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Virtual Home Buying in the COVID-19 Age

Where there’s a will — or a home to be sold — there’s a way.

Despite strict stay-at-home restrictions throughout much of the U.S. in March and April because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which have eliminated the possibility of open houses, real estate agents are finding ways to take prospective buyers through their listings.

Initially deemed non-essential employees by the state when New York’s PAUSE (Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone) mandate was announced, real estate agents later saw that decision reversed, opening the possibility of prospective buyers touring a home by appointment (but without the broker). Even so, agents and companies around the nation have been creating new ways to interest potential buyers who also are practicing social distancing but who may be more open than ever before to buying home without a physical visit to a potential new home.

A recent survey from realtor.com and Toluna Insights found that with access to accurate listing data, detailed photos, virtual and live video tours, 24% of people (and 29% of 18 to 34 year-olds) would be willing to buy a home without seeing it in person. Further, 21% of people agree that COVID-19 has made them more likely to move into a home without stepping foot in it first.

Manhattan and Brooklyn-based Ideal Properties Group created the “Showings on Demand” system, a virtual and remote listing viewing option available to all Ideal clients for all of the company’s sales and rental listings.

“As we launch our ‘Showings on Demand’ virtual listing viewing capability, we are strongly encouraged by the opportunities it affords to everyone involved in the home showing process,” said Aleksandra Scepanovic, managing director of Ideal, in the announcement. “Our engineers have been working on developing a full-cycle digital alternative to rental and sales transactions. The fluid and rapidly evolving situation surrounding the coronavirus outbreak in and around New York City has seen our team quickly ramp up the effort.”

The system offers flexibility and convenience, the company noted. Virtual showings are available to be scheduled at any time, just like in-person live showings. Whether clients are out of town, or feeling under the weather and working from home, agents can show them homes they would otherwise miss out on. Virtual showings can save clients commuting time or allow showings for prospective buyers from other cities or countries from a country or continent away. It also provides agents the opportunity to conduct all aspects of a rental transaction digitally, from client registration to showings, application process and lease signing.

“The health and safety of our sales and support staff, as well as the health and safety of the communities we serve, are of the utmost importance. We are focused on using our technological knowhow to provide our customers with the best possible service, one cognizant of the times we live in,” said Erik Serras, principal broker at Ideal.

For buyers and renters looking for a more traditional — though still virtual — open house experience, realtor.com has launched Livestream Open Houses, enabling home shoppers to virtually attend live open houses from home.

Just like traditional open houses, Livestream Open Houses allow listing agents to show home shoppers around the property in real time. Open house attendees will be able to drop in at any time during the open house to hear about the listing and have a look around. Unlike virtual tours, these events are scheduled in advance and broadcasted live so consumers can interact with the agent, ask questions and request to see specific home features up close. At launch, Livestream Open Houses supported a number of video platforms, including Google Hangouts, Zoom, join.me and Zoho, with additional platforms to be added over time. Real estate agents can choose which video platform works best for their needs.

“While virtual tours are a great resource for consumers, most home shoppers still want the opportunity to walk through a home with an agent and ask questions in real time,” said Ryan Green, vice president, product management, realtor. com. “Especially during this time of social distancing, realtor. com’s Livestream Open Houses will give agents the opportunity to showcase their properties and will allow consumers the ability to still explore a home through a live online experience from the safety of their own homes.”

Livestream Open Houses are now available on realtor.com’s web and mobile web experiences in available geographic areas. Home shoppers from anywhere can select the time that works best for their schedule and join via the Open House section of a for sale property listing or by searching for properties with upcoming open houses.

Even in areas that have been less affected by COVID-19 than New York, virtual experiences are rising. Homgroup, a tech-forward, full-service real estate brokerage in Nashville, Tennessee, has launched livestream virtual reality tours to its clientele. Clients will be supplied with virtual reality headsets to maximize the touring experience while saving them time, money and energy.

“We have all faced a strange time with COVID-19, but I truly believe this has presented an opportunity for people to finally experience the convenience they deserve within an inherently dated industry,” said Sean Miku, founder and CEO of Homgroup. “People value their time and money, and we ultimately believe that, by putting their needs first and focusing on convenience to the consumer, it will drive a shift in the real estate industry that has been needed for a long time.”

Agents who are working with Denver-based homebuilder Century Communities can now register clients remotely by calling ahead to community Sales Centers, ensuring their commission is protected at a time when clients might find themselves touring communities virtually rather than in person. Sales teams will also keep agents in the loop — through video chat or phone call — whenever their clients are shopping remotely.

“We deeply value our agent partners, and we want to assure them that we’re here to help however we can during these challenging times,” said Liesel Cooper, president of the West and Mountain Regions. “We know that, together, we’re better able to help buyers navigate the process and find their dream home.”

Century Communities has also rolled out a number of virtual homebuying resources to help agents and their clients shop for and purchase new homes online. Resources include online sales consultants; real-time video appointments with walkthroughs of communities and model homes; expanded information on all communities, floor plans and quick move-in homes at its website; contracts through DocuSign and electronic earnest money deposits.

Once the purchase decision is made, the next steps have become more challenging, noted Christopher Kelley, senior partner at Twomey, Latham, Shea, Kelley, Dubin & Quartararo, LLP in Riverhead, New York, who observed that while New York State has allowed remote notarization of documents, social distancing makes it more difficult to complete closings, home inspections and title searches.

“This has negatively affected the transaction in the preparation and signing of documents,” he said. “It has become somewhat slower to arrange for inspections, water testing and such. Title companies have also been asking sellers to indemnify them against liens and judgments.”

Some deals have been delayed as well, as buyers reconsider their payment options.

“Some purchasers who were counting on paying cash in a deal saw the need to seek mortgage financing, citing the volatility of the stock market,” Kelley said. “This has led purchasers to seek extensions of time to close in order to obtain mortgage commitments and concessions from sellers to get to closing. There is no basis in most instances for canceling a real estate contract or postponing a closing in an all-cash deal based on the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges surrounding it.”