out-of-town, or find a new house during a pandemic, online resources are making it easier to virtually house hunt.