The concept of a traditional home closing where everyone gathers around a table to sign a bunch of documents is proving problematic in the midst of COVID-19. While buyers are typically the ones to bear much of the paperwork burden in a home closing, sellers have closing responsibilities and documentation to sign, too — and many are wondering how they can execute the final stages of their home sale safely during these times.
If you’re selling your home or already have a buyer under contract, here’s what you should know about mail-in options, e-signature tools, remote notarizations, and social distancing solutions that are enabling safe home closings this year and beyond.
The closing process pre-coronavirus outbreak
Before COVID-19, sellers would usually show up to the closing table with a checkbook in case of incidentals, a couple forms of identification, and their favorite pen to sign these main documents:
- Closing or settlement statement: Your final itemized receipt for the sale of the home, including net profit, expenses, and fees.
- Affidavit of title: Paperwork certifying that you own the property, and that there are no liens or encumbrances preventing you from selling the property free and clear. This document is sometimes called the seller’s affidavit, and it needs to be notarized.
- Deed to the home. The physical document that conveys the title to the new owner when you sell your home.
- Bill of sale: Lists anything the seller is leaving on the property for the buyer, such as kitchen appliances to living room furniture (if applicable).
It’s not always necessary for the seller to show up to close alongside the buyers. In the event that the listing agent can prepare to have the sellers sign the deed and transfer documents ahead of time, some sellers are able to skip the meeting altogether. This flexibility is proving valuable during COVID-19, while new closing methods emerge to minimize contact even further.
Find a closing method that works for you
Top-selling Greensboro, North Carolina real estate agent Kriston Gallop says agents are using a variety of different closing methods that allow for social distancing and protect client safety while also ensuring a timely closing. Here are a few options cropping up across the country:
Mail in your documents
“We’re doing ‘mail-aways’ for a lot of our sellers,” Gallop says. The way this works is that the agent mails most of the closing documents to the client, the client then arranges for any notarizations (either with an online or traveling notary — more on that below), and then the client can overnight the documents back to the agent or leave them in a secure dropbox outside the agent’s office.
Schedule a 1:1 signing appointment
If sellers come in to drop off the signed documents or execute the contracts in person, Gallop urges them to wear gloves and masks, bring their own pens, and plan their visit ahead of time. Most real estate offices are closed to the public, she explains. Sellers can’t just drop in. They’ll have to schedule appointments ahead of time to reduce the number of visitors in the office at a single time.
Talk to your agent about e-signing options
If you prefer a more digital approach, you should ask your agent if they provide an electronic signature option. “We were already a pretty digital office and used online signatures prior to COVID-19,” says Rapid City, South Dakota agent Shauna Sheets. In some cases and in certain locations, nearly every step of the seller’s closing responsibilities can be done digitally.
See if you have remote online notarization in your state
The biggest snag that may require at least a portion of closing to be done in person is the notarization process. Notarization prevents fraud and formally certifies a document’s authenticity. Sellers may be asked to sign the affidavit of title and other documentation in the presence of witnesses and a notary.
In the case of traditional in-person closings, sellers can expect a notary public to be present, depending on where the closing takes place. The real estate attorney might provide a notary or a notary signing agent may be present. In the time of COVID-19, this presents another opportunity to turn to contactless alternatives.
Some states have permanent remote online notarization (RON) laws that allow for virtual notarizations, while many have enacted emergency RON laws in response to COVID-19. But RON rules can be highly specific and detailed, with different states having varying requirements.
For example, some states may allow sellers to meet with a notary over webcam while still requiring the use of physical paperwork that is later faxed or emailed. Other RON rules go so far as to allow for e-signature. However, not every RON order permits online notarization for real estate transactions.
The National Notary Association (NNA) is tracking frequent changes to RON legislation across states — and you can see where your state currently stands by viewing NNA’s map. Sellers should also consult with their agents to see if RON is an option in their market.
While the RON process will vary state by state and software by software, sellers can expect to see some or all of the following protocols come up during the remote notarization process:
- You’ll meet via webcam.
You’ll need to set up an appointment with an online notary and be able to access a webcam for the meeting. In lieu of a physical signing, the seller and notary will use real time audio-visual communications to notarize the documents. A recording of the meeting may be saved for an extended period of time for notary records.
- You may need to use a specific remote notarization platform.
Some RON processes might require you to use an end-to-end technology system (like DocVerify, Notarize, or NotaryCam). In that case you’d need to download software or set up an account to attend the remote notarization.
- You’ll be asked to provide key identifying information about yourself.
The notary will need to verify that you are who you say you are. Expect to answer a series of questions and provide proof of identity whether that’s through details of your personal or credit history or uploading different forms of ID.
- You’ll need to send in physical documents or upload them digitally.
Sellers may have the option to sign documents electronically or they could be asked to physically sign and then scan, fax, or email the paperwork securely.
RON policies are in flux right now in response to COVID-19. Sellers who have the option to use RON should consult with their agents before setting up a meeting with their notary to confirm they have the right tools and technology to make it work.
Contactless notary solutions where RON isn’t an option
If RON isn’t allowed in your state, don’t be discouraged. While that will mean you’ll need to meet a notary in person, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have contact with them. Notary services are adapting to meet the needs of their customers, while keeping both parties safe.
Find a traveling notary for a curbside signing
In Greensboro, Gallop’s seen her clients take a variety of routes to avoid contact. Some are hiring a traveling notary to come to their homes, sign the documents outside with gloves and 6 feet of space, then overnighting the completed documents back to their agents.
Schedule a 1:1 notary appointment
“Some of the other sellers that have closed have opted to go to the attorney’s office for a one-on-one appointment in a clean space and let the attorney notarize it there, prior to closing. They’re around fewer people in that case,” Gallop says.
Connect with an onsite notary
The process varies by seller and their comfort level, says Sheets. A recent client was selling his property, but the retirement community he lives in is on lockdown — residents are not allowed out, and visitors are not allowed in. Sheets helped the client connect with a notary who worked onsite at the community, and set up a formal signing. While the process took some legwork, it didn’t delay the closing.
Do a drive-up or drive-thru meeting
Top-selling San Antonio real estate agent Reagan Williamson says title companies have taken advantage of the warm climate to set up remote closing locations outside where everyone can maintain a safe distance from their vehicles. Agents are using signage to direct clients to the meeting location. Parking lots are good options for these types of drive-up solutions. Paperwork can be exchanged through narrow cracks in the car windows, you can sign from the safety of the car, and you can call your attorney if you have any questions.
Your agent may attend closing virtually
Social distancing measures mean that if an in-person meeting is taking place, there will be fewer people in the room. With some of Williamson’s closings, he hasn’t been invited to represent his client onsite. Instead, “the escrow officers are just FaceTiming or Zooming in agents, and they’re attending remotely to answer any seller questions.” Just remember that even if your agent can’t be there in-person, they are only a call away.
Create a plan for closing and keep in communication
During these times, the real estate community is staying as nimble as possible to keep clients safe. But the communication needs to go both ways, explains Gallop.
“I think if there’s anything that I could say to sellers at this time, it’s that communication is key,” says Gallop. “I think it’s really important [for agents] to ask upfront what client’s comfort level is, and then build a strategy that works towards that comfort level.”
As a seller, it’s important to express to your real estate agent what level of interaction you feel OK with and what your preferences are. From the solutions above, it’s easy to see that no one size fits all. Once your agent understands your perspective, you can start working backward, together, to create a closing process tailored to you.
Header Image Source: (S O C I A L . C U T / Unsplash)