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En español | Suzanne Seini, a Realtor in Southern California, is still doing some open houses. But she isn't greeting prospective homebuyers in person at a seller's freshly painted front door. She's meeting them online in virtual open houses, where shoppers can view a home's hardwood floors, quartz countertops and soaring 10-foot ceilings from their smartphones and laptops.
It won't be business as usual during this spring's home-selling season. The shelter-at-home and high-unemployment world we temporarily live in due to the coronavirus is to blame.
It's often said that real estate is an illiquid investment. Those are code words for hard to sell. And with the U.S. economy shuttered due to the coronavirus and social distancing as the new normal, selling a home will be especially challenging this spring. Closing a deal requires a new type of virtual salesmanship.
Housing market under pressure
It's shaping up to be a tough spring selling season: 90 percent of Realtors say buyer interest has “declined” due to the pandemic and 59 percent are delaying purchases, an April 9 survey by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) found.
"The U.S. housing market began to show signs of slowing in the second half of March,” according to Realtor.com's March Housing Trends Report, which offers the first glimpse of the impact COVID-19 could have on residential real estate. Listings are down. In the week ended March 28, for example, there were 34 percent fewer listings than the same period a year ago, according to Realtor.com. A similar analysis by Zillow, an online real estate site, found that listings were down 27.1 percent in the first week of April through the 5th.
Fewer homes put up for sale suggests that sellers are in wait-and-see mode and postponing their listings, says Danielle Hale, chief economist at Realtor.com.
In another sign of a slowdown, a measure of consumers’ views on housing market conditions in March fell to its lowest level since December 2016, according to Fannie Mae.
There's no denying, Hale says, that selling a home in the typically hot April–June selling season will be tougher due to the coronavirus crisis.
"This is not a normal year when it comes to the housing market,” Hale says. “There are very real obstacles to selling. Buyers and sellers need to go into the process with an open mind and with the unexpected in mind.”
But despite the challenges and a likely shift to a buyer's market, selling doesn't have to be mission impossible, either. There are still many people who must buy and sell due to life circumstances. And many deals will still get done. According to Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist, lower inventory also will help keep prices stable and aid sellers still looking to get a deal done. The government's move to allow current homeowners to skip mortgage payments during the crisis should also reduce the number of foreclosures hitting the market.
More high-tech than high-touch
"While we are putting a lot of life on hold, there's a lot of life that can't be put on hold,” says Skylar Olsen, senior principal economist at Zillow. If you must sell or want to sell your house in these unprecedented times, you'll need to embrace sales strategies that are more high-tech than high-touch, real estate professionals say.
Open houses with house hunters queuing up on the front porch are out, as they've been put on hold in most places. Virtual open houses with potential buyers lined up online are in. “We are doing them virtually now,” says Seini, chief operating officer at Active Realty. She's also getting a lot more requests for “virtual tours,” in which agents act as narrator and walk through homes with their smartphone's video camera capturing a home's key selling points while buyers watch virtually from home.
Digital 3D home tours are also in greater demand, as are drive-by appraisals and drive-through closings.
The secret to selling a home in the next few months will be a mix of technology and out-of-the-box marketing, adds Olsen. "It's all about creativity,” she says.
How to do it
Here are some digital must-dos and basic safety measures to follow to boost your chances of putting your home up for sale and closing the deal.
Focus on health safety first. If you've lined up a serious buyer who wants to see the house in person, set up a one-on-one visit to your home that adheres to protocols to keep both buyers and sellers healthy and safe.
That means equipping your Realtors and prospective buyers with the proper virus-containment items, such as disposable gloves, masks, hand sanitizer and shoe covers, when they enter your home, says Seini. It also means adhering to social distancing rules.
Embrace virtual marketing. Since most people who want to buy a home are hunkered down in their current home to avoid contracting the coronavirus, sellers must show off their properties virtually.
While online sites like Zillow, Redfin, Realtor.com and real estate company websites have been using video and other virtual technologies for years now, “the current situation has really accelerated the need and use of these tech tools,” says Hale.
Virtual marketing techniques to consider
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3D home tours. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a panoramic 3D image tells an even better story. The number of 3D home tours created on Zillow's free iPhone app nearly tripled (up 188 percent) in March vs. February, the company said on its website. And in the last week of March, created tours jumped more than five times (408 percent) compared with a typical week in February.
"The uptick in use has been extraordinary,” says Olsen.
More good news for sellers: People searching for new homes on the site are clicking on ones that offer 3D views more frequently. In March, listings with 3D home tours saw 50 percent more site visitors and were saved about 60 percent more frequently, Zillow data show.
Another plus is that sellers who don't want a videographer or agent traipsing through their home to shoot the 3D images can execute a DIY strategy using easy-to-use apps like the Zillow 3D Home app.
The app provides instructions on how to shoot the video, best camera angles, lighting tricks and the most efficient way to map out the room-by-room video presentation. The goal? Tell a home's story without a potential buyer ever stepping inside.
Virtual open house. If you can't draw a crowd to show your home's best-selling points via an old-style, in-person open house due to social distancing limitations, open up your home to as many buyers as possible by hosting a virtual open house, Seini says.
Seini and her team set up this virtual show-and-tell like this: They create a Facebook page for the home and a virtual open house “event.” They hope to add as many people and eyeballs to the online event as possible.
On the day of the virtual open house, they upload the tour and provide a digital walk-through of the home and property for everyone tuned in online. “In the past, homebuyers may not have paid attention” to online viewings, says Seini. “Now, people are open to the idea. We walk them through the property as if we were touring with a buyer in person, explaining each perk and part of the property.” Virtual staging, or using computer-generated images of couches and coffee tables and rugs to dress up a room properly, is another good sales tool, she adds.
Agent-led video tours. Online home tours are not new. Doing the tour digitally with a sales agent talking about what makes the house unique, special or perfect for an incoming family is.
It's one thing to view a video that shows an upscale kitchen. It's quite another thing to be able to ask an agent in real time via online video when the chef-quality stove was installed and if the counter is marble, granite or quartz. In this case, video isn't the only medium to deliver a message; an agent can offer additional content via the spoken word.
"Sellers and their agents are really getting creative to make sure homes are acceptable and viewable even if buyers don't want to, or can't, see them in person,” says Hale of Realtor.com.
Also, just like the quality images shown on TV or in a movie must be first-rate, so do the photos and video that portray the home for sale, she adds.
Why? First impressions of a home matter — even online. “Make sure you're taking great photos to put your house's best foot forward,” Hale says.
One more thing
To boost your chances of selling your home in this tough market, make sure the Realtor you select is video savvy and has successfully sold homes in the past using a virtual marketing campaign, says Zillow's Olsen. Find out “who are the rock-star agents who know how to sell houses sight unseen,” she says.
And don't be surprised if you have to finalize the deal with a so-called drive-through closing, where a glove-wearing title agent meets you in a parking area and hands you documents through the window that you sign with your own pen.