Buying or Selling during Shelter in Place?

We’re all confused about what we’re all living through, and trying to deal with it in the best way we know how. Non-essential businesses are closed, as they should be. This includes real estate. But what if you really need to buy or sell a home? 

Even though there is an order in place that is designed to halt property showings, there are still some rogue Realtor characters out there that are breaking the rules and showing properties anyway, but keep in mind that those people are putting their business ahead of your health. They are being careless with your health. Insurance carriers that cover Realtors have put out a statement that this kind of behavior would not be covered. Realtors who are being careless do not have Errors & Omissions insurance coverage should someone become ill by contracting this deadly virus, which means you can be held personally liable as a seller should this happen, if you make your property available for showing. Brokers have instructed Realtors to stop showing, and those violating this directive are also at risk for loosing their licenses, as we are all held to a very high ethical standard. These rogue agents are clearly not adhereing to the same ethical standards. But there are a couple of outside the box alternatives, if you absolutely must sell your home, or absolutely must buy one. While I’m definitely not advocating a return to business as usual, and sincerely hope sellers are not allowing showings, maybe there are some alternatives to the traditional way of buying and selling to consider.

Sellers can offer virtual tours or matterport photography to give buyers a closer look at the layout of a home. Disclosures need to be as complete as possible - that means, if you can get them, inspection reports from home inspectors, pest inspectors, and, as needed roof inspections, structural inspections, etc. And, this is important - use good quality inspections. Don't go for the cheap ones that offer little more than a recommendation to have a defect inspected by a professional. Those aren't worth the paper they are written on and only make buyers wonder what they're missing. Although it can be difficult to get inspectors right now, some companies are practicing social distancing - including insistence they be on site alone, and gloved and masked. If at all possible, and your municipality provides permit history online, either get copies of the permit history or provide a link to the city website where a buyer can find same. Have all of the seller disclosures readily available, and be open to answering questions that arise, and filling in any missing information. If you are as transparent as possible as a seller, you are more likely to have your property in a position to take advantage of alternative modes of sale.

What am I talking about? Buyers can write their offer up with a short contingency to inspect period to start after any shelter in place order is lifted. Or, can buy sight unseen without a personal inspection (sounds scary but it happens all the time).

Either is more risky than the “business as usual” approach, most certainly safer than exposing yourself, your family and others to this deadly virus. Either of these options puts you in a position of more certainty. In other words, you would have a contract of sale in place. Buyers could ask for a longer escrow period, even one contingent on the lifting of the shelter in place order, but at least the contract would be in place. 

In either of these situations, before moving in, buyers will want to be sure to have an adequate period of time in which the house is completely and continuously vacant, allowing any surface virus to die. Follow CDC guidelines for the appropriate vacancy time period. You will also want to do a thorough cleaning before moving in, including replacing any furnace and vent filters, and disinfecting all surfaces.

Keep in mind that lenders are getting a little skittish, and loans are a little more difficult to get approved right now due to concerns of job loss and stock market stability. Escrows are taking longer to close because it’s more difficult to get wet signatures notarized and county recorders are adapting to working in a digital world. Be patient and flexible.

And what happens if you’re in this situation right now as a buyer? You were pre-approved but things changed. Your loan is suddenly more expensive now, or you don’t qualify even though you entered into your contract “non-contingent”? There are some legal experts who are saying this Shelter in Place order presents a “force majeure” situation that may allow you to rescind your contract and walk away, and get your deposit back. You should certainly consult with a real estate attorney should you be considering such a move, but this “act of God” unprecedented situation may well preclude any seller from keeping your deposit. But, before considering such a drastic move if you don’t have to, I would suggest talking to your Realtor and seeing if they can negotiate an outside the box solution. That may be extending escrow, reducing the purchase price, a seller credit at close of escrow, or some other work-around to get you into the home you fell in love with, without sacrificing either your deposit or sanity.

The important thing here is to not give up. Be patient, open minded and adaptable. We are all in this together and we will all get through it, as long as we stay safe by adhering to social distancing and respecting the rights of others to stay safe. The housing market remains strong, and there is definitely a pent up list of buyers still wanting to buy and sellers still wanting to sell. So, even if you have to wait a little longer than you want to, you'll still be able to buy or sell, once we weather this storm.

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