Real estate, housing industry adjusting to coronavirus, stay-at-home orders

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

A sign advertises a house that's listed for sale. The coronavirus has impacted the real estate and housing market.

NORMAN — The spread of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders issued locally and across the state are impacting many businesses, including the housing industry.

"So prior to this, it was very strong, one of the strongest real estate markets we've ever had," said Realtor Scott Cross, with Chamberlain Realty in Moore, who covers the Oklahoma City metro area, which includes Norman. "Obviously, it has slowed down a little bit since, but there's still a very strong market."

Chamberlain Edge broker and owner Mariah Kalhor agreed, saying she could tell the season was about to get busy because buyers were getting interested and offers were coming in.

"Now that we've kind of gone on this freeze, real estate is still moving, it's just that there's more cautious players," said Kalhor, who works from home and serves the metro area.

Rob Cole, regional manager of Gold Financial Services in southwest Oklahoma City, said the industry was a seller's market before COVID-19 came to the United States.

"Before we walked into the utter and complete chaos, it was a seller's market, 100 percent. Homes were going for top price, little to no closing costs. In today's market, I feel like it's going to switch roles and become a buyer's market," said Cole, who serves the metro area. "If this lasts, folks are going to need to sell."

Oklahoma City-based Fox Mortgage founder and CEO Thomas Wilson, who serves the entire state, described the market as pretty healthy before COVID-19. Real estate sales were up and the economy was strong. Because of business closures, he is starting to see panic due to closures and layoffs.

However, Cross described his interactions with clients thus far as "uncertainty" and emphasized that it's not time to panic.

"If you look at trends, there are more homes under contract than what are actually coming onto the market. That means that we have more buyers in the market than we have homes available. … It's a great time to sell," he said.

Due to concerns of spreading COVID-19, Kalhor said many on-site tours have been canceled, and her business has seen a 30 percent decrease in calls compared to previous weeks.

"A lot of open houses aren't happening, which I think is smart, because it's not always serious buyers that are looking, so it's kind of eliminating that personal contact, which is good," she said, referencing recent encouragement for residents to sanitize and use social distancing. "I'm eliminating any physical contact with anybody. If it's not a must that they go see the house, we don't go see it. We're doing online tours. I have some listings coming up, but we're going to wait two to three weeks, then we'll go live."

Kalhor said she's still moving through the process with buyers and sellers currently under contract with her, including letting in home inspectors and relaying reports with clients remotely.

"I personally think give this two to three weeks of isolation and this is going to pick back up," she said.

Cole said face-to-face meetings with customers and, sometimes, lenders are mostly gone now.

"I'm a down-home country guy, so we do business with an Oklahoma handshake. Nobody wants to do a handshake right now," he said. "We all need to be very careful and be clean people. I had a title company state that they want nobody at the closing table minus the consumer. … Then they mail everybody their checks [or documents]."

Cross said many Realtors in the market already work mostly from home, including him.

"This is a very mobile industry, so my office is basically anywhere I want it to be. Most of my business is on my phone or laptop. As far as talking to lenders, very little of that is actually done in person anyway. There's not really a whole lot of change," he said.

Cross said he can do tours via video conference calls and talk clients through what the home looks like. And for clients who are selling, he can provide hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and breathing masks.

"Closings can be done remotely. There's nothing in this that is preventing the home-buying process," he said.

Cole said he is increasingly switching to more electronic methods of business, including using digital marketing, video conferencing, e-signing documents and emailing PDFs to clients, and even picking up papers outside of an elderly client's house.

Regarding mortgage rates, Cole described the market as very volatile.

"We saw a massive drop in interest rates due to coronavirus. What happened is your large investors became overwhelmed with trillion dollars of refinance business. So what that did is it triggered a rate increase ... The coronavirus has the interest rate market specifically all in a huge turmoil."

Wilson said what brokers do is pick out lenders on behalf of their borrowers for the best interest rates and programs. However, "the disparity between different lenders of where the interest rates are is bigger than I've ever seen."

He said the market fluctuates so rapidly that about an hour after he has quoted a certain interest rate, that number has changed.

"That kind of volatility, I've never seen before," Wilson said. "What it normally takes six to nine months to do is moving in hours. It's making it pretty tough to tell clients where we're at because nobody knows."

The most important tactics in this style of market, Cole said, are professionalism and timing.

"Having a loan officer who knows when to lock a rate and what to do can make a huge difference on whether a real estate sale or transaction is going to work or fall apart," Cole said.

Wilson said his mortgage refinance load is currently big due to previously low interest rates, which has backed up lenders. Now, some lenders have exited the market, others are no longer doing refinances and rates have increased.

He suggested always using a local, independent mortgage broker because they offer more options and have connections with more lenders.

Wilson said lenders are scared to give really low rates because it will be tough for them to sell loans onto the secondary market. Also, people are worried about their ability to repay loans.

"You might be a qualified buyer right now, but if unemployment hits 20%, they're kind of worried about people being able to pay back the mortgages they just got for the home they just purchased," Wilson said. "It's a frenzy. It's really just unprecedented times that we've never seen before. I'm having conversations with borrowers that I've never had to have before."

Currently, the federal government is offering hardship programs through the Federal Housing Finance Agency to help homeowners impacted by COVID-19 who are struggling to make mortgage payments, according to an agency press release. Interested residents can contact their mortgage servicer for more information or visit fhfa.gov/coronavirus.

Wilson said appraisals are starting to take longer, as is underwriting, leaving loans to be locked in for a longer time period.

Cross said after the impact of COVID-19 dissipates, he believes the real estate industry is going to come out in great condition.

"I don't see any cause for concern or panic. There's a little bit of uncertainty right now, and uncertainty doesn't necessarily mean panic. From all indications, mortgage rates are going to be fine and there's still going to be a lot of homes for sale, a lot of buyers," he said.

Kalhor said what has surprised her about COVID-19 threat is people's sudden cleanliness concerns.

"What floors my mind is I've always been kind of a germaphobe, so to see how society is not that way, it really blows my mind. Now that I'm seeing people actually be conscience of it, I think it's a good thing," she said. "I think it's going to help decrease a lot of viruses that have been going around. … And now that we have something that people are unsure of, they're finally being, like, 'I'm going to wash my hands.' So I'm glad people are catching up to speed and being conscious of other people."

Kalhor said shutting the world down temporarily would help in the fight against COVID-19, but any longer than that would begin to hurt the economy too much.

"If people can just hunker down for two to three weeks, make this happen, get [COVID-19] killed, get it away, then I think we'll be OK. But if we have to start dragging this out past a month, it will crash the market," she said.

Cole said COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown periods will affect every business.

"Small mom and pops will be hit really hard. Hopefully with this quarantine, things are going to level out a little bit," he said.

Cole said he has received 30 to 40 calls from clients who are panicking.

"During this time, everybody is panicking, and what that can do to a community, it can make or break it, depending on your leadership," he said. "What everybody needs to do is they need to take a deep breath and calm down, because the issue is the panic is what creates a problem."

Kalhor said residents should take the citywide shutdown seriously and support local establishments by buying a gift card from them and donating to them so they can afford to stay in business.

"But I think people really need to play their part and stop spreading. Only leave if it's absolutely necessary. It would make a world of difference," she said.

Jamie Berry366-3532Follow me @JamieStitches13jberry@normantranscript.com

Copy editor

I moved to Norman from Durant, Oklahoma, in May 2010 to work as a copy editor and page designer at The Norman Transcript. I previously worked at The Durant Democrat, where I wrote articles, took photos and designed pages.

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