By Erica Sweeney

Selling a home can be a headache. It often takes longer and costs more than you think, and it can be an emotional drain. That’s in normal times. Selling a home during a pandemic will add a slew of new safety concerns to the mix.

But even during the COVID-19 crisis, real estate transactions are moving forward. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently classified real estate as an essential service, although local laws might affect what’s allowed and might ban certain activities like open houses. (Be sure to check what’s OK in your area.) Suffice it to say, many sellers are still listing their homes, and buyers are still buying, too.

Yet selling a home during a pandemic is new for everyone. And we’re here to offer guidance through our series “Home Selling in the Age of Coronavirus.”

This second installment of the series offers insight into how sellers and real estate agents are adapting to the COVID-19 outbreak to make selling a home as safe as possible. Here’s an overview of some of the new processes.

Virtual showings could be the new norm

“Selling a home during a pandemic or uncertain market definitely left some of our sellers unsure on what they want to do,” says Ressie Krabacher, a residential broker with the Chicago Home Partner team of At Properties. “We do have sellers who do need to sell now, and we have implemented safety protocols and plan to take the necessary precautions to protect them.”

For instance? Eye-catching photos and video have long been a must for any home listing, but that’s more important than ever now, since so many people are sheltering in place at home and likely house hunting online. These days, sellers are taking their listings up a notch by offering virtual tours of their homes to drive interest among buyers and provide a more in-depth glimpse of the property.

“Sellers love virtual tours because typically what would be the inconvenience of leaving the residence for 20 to 30 minutes to allow potential buyers access now have the opportunity to allow them access without having to leave,” says Michelle Mumoli, CEO of the Mumoli Group,
a residential and commercial sales and leasing firm in Hoboken, NJ.

Doing a virtual tour reduces the number of in-person visits to only those who are truly interested, says Angela Hornburg, team leader at the Hornburg Real Estate Group in Dallas.

“We are using virtual tours to pre-qualify interest to ensure that potential buyers don’t tour a home and say they didn’t like the flooring in person or something small like that,” Hornburg says.

Agents are taking extra precautions for in-person showings

Open houses with large groups of people are mostly canceled for now, but many buyers still want to view a home in person before making an offer. Sellers, however, may worry about having strangers in their homes. So, in places where face-to-face showings are still happening, real estate agents are taking some extra steps to protect homeowners and only allowing them in on a case-by-case basis.

“This is not a time for looky-loos,” says Mumoli, who is limiting in-person showings to buyers with loan pre-approval letters.

Along with a pre-approval, Hornburg says she makes sure the potential buyer has viewed the virtual home tour and the seller’s property disclosure statement before being allowed in.

“We also have delivered ‘showing kits’ to our listings that contain sanitizer, booties, and gloves for people to use during the showing,” Hornburg says.

Before a home showing, she advises sellers to clean and disinfect high-touch areas, like countertops and doorknobs, and to leave lights on and doors, closets, and cabinets open to limit what visitors need to touch. And, put a sign on the front door requesting people viewing the home to take off their shoes.

Also, make hand sanitizer and soap available with signs encouraging hand-washing. Once the showing is over, clean and disinfect thoroughly to lower your exposure risk to whatever the buyers may have brought in with them.

Inspections and appraisals may not need in-person contact

Home sellers usually have to allow the home buyer’s inspectors and appraisers into their homes before the real estate deal can go forward. But, these days, social distancing orders are allowing many inspections and appraisals to be done with minimal contact.

National home inspection company HomeMaster, for instance, now asks sellers to stay secluded in part of the home away from the inspector. Inspectors are also following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, with buyers wearing booties, masks, and gloves, and sellers wiping down everything with disinfectant wipes when the potential buyers leave.

If the lender allows it, appraisals can be done by driving by the home, or viewing photos of the property, so the appraiser never has to set foot in the home. So be sure to ask whether such options are acceptable in your area.

A remote closing may be possible

Remote home closings have been an option for buyers and sellers in some states even before the COVID-19 crisis. But, there’s a push to expand this practice nationwide.

Currently, 23 states have remote online notarization policies, allowing a notary and signer to execute electronic documents while in different physical locations. The National Association of Realtors® recently sent a letter to Congress asking lawmakers to expand the policies nationally to make real estate transactions safer and easier during the pandemic.

The ability to close remotely also depends on the buyer’s lender, and some don’t have the technology to offer a fully virtual closing or work with buyers in states that don’t allow them, says Tendayi Kapfidze, chief economist at LendingTree.

“This is definitely a hot topic right now,” he says. “Most lenders are working toward trying to make this happen, lobbying to get laws in place to allow this, and focusing on how they can make mobile closings with notaries more safe.”

If remote closing is possible, title companies prepare the required documents and mail, and then email or upload them to a portal. The title company verifies personal information and identification by video, and the documents are signed electronically.

Another option is using a mobile notary, who travels to a buyer or seller’s home or workplace to complete the closing to limit in-person contact, Hornburg says.

“We’ve had one done this way so far and saw the notary wearing a mask, booties, gloves, and she opened up new pen packs for the sellers to sign with,” she says. “They also sat 6 feet apart.”

Social distancing is also affecting in-person closings. To limit contact, only the parties signing are allowed at the closing these days, says Maggie Wells, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty Greater Lexington in Kentucky. Closings are starting to be delayed because people are limiting in-person contact and working from home.

Selling a home during the pandemic is an adjustment for everyone, but Wells says buyers, sellers, and agents are working together to make transactions run as smoothly as possible.

“I’m not sugarcoating anything or making guarantees to sellers,” she says. “I just let them know everyone is taking every precaution possible.”