Nearly 70,000 people in Massachusetts have been diagnosed with coronavirus. About 900,000 have lost their jobs. Daily life has changed in countless ways. But one thing remains pretty much the same: It’s still hard — and expensive ― to buy a house.
The vast health and economic crisis wrought by the outbreak of COVID-19 appears to be doing little to dent Boston’s long-sturdy housing market, at least for now. As the typically busy spring season goes into full bloom, inventory remains tight and prices have stayed high, with many houses receiving multiple offers from would-be buyers.
There are fewer sales — the National Association of Realtors reported Thursday that pending sales fell by one-fifth in March — after many sellers pulled their homes off the market in the first few weeks of the crisis and its stay-at-home restrictions. But listings in Greater Boston are beginning to bounce back. Real estate agents are finding new ways to show and sell houses in a world of social distancing. Through all of this, something approaching a typical spring market is starting to emerge.
“Oddly, I’ve still been very busy,” said Tory Keith, president of Board & Park, a real estate firm in Natick. “It’s kind of like any normal spring season, though of course it’s far from normal.”
Indeed, what passes for normal includes one-person-at-a-time open houses, and closings in a car in a lawyer’s parking lot. The “list on Thursday, show on Sunday, sign a contract on Monday” rhythm that long ruled Boston’s housing market is out the window as buyers shop from home at all hours and on all days. But some people remain skittish ― when the Gallup Poll asked Americans in early April if it was “a good time to buy a house,” only half said yes, the lowest percentage in 40 years.
But as the month wore on, listings began to rebound. Homes on the market sold fast, often with multiple offers. Prices are inching up, with the real estate website Zillow reporting the median price in Greater Boston at just under $600,000 — 2.5 percent higher than at this time last year. And real estate agents — perpetual optimists, admittedly — say they’re seeing hopeful signs.
“It’s not the usual crazy spring market,” said Rick Nazzaro, owner of Colonial Manor Realty in Reading. “But you make it work.”
For Nazzaro, that has required creativity when it comes to showing houses. A 35-year-veteran of the business, he’s not a big fan of video tours. They can show off a house’s floors and cabinetry, he said, but they don’t give buyers a good sense of the street, the yard, and how well the plumbing works.
“If you’re dropping $650,000 on a Cape in Reading, you’re not saying, ‘I’ll just see it on closing day,’ " he said. “This isn’t like buying a pair of shoes. You can’t send it back."
But, Nazzaro said, many sellers are understandably nervous about having strangers traipse through their houses these days. Many buyers are, too. And with gatherings of more than 10 people banned in the state, the traditional open house is tough to pull off. Nazzaro’s solution: a “controlled open house." Let in one person at a time, wearing booties and a mask. No touching anything. He held his first such event on a recent rainy Saturday.
“I stood in the driveway and had 15 people lined up like they were in the deli counter at Stop & Shop,” he said. “They were happy to wait. And I had multiple offers that evening."
Madelene Cheney has been pleasantly surprised by the number of eager buyers, too. The founder of Red Door Real Estate in Quincy, she had five offers on an older single-family house in Wollaston two days after it went up for sale. Two of those buyers also made offers on a newly renovated condo she listed at the same time. It was a sign, she said, that people want something ― anything ― to buy.
“That doesn’t normally happen,” Cheney said. “People are getting antsy.”
Still, the process is more complicated than it was just a couple of months ago. Scheduling inspections and closings takes longer. Some banks are tightening lending standards. With unemployment mounting, Cheney finds herself scrutinizing would-be buyers’ employment situations more closely. She needs to feel confident they’ll still have a job when the deal is done.
“Honestly, if I have a professor and engineer bidding against someone who works in a restaurant, I’m probably not going to recommend my seller take the restaurant offer,” she said. “When you’re ready to go to closing, you want to be sure they can get a mortgage.”
But there’s no telling how long this strange period of stability may last. The number of would-be buyers is clearly down, analysts agree, and if more sellers list their homes as spring turns to summer, that could push prices downward. So could more widespread economic damage, especially if job losses spread among higher-income households. Mortgage giant Fannie Mae said Friday that 7 percent of the mortgages it backs on single-family homes are in forebearance for missed payments, and they warned that number could double in the coming months.
But a 2008-style crash appears unlikely, said Zillow economist Jeff Tucker. That collapse was fueled by a wave of new homes that had come on the market in the mid-2000s, and risky mortgages that went into foreclosure. In recent years, mortgage lending has been much more plain vanilla, with interest rates low and generally fixed. Like Boston’s, many other markets are short on supply. And there remains a demographic bulge of people in their late 20s and early 30s — prime home-buying years — who will continue to fuel demand.
“Those are the people with a toddler running around the house right now, thinking maybe they need more space,” Zucker said.
Keith, of Board & Park, said she’s hearing from would-be buyers who feel cooped up and are considering moving to someplace bigger in the suburbs. She’s also hearing from sellers who are leaving town for new jobs or to be closer to family ― people who will move regardless of the coronavirus crisis. The housing market, she notes, is really driven by the everyday events of life.
“Life goes on,” she said.