Editor’s note: All of HomeLight’s coronavirus information for buyers, sellers, and agents is available on our COVID-19 hub.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, real estate agents estimate that 37% of people who planned to sell their homes have hit pause, at least for now. But others can’t afford to wait. Some, for example, have already purchased another home or moved out before the outbreak intensified under the assumption that this was going to be a normal, busy spring real estate season.
Now, those eager to be freed of double housing payments are wondering how to handle the logistics of selling an empty home quickly — without taking a hit on price in these challenging times.
While this sounds like a stressful situation, there is some good news. Whereas traditionally empty homes can be difficult to sell (bare rooms appear smaller, and are hard for buyers to picture their lives in) vacant properties are now highly preferred among buyers, and probably will be for some time.
“It’s actually an advantage now if your home is vacant,” said Kelley Martin, a top-selling agent in San Antonio, Texas. Because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines, “sellers don’t want people in their house when they live there … and buyers don’t want to go into houses that are occupied with a lot of people.”
We spoke with top agents about how they’re helping clients navigate this situation, ways they’re attracting buyers when many have halted their home search, and what they’re doing to ensure their clients maximize their home value when there’s no time to waste.
Recognize a window of opportunity
Tempted to yank your house off the market and see how long you can put this off? Before you do, talk to a local real estate agent about your options and to hear a firsthand account of local real estate conditions.
As of mid-April, 75% of top agents nationwide report that home prices are holding strong. They report that with many sellers temporarily stepping out, any inventory that remains is attracting a lot of attention from buyers who have limited options to choose from.
It’s not clear how long this type of market will persist — as of April 29, U.S. jobless claims are expected to hit 30 million with more layoffs to come. With so much uncertainty about the future, and projections around a deep recession or even a depression taking shape, selling now may be your best bet.
Take advantage of the distance
It’s not just potential buyers who are more comfortable visiting vacant homes right now. Real estate agents also can’t help but breathe a little easier at the moment when dealing with empty homes, said Katie Lechner, an agent of more than a decade serving Merritt Island and Cocoa, Florida.
“The ones that are vacant are the ones that people feel safer and more secure in showing right now,” she said. “The ones that are occupied are harder to get into anyway.”
So, all that considered, this is a good time to hand over the reins to your agent. No need to helicopter over the process. You may opt to exchange a disinfected set of keys with your agent — from a distance — and then communicate with them virtually until the home is sold.
For example, you can allow your agent to secure the property, arrange for showing appointments, and grant access for the inspector or any contractors who need to come through. That’s their job! They’ll be happy to do it. People still living in the homes they’re trying to sell don’t have the luxury of stepping away.
Use a pre-listing inspection or a warranty as a selling point
One way to help attract buyers and expedite your sale is to order a pre-listing inspection for your property. This can have several advantages amid the pandemic.
For one, a clear inspection report may encourage buyers to overcome any general hesitancy and make an offer. Mike Marlow of Veteran Home Inspections suggests using a pre-listing inspection (which costs an average of $315 nationwide) to market the house.
In addition, the Federal Housing Finance Agency has permitted alternative appraisals through May 17, 2020, as a result of the coronavirus. These alternative appraisals use exterior inspections, drive-bys, a homeowner’s video walk-through, or a home inspector’s report to assess condition and value.
Because an inspection beforehand can ferret out any serious problems, as well as assist with an appraisal at this time, it’s worth pursuing before listing, even if the buyer’s lender doesn’t want to use the results.
Arranging for an inspection — and any necessary repairs the inspector finds — should be easier on an empty house because of social distancing concerns.
Some inspectors, such as Matt Steinhausen, an independent home inspector since 1999 in Lincoln, Nebraska, are only inspecting homes that have been vacant for 24 hours or more to prevent transmitting the virus to vulnerable family members.
Steinhausen said he has not met with any real estate agents, homeowners, or homebuyers face-to-face since March. Similar to handling an inspection for an out-of-town client, he sends in his report and photographs for the client to discuss with him by phone.
If you can’t obtain a pre-listing inspection, a seasoned real estate agent can point out obvious fixes. “If I see broken faceplates on outlets, or wood rot around the perimeter of the house – they want to get that addressed before listing,” Martin said. She also recommends having the HVAC serviced and showing receipts for the work.
Stage and market the property well
In one survey, 41% of top HomeLight agents said that vacant homes especially benefit from home staging, which adds color and purpose to bare-bones rooms. “Especially if it’s a vacant home, it’s easier to get it sold if there’s some type of staging,” Lechner said.
While many stagers have stopped going into occupied properties, they continue to offer their services for vacant homes. If you’re struggling to attract an offer, staging key rooms with essential furnishings could be what the property needs to sell. Agents are also relying more on virtual staging, which allows you to manipulate the photos of empty rooms to incorporate digital furniture and decor.
With their listings, agents will also include virtual tours, video walk-throughs, and 3-D renditions of home layouts through platforms like Matterport. Lechner attaches these visuals to listings in the multiple listing service (MLS) and ShowingTime, a showing software provider that includes MLS data. She’ll also include any seller’s disclosures, warranties and any other information she anticipates a buyer might need.
“We’ve just adapted to make sure that they [buyers] could see everything should they not feel comfortable coming in,” Lechner said. “We’ve found that people are receiving it very well.”
Take precautions for traditional showings
Even with all these visual tools, agents expect that buyers will want to visit a property in person before making an offer. But because of coronavirus concerns, they’re screening potential buyers first, asking the buyers’ agent whether they’re preapproved for a mortgage and if they’ve seen any of the virtual tours and other information.
“I used to be willing to show my own listings to buyers because I felt it was my listing, I had to be able to show it. Now, I don’t want to just meet anyone, even if it is my listing,” Martin said.
She recalled one client in recent weeks who wanted to hand her a few things before moving out of his house. “He’s an older gentleman, and he did not understand social distancing at all. I kept backing away, and then he’d say, ‘Oh, six feet,’” she said.
In some states, agents are using a special form to be signed by all parties present at a showing — this includes any agents, sellers, as well as the potential buyers — representing that, to the best of their knowledge, they are not infected with and have not been exposed to the coronavirus.
Martin says that before showings, she checks with the buyer’s agent to ask how many people want to view the home. She places mats by the front and back doors, as well as hand soap and paper towels by the sinks, then keeps her distance. “I’m only basically opening the door and letting them inside,” she said.
Lechner does a similar screening process. She also opens all interior doors, turns on the lights, and wipes down the surfaces before showing a property in person. She provides cleaning wipes, hand sanitizer, and shoe covers for visitors. “We politely request that one person at a time visit inside,” she said. “We ask the [buyers’] agent if they wouldn’t mind being the one to touch things for the buyers.”
Negotiate and close creatively
The coronavirus hasn’t hampered communication among agents, buyers, and sellers, thanks to platforms such as Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, GoToMeeting, Skype, as well as regular e-mail, texting and phone calls.
To allow for more flexibility in meeting deadlines for title searches, inspections, repairs, and even moving under these circumstances, expect a purchase agreement to include a coronavirus addendum to protect both buyers and sellers, even for vacant property.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, some title companies would act as a notary or email documents for clients to sign, which a client could have notarized at their end and return electronically or via overnight delivery. Companies such as Notarize also provide notarization online, working with a notary via webcam.
However, now that more agents are leaning into e-signature and digital closing tools, sellers and buyers have more options. The National Notary Association (NNA) says that as of April 28, 2020, all but 10 states had permanent laws allowing for Remote Online Notarizations (RON) or emergency authorization to perform RONs or remote ink-signed notarization because of the coronavirus. (Because this is an evolving situation and states’ distancing orders vary, check the NNA’s map for updates here.)
Suzanne Damon, a top-selling agent in Manchester, New Hampshire, said she attended a closing in mid-April in the parking lot of an attorney’s office. “They have a clipboard with paperwork, gloves, and a mask. They hand the clipboard and a sanitized pen to the seller in one car and then take that same packet of paperwork to the buyer in the next car,” she said.
Express any additional concerns to your agent
Selling an empty house may feel like a burden because you’re no longer living there, but take comfort in knowing that under these conditions, an unoccupied property has a certain appeal. If you have any concerns, talk to your agent, who should be mindful and flexible about your particular circumstances.
Header Image Source: (Curtis Adams / Pexels)