Even with Greater Boston’s economy shutting down in March as the coronavirus crisis grew, the region’s housing market kept chugging along. For the time being, anyway.
New figures out Wednesday from state and local real estate groups showed a market in which home prices rose — as they have for years now — even as buying a house became a logistical challenge and job losses mounted as the month progressed. The median price for a single-family home sold in March jumped 6.8 percent, to $640,000, according to the Greater Boston Association of Realtors, while condominium prices climbed 7.9 percent, to just under $620,000.
Both were records for the month, but they may not last much longer, as even Boston’s long-healthy housing market is showing strain from the cratering economy.
Many of the gears of the home-buying process, from open houses to inspections to closings, have been slowed, if not stopped, by stay-at-home advisories, even as real estate agents and others in the industry have scrambled to devise workarounds like virtual showings and video-chat closings.
Then there’s the reality that hundreds of thousands of people in Massachusetts have lost their jobs in the last month, while many more face an economic future that feels far more precarious than it did just a few weeks ago. All that, real estate experts say, is likely to take a toll on housing as spring goes on.
“The real estate market is definitely going down,” said Tim Warren, CEO of the Warren Group, a housing data firm. “How far, and for how long, we just don’t know yet.”
And with the strong March numbers, there were signs a a slowdown is coming.
The number of homes listed for sale in March was down 24 percent, compared with the same month last year, as would-be sellers took homes off the market or stayed on the sidelines. That will keep the supply in check and could help to prop up prices for what’s left to buy, but it will stall the market during what is normally its busiest time of the year in Greater Boston.
Pending sales — deals under contract but not yet closed — were basically flat in March, though some market-watchers say they’re down sharply so far in April. Price cuts are becoming more common, according to data from the real estate website Redfin, even as sellers set their initial prices a few percentage points lower than they did last year.
It’s quite a contrast with the last few years, when housing prices went nowhere but up. But like most industries now, real estate is expecting a slowdown, said Jason Gell, an agent with Keller Williams Realty Chestnut Hill in Newton, and the GBAR’s president.
“The health and safety of all residents has to be the priority right now. Understandably,” he said. "It’s no surprise the market has slowed considerably.”
When might it get back up to speed? That will largely depend on how much economic damage the coronavirus crisis inflicts, Warren said. If the shutdown is short, with job losses concentrated in lower-paid industries such as restaurants and tourism, the market should rebound quickly. If it lasts longer, and better-paying jobs start to vanish, too, the recovery could be a long and tough slog.
“It really depends on the depth of the recession," Warren said. “If this snowballs, if 20 percent of the lawyers in Boston lose their jobs, it could be a long time."