What COVID-19 means for Cambridge & Somerville home buyers and sellers

Updated March 29, 2020


This is now the third version of this post, which I've been revising as I learn more and things evolve and I attempt to share what I know about real estate vis-a-vis COVID-19 as it is RIGHT NOW. I've highlighted today's new information in blue, so those who've read this before can just skim through the changes. And here we go...


LISTINGS


Perhaps surprisingly, there are still some new homes coming on the market, though not as many as normally would be this time of year. Many sellers who don't have to move now are opting to wait things out. Many who were going to be living in their homes during the showing period are deciding they don't want to risk exposure to the virus by having people come through for showings. But there are those who either have a vacant home and/or would rather sell now than wait, given the unpredictability of things.


I took a look at the data to see exactly where we stand this year compared to last in terms of Cambridge & Somerville listings. My first analysis just looked at the number of homes on the market today, the last Sunday in March, compared to the last Sunday in March last year. We were lower this year but not as drastically as I had expected, so I speculated that some of the 2020 listings may be homes that came on in the last couple of weeks but still hadn't sold, as opposed to new listings. And this seems to be the case.


In the chart below, you can see how few on-market new listings there are in Cambridge & Somerville today compared to last year:


That's right -- in all of Cambridge AND Somerville, there are only two new single family homes on the market, and only 11 condos. Interestingly, multis stayed the same -- I suspect because some investors feel it's a good time to cash out.


As I mentioned in my original post, though, some new listings are now being done off-MLS, as what we call "quiet listings," which are promoted agent-to-agent only. So there may in fact be a few more homes available than are reflected in this chart. The reason some agents and sellers are choosing the off-MLS approach is to limit the number of people coming through the home to serious buyers who have agents, are pre-approved and are actually prepared to make an offer.


Since Baker's "stay at home" advisory and shutdown of all but "essential" businesses, it remains to be seen how many agents will continue to show their properties in-person. The first new listing I saw after Baker's announcement stated that there would be no live showings, and that buyers would only be able to view the home virtually with the posted 3D tour. The price tag of the listing seemed quite low for the space and location, presumably to get people over their fear of making a sight unseen offer.


Anyway, it's all well and good to try to market and sell a home without in-person showings, but there is still the issue of being able to get a home staged (some stagers and their movers are not inclined to risk exposure right now), and find a photographer willing to come out to take pictures -- and there are very few photographers also set up to do the 3D tours so in demand right now. I normally scoff at iPhone listing photos, but right now, we're all just doing the best we can...


On Wednesday, the Baker administration finally provided specific guidelines for the real estate industry, which seemed to be in a grey area between "essential" (as finance was deemed) and not, since realtors were never specifically designated. The Massachusetts Associations of Realtors sent around an email saying that per the State, we COULD still do showings and even open houses, as long as we adhered to the "no-more-than-10-people-in-a-space" rule. (Though the association added that they "strongly encourage" members NOT to host open houses.)


However, brokerages are also setting their own policies about whether or not they are allowing their agents to host open houses (Gibson Sotheby's stopped them a couple weeks ago), or even private showings (though I only know of only one local brokerage that has taken this drastic of a measure).


Ultimately, because agents are independent contractors, we are also all coming up with our own policies about what we personally feel comfortable with, and how to strike a balance between helping our clients and looking out for our own health as well as doing what's right for the public good. These are not easy decisions, and I've heard agents getting in heated arguments over their choices.


Personally, I believe that if a client of mine is already under agreement with the sale or purchase of their home, this is "essential" business and going through the steps to get them to closing is my fiduciary obligation to my clients. But for now I have suspended buyer showings and new listings as I believe that the right thing to do for the public good is to just lay low as much as possible.


BUYERS

On the buyer-side, though most people seem to have put their searches on hold for now, many of them are still excited about buying (especially with the current low rates), and are anxious to get back out there whenever it seems wise to do so. And when that happens -- whether it's May or June or September -- one of two things could happen:


Either... they may find a pleasant shift in the market, which has been very heavily favoring sellers for the last several years, to one that is more buyer-friendly. This would be great for buyers who have been losing out on homes because they can't pay cash, have lower downpayments, or want to have an inspection contingency.


Or... all the pent-up buyer demand may far exceed the availability of properties -- the inventory problem we've been dealing with for years -- and it's just more of the same.


There's just no way to know at this point.


In the meantime, back to the corona market, and here's where we are with various logistics...


CONTRACTS


We are now seeing new "sight unseen" addenda for anyone who offers on a property without seeing it in person. There is also now language in offers stating that buyers will agree to COVID-19 clauses in their Purchase & Sale agreements. These clauses offer protections for both parties in the event of delays caused by our current state of emergency.


DEPOSITS


Not sure how other brokerages are handling their offer and purchase & sale deposits, but my office is now strongly recommending that buyers wire the funds, instead of the typically more common check payment -- simply because with offices closed, getting the check into escrow has become a cumbersome process. I was very surprised to hear, though, that some financial institutions are still requiring their account holders to come in to initiate these transfers in person, which is obviously not ideal for buyers.


DEALS IN PROGRESS


As far as deals in progress, agents are running into some challenges with the various behind-the-scenes things that have to happen to close. Fortunately, the various entities involved are getting creative and offering workarounds to their standard operating procedures. For example:


Sounds like most home inspectors are still conducting inspections, though many are requesting sellers sanitize the home prior to their visit. They also really don't want sellers to be there, which is a little tough now that most folks are pretty much holing up at home. And whereas most good inspectors typically huddle up with buyers around the electrical panel, pointing out things like double-tapping, most are now going through the house on their own, while the buyers hang out on the sidelines, waiting for the recap -- from a safe distance -- at the end.


Appraisals still seem to be happening as usual, though in some cases (buyers with a high downpayment), lenders may waive the appraisal requirement, and I've also heard that some (all?) lenders are now allowing drive-by appraisals for non-jumbo loans.


Smoke & CO-detector inspections, a requirement for all properties changing hands, may now be deferred for up to 90 days after closing, IF the buyer is willing to take on the responsibility for the inspection. And the inspections that are going ahead now -- at least in Cambridge & Somerville -- are being conducted via FaceTime instead of in person. I have yet to do one of these (my last two smoke inspections were on the last day of in-person ones) so can't report on how smoothly that's going, but I applaud the effort.


Final water meter readings were suspended for a few days in Cambridge when all city offices shut down, but are now happening again -- am guessing they've gotten the department set up to work remotely. In Somerville, the Treasury department is now handling all final water bills, instead of the now-closed Water Dept. If there are delays or issues with the process, and a final water reading cannot be obtained by closing, the lawyers will likely allow it to proceed with a holdback of some funds from seller until the final bill is available. I haven't dealt with any homes with oil heat since the coronavirus came into play, but I imagine private oil companies are still able to take readings (and they ARE considered essential businesses, so not subject to the state shutdown).


One thing we are all STILL waiting for news on is whether the state will allow virtual notarization of documents required to close, such as 6d Certificates (verifying that condo sellers are fully paid up on their fees and assessments) and Deeds. I believe the first attempt to make that happen would have been via an Executive Order, which for some reason was scuttled, and I believe we're now waiting on a Bill, which may take longer (?). As of now, as far as I know, notarizations all still have to be done in person.


All County Registries in the state of Massachusetts have now switched over to e-recording for closings, and it sounds like they are still operating under the shutdown, so that's good news!


And that's where we are right now.


Personally, I am taking things hour-by-hour, helping and advising my clients to the best of my ability, but understanding that we all need to be taking this VERY SERIOUSLY and hopeful that by reducing all of our time *out in the world,* we can slow this thing down and be back to some semblance of normal life sooner than later.


Stay safe everyone!

© 2019 LARA GORDON CARALIS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.