As states reopen, homebuyers rush back out, but sellers are staying on the sidelines

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KEY POINTS
  • For the week ended May 2, total listings were down 19% annually, and new listings were down 39%, according to realtor.com.
  • “We’ve had buyers ready, willing and able, and the sellers have been the ones who have pulled their homes, changed their minds,” said Ben Hirsh, real estate agent for an Atlanta home.
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The Graubart family tours an open house in Atlanta with real estate agent Ben Hirsh.
The Graubart family tours an open house in Atlanta with real estate agent Ben Hirsh.
Photo: Nate Silverman

At a two-hour open house in Atlanta on Saturday, about  a dozen mostly masked families toured the six-bedroom, six-bathroom, newly built home priced at just over $3 million. Noah Graubart and his wife were looking for something close to their children’s new elementary school.

“It seems like the number of houses on the market had kind of paused,” said Graubart, who toured the home with his wife and daughter. They were all wearing masks, as a precaution against the coronavirus, and pleased that the open house wasn’t exactly packed. “As long as it’s not crowded. I would have waited until other people came out.”

The number of for-sale listings plummeted in April, as both buyers and sellers dropped out of the market as a result of the pandemic. For the week ended May 2, total listings were down 19% annually, and new listings were down 39%, according to realtor.com.

“We’ve had buyers ready, willing and able, and the sellers have been the ones who have pulled their homes, changed their minds,” said Ben Hirsh, real estate agent for the Atlanta home. “It’s probably a bigger hurdle to get over, to put your home on the market and invite people in than it is to go look at homes as a buyer.”

Hirsh said he had two sellers in the last week who were about to list their homes, fully photographed, ready to go, and then they just decided to stay put.

“I don’t see the lack of inventory, which was already an issue before this happened, I certainly don’t see that loosening up anytime soon,” he added.

That may be why the nation’s homebuilders are seeing a sudden surge in demand. There is simply not enough existing home supply. Homebuilders also tend to build in the suburbs and exurbs, farther away from urban cores. While urban living was incredibly popular with millennials, the stay-at-home culture of the coronavirus may already be reversing that trend. People want more space inside and outside of their homes.

While there is no hard data yet, anecdotally, real estate agents say they are seeing more apartment renters now hunting for single-family homes. Where that supply exists, the demand has not exactly waned, just postponed.

Compass, a real estate brokerage, said the average number of its listings going under contract bottomed on April 12 and were down 40% from the average before the shelter-in-place orders began in March. By April 20, Compass saw the average number of contracts back to where they were before the shutdown. By the end of April, contracts were 24% higher than before the shutdown, and up 64% from the April 12 bottom.

A lot of potential buyers have been shopping online, using new virtual technology. Real estate agents have offered “live” showings, where they will walk around the house while the buyer watches and asks questions over a smartphone or tablet. Some agents have offered solo showings of empty homes, giving the buyer a code to open the lock box. As states reopen, however, more buyers are clearly ready to come out.

“I guess we looked on Zillow, but ultimately we really like to see things in the field,” said Mike Elmers, who toured the Atlanta home with his wife Anna. “You just can’t get an impression from a camera, like this house is really beautiful, and there are so many aspects you wouldn’t realize if you weren’t actually viewing the home in person.”

Anna added, “We’re taking proper steps to wear masks and definitely social distance.”

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