What It's Like to Buy (and Sell) a House During the Pandemic

Social distancing and quarantines changed, but didn't cancel, the homebuying and selling process for one homeowner.

U.S. News & World Report

What It's Like to Buy a House Right Now

Real estate agent showing a young couple a new house. The house is contemporary. All are happy and smiling. The couple are casually dressed and the agent is in a suit. The couple are being greeted at the front door by the real estate agent.

Expect some parts of the homebuying and selling process to be different amid the coronavirus pandemic, but don't be shocked if much of the experience ends up being the same.(Getty Images)

My wife and I were excited as spring approached. Not only were we looking forward to warmer weather, but our plan to upgrade to a larger house was about to begin. By mid-March, the real estate market was heating up and we were planning to sell our townhouse in Northern Virginia. We loved our community, but with two young children, we were quickly outgrowing our home.

Less than a week before we were to go on the market and with our home decluttered and cleaned, the coronavirus outbreak came to the U.S. in a big way. As the second week of March unraveled at a rapid pace, my wife and I continued to get our home ready for sale, even if we were no longer going outside. But when would that sale happen?

Deciding to Sell

As things continued to escalate, we reached out to our real estate agent, our mortgage lender and experts, including my colleagues covering real estate at U.S. News, for advice. What we heard gave us reassurance: The housing market was still very strong, especially in our area. Of course, some sellers were delaying or canceling their sales, and some buyers were taking a wait-and-see approach but there was still a lot of interest.

After all of the work we put in preparing for a sale, it seemed important to at least try to sell our home, especially before our kids began school. If we waited too late into the summer, we may miss registration, and if we waited another year, our kids would either have to switch schools or we’d have limited choices for where we would buy our house. We decided we would market the home for a maximum of two weeks while the outbreak remained in the U.S. – if it didn’t sell by then, we’d wait out the pandemic.

Like many other home sellers affected by the pandemic, we decided with our agent to cancel our open house to limit the number of visitors. We also had a maid service come by and fully sanitize our home. A one-hour window was set aside each day for showings, with two people plus their agent allowed in the house at a time. We provided hand sanitizer and left all of the room and closet doors open with the lights on to lessen the need for people to touch things. Real estate agents brought masks, gloves and booties for visitors.

Even with these precautions, I went through the house after showings, cleaning and wiping down things I thought people would possibly have touched: door handles, light switches, window treatments and faucets. Fortunately, we received an offer after less than two days for the asking price, which represented a substantial return on our investment.

Under Contract and Under Quarantine

The contract included a new addendum that the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors had put together to address the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic. This addendum allows either the buyer or seller to extend the closing at any time during the contract period for issues related to the virus, which offered some peace of mind for my wife and me as we went under contract.

Next, we began the search for our new home. Some open houses were still scheduled, but we decided we would not attend those to ensure social distancing.

Even with all of the changes taking place, we still had a sense of excitement as we searched for our forever home. The search also helped distract us a bit from the trying times and help focus our minds on other things even if just for an hour or two.

Our must-have list changed because of the pandemic. Fixer-uppers were out because there’s no knowing when contractors will be available to do work. We also needed a house with a washer and dryer included. Usually purchasing these appliances isn’t a big deal, but with more stores closed or only doing curbside drop-off, buying new appliances is suddenly more of a challenge.

The buying process was smooth at first, but we hit a road bump when we decided to pull out of our contract to purchase a new house. Our contract was contingent on the sellers being able to find a new house in their desired area. They were having trouble in their search because of low inventory, and the closing date of our sale was fast approaching.

It was a bit worrying to have to go back out to find a home, but luckily a house came on the market that was in the right neighborhood and at a lower price than the first home we bid on. Between our first offer on a house and when we started looking for another place in early April, mortgage rates rose. Our lender worked to get us a comparable rate to avoid significantly higher monthly costs.

In the days before closing, we did a final walkthrough of our new house, which went by as usual, aside from wearing face masks. The sellers had already moved out, and the kids were able to accompany us and come up with ideas for their rooms, the basement and the backyard.

Closing Time

Closing on the sale of our townhouse and the purchase of our new house fell back-to-back on a morning at the end of April. The novel coronavirus outbreak again caused a change in how this would be done since social distancing meant that we couldn’t be in the same room with a lot of folks.

Instead, closing was done in different locations with a representative from the title insurance company coming to our soon-to-be-sold townhouse where my wife and I signed all of the documents. The closer would then drive the papers to the buyer’s house and have them complete the transaction on their end. The same happened for the seller of our new house. Signing took place with the three of us – the closer, my wife and me – standing 6 feet apart behind the closer’s tailgate where the papers were laid out. After an hour, we no longer owned our house and were the proud owners of a new home.

Moving day was a whirlwind of activity, as it always is, with the added detail that the moving crew we hired all wore masks and gloves and maintained a comfortable distance while working quickly to help us put our furniture back together quickly at the new house.

While the preferred manner of hooking up our new internet connection would have been a self-install to maintain social distancing, the new service required some work inside, so we had to schedule a visit from a technician for a few days later. In the past, being without internet for a couple of days would have been little more than an annoyance, but with everyone at home, internet service has grown in importance. Phone hotspots kept us connected until we had service installed.

Different, But the Same

Now that we’ve completed the sale, purchase and move, the big question is what was different? The answer: everything and nothing. This was our third (and hopefully final) home purchase, and ironically enough, it was our smoothest one. The selling went with nary a hiccup, and aside from the need to go under contract on a second home, we hardly missed a beat in purchasing our new house. Our mortgage lender and Realtors kept everything on track for a smooth transaction.

One thing that struck us was the humanity. People were worried not just about themselves, but also others. Potential new neighbors stayed at a distance, but made sure to warmly greet us.

Now that we’re in the house, would we change anything? We would rather things were “normal” and that we could explore our new neighborhood by going to more shops, sitting in parks and eating out. For now, we’ll take long walks, go for rides and order takeout. We can’t wait to get to know more of our neighbors and make new friends, but we have time. We wouldn’t change the house we bought and the people we met and worked with along the way for anything.

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