Shot of a handsome young hipster working on a laptop

Though the process for house hunting may be a bit different, many people want to lock in low mortgage rates. (PeopleImages/Getty Images)

The spread of the coronavirus and the subsequent closing of offices, cancellation of social gatherings and encouragement of individuals to practice social distancing has disrupted many of your plans for the near future.

One of those plans may be buying a home. With the spring homebuying season approaching, you may not be sure how to proceed, and you wouldn’t be the only one.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve hit the brakes in the housing market, but the foot is off the gas as people try to understand what’s going on,” says Matthew Dolan, a real estate agent with Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

A focus on conducting as much business as possible from home, deep cleaning your house and staying away from crowds is a natural reaction, so it makes sense that some consumers are putting a home purchase on the back burner at least for now. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Even with the coronavirus interrupting many aspects of life, finding your next home is still possible – though the process for house hunting, making an offer and conducting due diligence may be a bit different. Many people also don’t want to lose out on the opportunity to lock in low mortgage rates.

[Read: Why You Should (and Shouldn't) Sell Your Home in 2020]

Here are four virtual tools that can aid you in your home purchase while you practice social distancing:

  • Online house-hunting options.
  • Virtual and live video house tours.
  • Email, text and phone calls for questions and negotiating.
  • Electronic document signing.

Online House-Hunting Options

Looking online for information about houses for sale is likely already part of your process, as real estate information company Zillow reports 79% of homebuyers shop for houses online. Searching neighborhoods for available properties that meet your criteria is an excellent way to get started and also make use of the additional time you're spending at home.

Also take advantage of house-hunting apps, which make it easy to search for available homes, view photos of listings and look up property information from your phone or mobile device.

Virtual and Live Video House Tours

Looking at photos online can only show you so much, but there’s a good chance you’re hesitant to spend a day touring houses, let alone visit an open house with other people in attendance.



Real estate brokerages are considering this issue as well. National brokerage Redfin, for example, announced Monday that it is halting open houses during the spread of COVID-19. Daryl Fairweather, chief economist for Redfin based in Seattle, notes that virtual tours can be an alternative to viewing a home in person, allowing you to visit each room in the home and zoom in on areas of interest.

If there’s no virtual tour offered, a thorough and experienced real estate agent may be willing to tour a home with you on a video call, showing you details and opening closets and cabinets upon request.

"After the showing, I can go back and wipe everything clean,” Dolan says. He’s already worked with a buyer who is self-quarantining after an international trip. He coordinated a video home tour so the buyer doesn’t have to delay a planned move.

Email, Text and Phone Calls for Questions and Negotiating

Once you’ve found the home you want to buy, you fortunately won’t experience any different processes here by avoiding social contact. Text, emails and phone calls with your agent can help you work out the details of an offer. After that, your real estate agent will communicate in the same manner with the listing agent.

While you may be used to the prospect of sitting down with your real estate agent to discuss details of an offer, the switch to alternative communication likely won’t be a major disruption for you.

Electronic Document Signing

Electronic signatures are frequently used today regardless of a public health crisis. As Dolan puts it: “If you’re an agent still doing wet signatures for everything, you’re out of it.”

When it comes time to make details official for an offer or go under contract on a home, keep an eye out for texts or emails from your real estate agent with electronic signature options. Many professionals use DocuSign or other services to make the process seamless and official.

[See: 10 Ways Millennials Are Changing Homebuying.]

What About Things That Must Be Conducted in Person?

Ultimately, there are some parts of the homebuying process you can’t or won’t want to proceed with without an in-person meeting. Still, it's possible to take precautions to protect yourself – it may simply require a bit more preparation and sanitation.

Here are three things that may require face-to-face interaction:

  • Secondary showing.
  • Home inspection.
  • Closings.

Secondary Showing

Pandemic or not, it’s reasonable to be wary of buying a house you haven’t visited in person. As long as you proceed with caution and courtesy, this can be fairly easy.

“We can do a virtual showing for the first showing, and if it needs to go to a second showing, we can work that out too,” Dolan says. He notes that he offers to be the only person who opens doors and cabinets while the buyers keep their hands in their pockets, and following the tour he will go back and disinfect every surface he touches. He will also offer to provide a list of everything that was touched to the sellers should they wish to additionally clean the home afterward.

Home Inspection

During the due diligence process, a home inspection is often required by the lender to ensure there are no major faults with the property that threaten its value. This is something a home inspector can’t do virtually.

However, inspections can continue as long as everyone involved takes the proper precautions: wearing gloves, declining handshakes and hopefully inspecting a recently disinfected home.

A trustworthy real estate agent who also takes proper precautions can be an asset at this point in the process, and will likely allow you to remain home and attend the inspection on your behalf, following up with any information you should be aware of.

[Read: What to Expect From the Housing Market in 2020.]

Closings

Some states require all real estate closings to be conducted in person, which means that unless exceptions are made, the final sale of the property cannot be complete until you sit down in a room. Bring your own pen, consider wearing gloves and don’t expect to shake hands.

Prior to closing, it’s important to communicate with your real estate agent, title insurance company, mortgage lender and real estate attorney about the best way to proceed with closing if it must be done in person. With proper precautions, a meeting like this will likely be in line with recommendations from local governments and the Centers for Disease Control about limiting the size of gatherings.

“I don’t think the homebuying process or the home selling process will expose you any more than the (CDC) guidelines suggest,” Fairweather says.

If you’re feeling sick or have a fever, let the other individuals involved in the closing know ahead of time, as you may need to postpone.

However, you shouldn’t let the possibility of postponement deter you from getting started in the process. Fairweather expects the housing market to make a relatively quick recovery. Her take: “Once we’re out of this, people will still want to buy homes, and we still won’t have enough homes for the people that want them.”


The Best Real Estate Apps to Download

Improving real estate transactions with tech

Young bautiful woman texting surfing the net on the sofa at home

(Getty Images)

Buying or selling a home is an easier process with the help of technology – specifically apps that offer quick communication and lots of information for research. Mobile access to details, documents and professionals doesn’t only help homebuyers and sellers, it also makes just about any real estate-related process faster, benefiting property managers, real estate agents and anyone planning a home renovation. Read on for apps that can make your real estate research and transactions easier, faster and more accurate.

Corrected on March 4, 2020: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the credit reporting agency partnered with Zumper. TransUnion works with Zumper to provide credit information.

Best for finding a rental: Zumper

Best for finding a rental: Zumper

Zumper

(Courtesy of Zumper)

If you’re searching for your next apartment or rental home, Zumper offers a database catering to those looking to lease rather than buy. Zumper is best suited for people in major cities, since the widest variety of available rentals are found there, but users can find ample information on rentals in smaller markets, too, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, and Boise, Idaho. Additional features in major cities include the ability to book tours and make an offer to a landlord through the app.

Best feature: Through a partnership with TransUnion, you can run a credit report and submit it with a rental application directly through the app.

Apple, Android

Best for buying and selling: Zillow

Best for buying and selling: Zillow

Zillow

(Courtesy of Zillow)

Zillow is one of the most recognizable brands for property information and has more than 100 million homes in its database. The company has expanded into instant offers for fast sales, mortgage lending and real estate broker services. The Zillow app is a mainstay for those seeking homes for sale or rent, and if you're a seller, you can use it to update the property description and list of home features as well as add new photos to showcase the property.

Best feature: If you’re looking to both buy and sell, the Your Home tab allows you to store your current property’s details, update information and track its estimated value over time.

Apple, Android

Best for real estate agents: DocuSign

Best for real estate agents: DocuSign

Shot of a businesswoman using technology at work

(Getty Images)

Electronic signatures on key documents are becoming the norm in real estate transactions, and DocuSign is one of the most popular platforms for creating, sending, receiving and organizing documents. The app is aimed at professionals and business owners, so you likely don’t need to download it if you’re a homebuyer, seller or renter who only needs to sign a few documents to seal a deal. However, you may recognize the DocuSign logo when you’re sent a form for an e-signature, which means your real estate agent, attorney or landlord likely has the mobile app.

Best feature: While this isn’t a feature exclusive to the app, DocuSign offers special plans and pricing for those in the real estate industry, including a $20 monthly plan for members of the National Association of Realtors.

Apple, Android

Best for reaching real estate pros: Redfin

Best for reaching real estate pros: Redfin

Redfin

(Courtesy of Redfin)

National brokerage Redfin offers property and listing information for homes throughout the U.S., and it also has agents in more than 90 markets to represent buyers and sellers. Redfin's nontraditional model allows for lower commission fees and the convenience of working with multiple people who can help market your home, host open houses and take you on home tours.

Best feature: You can schedule house tours with a Redfin agent through the app without having to make phone calls or send emails to ask for available times.

Apple, Android

Best for renovating: Houzz

Best for renovating: Houzz

Houzz

(Courtesy of Houzz)

When it comes to interior design and renovation projects in your home, the Houzz app helps you plan, seek advice, find professionals and furnish the space when your project is complete. Save inspiration to your own ideabooks on the app, which make it easy to organize different projects throughout your home.

Best feature: Looking to work with professionals? You'll have access to profiles, information on their expertise, photos of previous work and reviews from former clients. While you can contact professionals directly through the app, their websites are also linked on their profile pages to help you find even more information.

Apple, Android

Best for property managers: Buildium

Best for property managers: Buildium

(Getty Images)

If you're a property manager or landlord, access to property information, vendor payments and tenant details helps you stay organized and on top of tasks. You have to subscribe to Buildium to use its services and mobile platform, but there is a free trial option if you’re interested in trying it out first.

Best feature: Buildium covers everything from tenant background checks to online rental payment and payments for contractors. Everything is accessible on the app, so you can reference details as needed.

Apple, Android

Best for learning the lingo: Real Estate Dictionary

Best for learning the lingo: Real Estate Dictionary

(Courtesy of Farlex Inc.)

The real estate industry is full of jargon that you may not understand if you’re not an insider. By keeping the Real Estate Dictionary app by Farlex on your phone, it’s easier to have in-depth conversations with real estate agents, home inspectors and contractors.

Best feature: Real Estate Dictionary’s platform is set up so you can search real estate-related terms. When you type in a word, related words and phrases come up to help you narrow down the right term.

Apple, Android

Best for neighborhood information: Trulia

Best for neighborhood information: Trulia

Trulia

(Courtesy of Trulia)

Most users of the Trulia app are looking for their next home and are interested in property details. Trulia's individual property profiles provide photos, listing information and home features, as well as statistics and local opinions about the neighborhood – for example, whether it’s dog-friendly or if neighbors tend to decorate for the holidays.

Best feature: Neighborhood data on the app includes reviews from local Trulia users who live there, plus how many other homes in the immediate area are for sale, crime and local school statistics and more.

Apple, Android

Best for calculating a mortgage: Mortgage by Zillow

Best for calculating a mortgage: Mortgage by Zillow

Zillow Mortgage

(Courtesy of Zillow)

This app offers calculators for monthly payments, the total cost of a home based on your budget and refinancing options. It also provides information on current mortgage interest rates across multiple lenders. The ability to both calculate information for your own mortgage and shop around for the best mortgage option makes it superior to other apps of its kind.

Best feature: It’s a simple detail, but the app menu displays the current average 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage interest rate, with a line graph showing how it’s changed over the course of a few months.

Apple, Android

Best for planning your home: magicplan

Best for planning your home: magicplan

Deutschland,Baden-Wurttemberg,Mannheim,umziehen,lifestyle

(Getty Images)

Whether you’re trying to figure out how to arrange furniture in a room or looking to design an addition to your home, the floor plan design capabilities on magicplan offer a user-friendly experience with a heightened level of detail. You can include the location of electrical outlets, different styles of windows, appliances and furniture to make a rendering and realistic plan for your space. Contractors can also use the app to estimate pricing based on completed floor plan designs.

Best feature: Once you’ve created your floor plan, you can export it as a PDF and even get an online 3D model for use outside the app.

Apple, Android

The best real estate apps to download in 2020 include:

The best real estate apps to download in 2020 include:

Mature men at his cottage resting on porch with his dog. Sitting down drinking coffee and using smart phone. Wearing casual clothing.

(Getty Images)

  • Best for finding a rental: Zumper.
  • Best for buying and selling: Zillow.
  • Best for real estate agents: Docusign.
  • Best for reaching real estate pros: Redfin.
  • Best for renovating: Houzz.
  • Best for property managers: Buildium.
  • Best for learning the lingo: Real Estate Dictionary.
  • Best for neighborhood information: Trulia.
  • Best for calculating a mortgage: Mortgage by Zillow.
  • Best for planning your home: magicplan.

Read More

Tags: real estate, housing, housing market, coronavirus, new home sales, existing home sales, pending home sales


Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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