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Experts forecast how the coronavirus may affect the housing market long term.

Sept 7, 2020

It was supposed to be the typical spring boom for real estate. But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, what was expected to be a thriving sales season has hit a wall. On the real estate listing site Zillow, there’s already been a 20 percent drop in people looking at listings, but experts say house-hunting activity is a little less obvious now as sales agents turn more and more to virtual showings. We asked industry experts for their predictions on how the 2020 real estate market will be affected by the pandemic:

Jobs market a driving force

When it comes to how many people will be buying homes in 2020, experts say the job market will serve as the determining factor of the real estate market’s ultimate success or failure. According to data the Labor Department released Thursday, 6.65 million Americans filed first-time unemployment claims. That’s a a dip of just 4 percent from the prior week’s historic high, according to Globe reports.

“I have always found that what really makes a real estate market successful is employment,” said Felice Watson, of the Law Offices of Felicia B. Watson in Southport, Conn. “If our job market does not fall apart, then I think the real estate market will do well.”

While unemployment rates have already skyrocketed, it’s not yet clear how many of those job losses will be permanent.

“The big question is how high unemployment ultimately goes,” said Jeff Tucker, an economist at Zillow, who points out that while the effects are hard to forecast, much depends on how deep the economic recession goes and how long it lasts. “And how much the income and savings and confidence of people gets hammered over the next couple of months,” he said.

Are sights set on summer?

January and February were successful months for sales, thanks to the mild weather, a high demand for housing, and a shortage of inventory. That momentum was expected to continue into the spring, but the after the pandemic hit, transactions started falling through and some buyers backed out of sales, Tucker said.  With fewer listings on the market and social distancing canceling open houses, sales slowed down in March, but experts say there’s no reason to believe that will continue the rest of the year.

“The real estate market was strong prior to COVID-19, with increased sales and prices through 2019 and the first two months of 2020,” said Kristin Gennetti, a realtor with Century 21 North East. “We also have a housing shortage that will likely still be there when the pandemic ends.”

Sellers who were already planning to put their homes on the market this year will do it later, Maguire said. If they are gunning for competitive sales with multiple offers, they’ll hold off for now in the hopes that the summer will bring the bidding wars they’re hoping for.

For now, while sales may not be as competitive as they would be without the pandemic, it won’t stop homes from selling, she said. “Will there be as many bidding wars? Probably not without open houses to build hype and excitement. The homes that are marketed and priced properly will sell, just like they normally would.”

Renters will be hard hit

As with most economic downturns during history, it’s the people who don’t have sustained savings that will hurt the most. And typically, those people are renters.

“I think renters are the most vulnerable to the immediate impact of this crisis,” said Tucker, citing people who work as waiters and bartenders in the hospitality industry. “A lot of the industries that have been laid off the most so far, those are industries where a disproportionate share of the workers are renters.” And since renters are often forced to spend a larger share of their income on housing and have less savings set aside to ride out a crisis, they’re particularly in danger. “That’s a major crisis for them,” Tucker added.

Technology will play an even bigger role

When it became clear that people couldn’t spend their weekends cruising open houses anymore, realtors scrambled to make the most of their virtual offerings.

“Technology, now more than ever, is instrumental in keeping our business moving in a positive direction during this crisis,” said Gennetti, noting the switch to video tours, Zoom, and an increased reliance on social media to connect with prospective buyers and sellers.

“It is critical for agents to adapt and be forward thinking and creative in this climate.”On Zillow, there was a 188 percent increase in three-dimensional home tours in March over the previous month, Tucker said, citing a study by the website.

Still, it’s unlikely that many people are willing to accept a virtual tour as a legitimate substitution for seeing a house in person.

“Agents and sellers are quick to recognize this is an industry that continues to involve a lot of face-to-face interactions, ” Tucker said. “People want to walk through a home in person, but especially in the earlier stage of the home search.”

This is not 2008

Realtors and economists alike are quick to point out the differences between the current real estate market and the one that collapsed in 2008. In Omaha, the market was strong prior to COVID-19, thanks to a mild winter and low mortgage rates that got buyers out looking for property early this year. But we also have a housing shortage — a strong contrast to what we faced in 2008.“

In 2008, there was a surplus of inventory, an overproduction of new construction, and the reigns weren’t as tight on the lending side, meaning buyers could more easily get mortgages,” Gennetti said. “We don’t see those same factors in 2020.”

Through 2019 and the first two months of 2020, Omaha saw increased home sales and home prices, she said. “Alternatively, in 2008 there was a surplus of inventory, an overproduction of new construction, and the reins weren’t as tight on the lending side, meaning buyers could more easily get mortgages. We don’t see those same factors in 2020. ”Tucker echoes the sentiment that it was the housing market that helped cause the 2008 recession.“

They discovered all their foundations were cracking under them, causing the financial crisis, causing a recession,” Tucker said. “It very much snowballed in the housing market. This is a case where we know the cause of the recession is not the housing market.”

After the year continues, it’s unlikely that home prices will drop all that much, he added.

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