Can Portland’s Housing Market Survive the Pandemic and the Protests?


Over the past few years, Portland, OR, has emerged as an epicenter of hipster cool and one of the nation’s hottest housing markets. Lower home prices and a thriving startup scene lured cost-conscious residents from pricier Seattle as well as San Francisco and other California cities.

More recently, Portland has been in the news for something else entirely: persistent and highly volatile protests in support of Black Lives Matter. Federal agents dispatched there by President Donald Trump in July to keep the peace have themselves been accused of civil rights violations and inflaming tensions.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced on Wednesday that the agents would be withdrawing.

“They have acted as an occupying force & brought violence,” she said in a tweet. However, Trump appeared to contradict that in a tweet of his own the next day.

However, federal agents were largely absent from the protests Thursday evening, which were more subdued.

At a time when Portland’s downtown, like other urban business districts, is suffering from a coronavirus-fueled recession, it would seem that the ongoing, violent disruptions might drag down the area’s real estate values. After all, many people have soured on the idea of cheek-by-jowl urban living during a pandemic, and now there are added clashes between protesters and law enforcement.

Can Portland’s housing market, particularly downtown, survive the combination of the coronavirus and civil unrest? The answer, of course, is complicated.

“For a lot of the condo and apartment [dwellers], this is extremely disruptive,” says Gerard Mildner, a real estate finance professor at Portland State University. “To be a resident of downtown is quite challenging, given the noise and the violence.”

The boarded-up storefronts, empty office buildings, and growing homeless camps present other issues for would-be residents.

However, “the entire city is not in flames,” says real estate agent Deb Counts-Tabor of Portlandia Properties. She’s been participating in the protests, which are mostly peaceful during the day and held in a predominantly commercial and office district with few residences. “The majority of the protests are happening in a four-block section of downtown Portland around the federal building.”

That may be why home prices, for now, remain on the rise. Median prices in the Portland metropolitan area, which includes nearby towns and suburbs, increased 5.3% annually, to $499,950, according to realtor.com® data.

Within the city limits, median prices also remained strong despite the turmoil, rising nearly 7% year over year, to $524,000 in the week ending July 25.  However, prices continued their yearslong fall in the downtown ZIP codes closest to where the protests are held.

“Our inventory is so low, and has been so low for long, and money is so cheap, neither the virus nor the uprising has had much of an impact on the market,” says Counts-Tabor. She was referring to record-low mortgage interest rates below 3%.

“South downtown, near the protests, the pandemic dropped our sales numbers from last year by about 20%, and the protests don’t seem to be adding to that,” she adds.

Prices for properties sold in south downtown fell nearly 3% for homes sales that were completed May through July of this year, compared with the same period last year, according to data Counts-Tabor pulled from the local multiple listing service. (List prices were up about 15% annually despite sold prices being lower.)

The number of sales in south downtown also fell from 34 from May through July 2019 to 26 over the same time frame this year. However, there were 11 pending sales, which are transactions that have yet to close.

“If there are people fleeing the center of the city, they’re being replaced,” says Counts-Tabor.

The protests contrast with Oregon’s history of racial discrimination

The outrage fueling the protests may be at least partly inflamed by Portland and Oregon’s long history of discrimination against minorities.

Portland is overwhelmingly white, with white residents making up more than 77% of its residents. Less than 6% of the population is Black, although that’s a higher concentration than the state overall, which has 2.2% Black residents, according to the U.S. Census.

The reason for that imbalance dates to 1844, when the territory of Oregon banned Black people from the region. Those who were there as slaves had to be freed within three years—and then leave the state. It was more because white workers didn’t want the labor competition than any abolitionist sentiment. This attitude was later enshrined in the state’s constitution, which stated, “No free negro or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall ever come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate, or make any contract, or maintain any suit therein.”

“A lot of people in the Portland area are aware of the history of racial exclusion,” says Katrine Barber, a history professor at Portland State University. “It’s very definitely fueling why people are out in the streets. There’s a kind of reckoning happening fueled by that history.”

After the Civil War, Black residents migrated to the Portland area.

“But they were never able to overcome that initial hostility that the pioneer period created,” says Darrell Millner, a professor emeritus of Black studies at Portland State University.

The Ku Klux Klan was very active in the state in the 1920s. Gov. Walter Pierce, who was elected in 1922 and went on to represent the state in Congress, was a member.

It wasn’t until World War II that Blacks moved to the city in earnest to take jobs in the burgeoning ship building industry. But once the war ended, many of the Black workers were let go to free up jobs for the returning white soldiers. White authorities and residents made it clear through redlining and deed restrictions that prohibited Blacks from buying homes in white neighborhoods, harassment, and general hostility that Blacks weren’t welcome. By 1950, more than three-quarters of the Black population had left the area, estimates Millner.

The state refused to ratify the 15th Amendment, which allowed Black men to vote, until 1959.

The Blacks who remained settled in the northeastern swath of the city where redlining permitted. But due to rising prices and gentrification, many have since left.

“Very few communities of color still exist that aren’t gentrified in Portland,” says Kymberly Horner, executive director of the Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives. The city-funded organization owns and operates about 700 affordable housing units and single-family houses. “In order for you to be here, the economics really don’t pan out for folks without really well-paying jobs.”

Will fewer folks want to live in downtown Portland?

Downtown living may not be as desirable at least for now.
Downtown living may not be as desirable at least for now.

horica/Getty Images

If the federal agents do not return, Portland’s downtown protests could become less heated and the overhead helicopters could move on. That could help spur sales as buyers feel more comfortable moving in.

But even if the disruptions of the protests are ratcheted down, the urban core will still have to contend with the ongoing impact of the coronavirus, as the number of cases has been on the rise over the past few weeks.

As long as residents feel cooped up in their condos and apartments and surrounding businesses remain closed and boarded up, living downtown just isn’t as desirable. That’s a problem faced by cities across the country, as suburban areas offering single-family houses with additional square footage and private backyards have become more popular.

“COVID-19 would be the impetus for more changes than protests,” says real estate broker Blake Ellis, who works for Windermere Realty Trust in Portland. “None of the [downtown] listings I’ve taken have been fear-based.”

The market paused in March and April, but has since been coming back, he says. Demand never wavered for single-family homes, as folks sought more space and distance as the pandemic dragged on. The higher-end condo market suffered more, but has begun rebounding in the past few weeks, says Ellis, who lives in downtown Portland.

“It’s like a perfect storm,” says Horner. “We’re just not sure where the real estate industry is going to go.”



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Home Sellers Pocket Record Profits During the Coronavirus Pandemic


The intrepid homeowners who sold their properties as the coronavirus pandemic ramped up in the U.S. this spring pocketed record-high profits.

Nationally, home sellers made a profit of about 36% on their sales in the second quarter of 2020, according to a recent report from real estate information firm ATTOM Data Solutions. That translated into a median $76,000 gain over what they originally paid for the property. It’s also just over 14% more than what sellers made in the second quarter of the year.

ATTOM analyzed recorded sales deeds, foreclosure filings, and loan data to come up with its findings. The firm calculated the difference between median purchase and resale prices to figure out seller profits in 104 metropolitan areas where sufficient data was available and where there had been at least 1,000 single-family home and condo sales in the second quarter. (Metros include the main city and surrounding suburbs and smaller urban areas.)

“The housing market across the United States pulled something of a high-wire act in the second quarter, surging forward despite the encroaching economic headwinds resulting from the coronavirus pandemic,” Todd Teta, ATTOM’s chief product officer, said in a statement. “Profit margins hit new records as prices kept climbing, with few indications that the impact of the virus would topple the market.”

The high profits are due to a scarcity of supply. The country was experiencing a severe housing shortage before COVID-19, and the pandemic made it worse. Many sellers pulled their homes off the market or decided to wait out the health crisis before listing.

However, the virus hasn’t dampened buyer demand. Record-low mortgage rates, which fell below 3% for the first time, have spurred a rush of new buyers. They’re joining those who were planning to buy in the spring during the shutdowns and those who had hoped to purchase in the summer, as well as apartment dwellers and starter-home owners who realized in quarantine that they wanted more space.

These buyers are bidding up the prices of homes—which means more money for sellers.

Where are profits shooting up the most—and the least?

Sellers in the Spokane, WA, metro area had the biggest annual gains in profit this quarter. They earned about 61.2% over what they originally spent on their home in the second quarter of last year. That jumped to 76% in this past quarter, according to ATTOM. The median home list price in the Spokane metro area was roughly $388,000 in June—about 8.1% higher than in the same month a year ago, according to realtor.com® data.

Spokane was followed by Columbus, OH, where profits rose from 34% to 47%; St. Louis, from 19.9% to 31.4%; Chattanooga, TN, from 31.9% to 43.4%; and Indianapolis, from 30.5% to 41.9%

On the other end of the spectrum were the places where sellers made less than in the previous year. Profits dropped in just 23 of the 104 metros analyzed.

The biggest falls were in the Pittsburgh metro area, where the median home price was $274,500 in June. Sellers went from pocketing 28.6% over what they had paid for their homes to making 20.9%.

Pittsburgh was followed by Modesto, CA, where profits declined from 58.7% to 51.1%; Honolulu, from 43.8% to 36.2%; Greeley, CO, from 41.5% to 35.4%; and Naples, FL, from 22.1% to 16.7%.



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Will Shutdowns, Lower Unemployment Benefits Hurt the Housing Market?


The U.S. housing market has defied the odds during a public health crisis, economic recession, and the highest unemployment since the Great Depression. Home prices are surging nationally as buyers duke it out over a very limited number of properties for sale. However, there are fears the already battered economy is on the verge of taking yet another hit.

COVID-19 cases are spiking in many parts of the country, which could lead to a second round of shutdowns, furloughs, and layoffs in some areas. The additional $600 that more than 17 million people are getting in weekly unemployment benefits is set to expire at the end of this month if Congress doesn’t act soon. And several large companies have announced tens of thousands of job cuts on the horizon.

Can residential real estate remain unscathed in the face of this looming financial pain?

Most experts expect the market will remain strong—at least in the short term. The blockbuster combination of record-low mortgage interest rates, which dipped below 3% for the first time ever this month, hordes of still-employed buyers descending on whatever listings they can find, and a brutal housing shortage have kept prices high.

“I don’t expect an immediate impact on the housing market,” says realtor.com® Senior Economist George Ratiu. “The housing market’s summer season will remain hot. It’s going gangbusters. In the late fall and winter, it could cool off as the market tends to be a lot slower and more small businesses close.”

Congress and the White House are attempting to bang out another coronavirus stimulus plan by the end of the month. This will likely provide another jolt to the economy. But it’s not yet decided what this stimulus would consist of, and how much of it would make its way to cash-strapped consumers.

This likely won’t be the last time the government is called on to step in. Another wave of foreclosures could deal the housing market a blow, knocking down prices and making families homeless. But that wouldn’t materialize until at least next year, after the maximum 12 months of mortgage forbearance runs out for homeowners with government-backed loans. The hope is by that time, laid-off homeowners will have returned to work and can make their payments or the federal government offers additional assistance.

“Will there be some fallout? Of course,” says Matthew Gardner, chief economist of Windermere Real Estate. “But I don’t think it will be enough to cause [housing] prices to drop.”

Additional unemployment benefits have helped keep the economy afloat

The additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits has helped sustain unemployed workers and their families—as well as the economy itself. If it isn’t renewed or the amount is cut significantly, “it can be catastrophic,” warns Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of Workplace Fairness, a national organization that educates the public on worker rights.

Normally when people lose their job, their spending drops by about 7%, according to a recent JPMorgan Chase & Co. study. But this time, those receiving the boosted unemployment benefits increased their spending by about 10%.

“In many parts of the country, it goes a long way,” says Ndjatou.

While the fate of the unemployment benefit isn’t likely to affect the housing market directly, the impact of its disappearance could trickle down to homeowners and potential buyers—and possibly even lead to more layoffs and corporate cost cutting, according to Gregory Daco, chief economist of Oxford Economics, a global economics consulting firm.

“There are a host of industries that depend on people and businesses spending money,” says Ratiu.

More than 51 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the beginning of the crisis in March, with about 17.3 million continuing to collect unemployment as of July 11. In plain English: Nearly 1 in 5 workers received unemployment in June—five times more than the previous record, according to to JPMorgan Chase.

Buying a home is such a monumental financial commitment, of course, that those who lost their jobs or a substantial chunk of their income are much less likely to be looking to buy a home.

For some, the extra $600 a week contributes to the most money they’ve ever brought home. More than two-thirds of Americans who lost their jobs, 68%, are receiving more in unemployment than they did at their previous jobs, according to a May University of Chicago study.

“The life support the economy was on is being removed,” says Taner Osman, manager of regional economics analysis at Beacon Economics, a Los Angeles–based economics consulting firm. “You’re obviously going to have somewhat of a crash.”

More layoffs on the way

The unemployment picture may currently be looking a bit brighter as states have reopened and some workers are back at their jobs—but the layoffs are far from over.

Many economists expect the double-digit unemployment rate, which hit a high of nearly 15% in April before falling to roughly 11% in June, to continue through the year and probably into the next. New rounds of layoffs could hurt workers in higher income brackets this time around. But those job losses could be offset by folks going back to their jobs in newly reopened industries such as shipping, warehousing, or manufacturing.

“Whether things get better or worse, it’s not going to be a big movement one way or another,” says New York University economics professor Lawrence White.



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This New Credit Score Could Help More Borrowers Receive Mortgages


With the U.S. mired in a recession and unemployment at its highest level since the Great Depression, many lenders have turned off the credit spigot for all but the most qualified borrowers. So despite record-low mortgage interest rates, many would-be home buyers have been left frustrated.

A new credit index released by Fair Isaac Corp. this week could change that, potentially making it easier for borrowers to score a loan. The company also produces the widely used FICO credit score.

The FICO Resilience Index is intended to help lenders assess the ability of a borrower to withstand an economic downturn—even those with lower credit scores. It was designed to encourage lenders to continue making loans without raising minimum credit score requirements and other criteria. Lenders can use the score produced by the Resilience Index in addition to the regular FICO score.

“Our hope is that it will allow lenders to continue to be able to make prudent loans,” says Joanne Gaskin, vice president of scores and analytics at FICO. “Lenders are going to feel more comfortable continuing to approve borrowers rather than denying” them.

During the last recession, millions of consumers with lower credit scores still met their financial obligations, according to the company.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” says realtor.com Senior Economist George Ratiu. “Just one number, the traditional FICO score, shouldn’t be the sole metric in determining a borrower’s ability to repay a loan.”

Lenders are a bit skittish given the economic climate. Credit scores do not reflect whether homeowners are receiving mortgage forbearance because of pandemic-induced hardship.

“For a lot of lenders in the current environment, the FICO score is not a clear indicator of a consumer’s current financial health,” says Ratiu.

The new FICO score could relieve some of their concerns. It will place less weight on missed payments and more emphasis on lower account balances and credit utilization, says Gaskin. It does not factor in how much money someone has stashed in their savings account.

“It makes sense that these are consumers who have a cushion going into an economic downturn,” says Gaskin.

But the new scores may not benefit everyone equally—which could be especially hard on people of color, says Stephen Ross, an economics professor at the University of Connecticut. He is also co-author of “The Color of Credit: Mortgage Discrimination, Research Methodology, and Fair-Lending Enforcement.”

“It will certainly change who gets loans in a recession,” says Ross. “We know minority borrowers tend to have bigger income losses and more periods of unemployment during economic downturns.”



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Gangster Al Capone’s Childhood Home in Brooklyn Hits the Market


The Brooklyn, NY, home where Chicago mob boss Al Capone grew up has hit the market for $2.9 million.

However, buyers looking for relics from the infamous bootlegger’s childhood will be sorely disappointed. The 20-foot-wide townhouse in now-tony Park Slope bears little resemblance to the home where Capone grew up more than a century ago.

The residence in the heart of brownstone Brooklyn has been renovated and turned into a gorgeous, modern triplex with a separate unit on each floor.

The exterior of Al Capone's childhood home is similar to what it was when he grew up there in the early 1900s.
The exterior of Al Capone’s childhood home is similar to what it was when he grew up there in the early 1900s.

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“The exterior is similar [to the original home] at the front of the facade, but everything else has been gut-renovated,” says Nadia Bartolucci, the Douglas Elliman real estate agent representing the property. Even the roof has been replaced. “There are no original components to the house.”

Today, the home has been divided into a main unit with three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, and a garden. The new kitchen features stainless-steel appliances and a subway tile backsplash, and the stylish bathrooms have chevron tile and chrome fixtures. There are two one-bedroom apartments above, one with a newly tiled, private roof deck and the other with a terrace. The electrical system has been upgraded, and all three residences are equipped with new split Mitsubishi Hyper heat units and vented washers and dryers.

“What’s really special is, each apartment has generously proportioned outdoor space,” says Bartolucci. “It’s so important right now because we have a lot of people pivoting to working from home. It’s nice to have … during these uncertain times.”

Living room in main unit
Living room in main unit

realtor.com

The floor plan for Capone's childhood home, which has been turned into a triplex.
The floor plan for Capone’s childhood home, which has been turned into a triplex.

realtor.com

Capone was born in Brooklyn in 1899. Chicago’s one-time “Public Enemy No. 1” moved into the house at 21 Garfield Place with his family sometime in the early 1900s. He’d live there until he decamped to the Windy City in 1919, where he became known for running bootleg, prostitution, and gambling rings in the 1920s. Capone was eventually convicted of tax evasion in 1931 and served eight years in prison. He died in 1947 at age 48.

The home’s last owner purchased the property for $2.42 million in 2018.

“It is really nice to be able to hold on to a piece of Brooklyn history,” says Bartolucci.



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For Some, Mortgage Forbearance Could Make It Harder To Get a Future Loan


Homeowners who request relief from their payments on their federally funded mortgages amid the coronavirus pandemic won’t be penalized for it in the long run, the federal government announced on Tuesday.

Earlier in March, the federal government assured homeowners with these loans that they wouldn’t lose their homes, incur fees, or have their credit scores damaged if they couldn’t make their payments—as long as they entered a lender-approved forbearance program. Typically, forbearances are doled out in three-month chunks for up to 12 months.

But that forbearance has been showing up on these borrowers’ credit reports, making it nearly impossible for many of them to refinance their mortgages into lower monthly payments or qualify for a loan on a new property, say if they get a job in another city. Traditionally, owners who resorted to a forbearance program had to make up the skipped payments and then wait a year before applying for a new home loan.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency’s announcement on Tuesday establishes that homeowners who have gone through forbearance and made three subsequent monthly payments can get a new loan—even if they haven’t caught up with the missed payments. (People who were granted forbearance but then didn’t need it, and are current on their payments, also will not be penalized.)

The changes will apply only to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans made on or after June 2. Fannie and Freddie back about half of all residential mortgages, or 28 million borrowers.

“We didn’t want to penalize” borrowers, FHFA Director Mark Calabria said on Tuesday at a Mortgage Bankers Association event. Those who make good on their loans, “we will treat you like you’ve never been in forbearance.”

About 8.16% of residential mortgages were in forbearance as of May 10, representing about 4.1 million homeowners, according to the MBA.

This means many homeowners hurting financially will be able to reap the benefits of record-low mortgage interest rates. On Tuesday, the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was just 3.15%—a full percentage point lower than a year ago, according to Mortgage News Daily.

And if rates dip under 3%, some folks could shave hundreds of dollars off their monthly payments and tens of thousands of dollars off the life of their 30-year loans.

“This is a big deal,” says Rocke Andrews, a mortgage broker at  Lending Arizona in Tucson. He’s also the president of the National Association of Mortgage Brokers, a trade group. “You’re not punished for going into forbearance.”

“They are going to require you to spend three months reestablishing your credit,” he says. But “it’s less punitive than 12 months.”

But while most lenders follow the guidance set by the FHFA, not all will, especially when more than 36 million people have filed for unemployment in the past two months.

“We’re in such uncharted territory that it’s unclear what lenders are going to impose upon borrowers,” says Charles Gallagher III, a St. Petersburg, FL–based attorney who specializes in foreclosures. “It [could still] lock them into their current residence. It would limit potential job options outside of your region if you couldn’t move.”

That’s why borrowers need to think carefully about what taking forbearance could mean for them.

“Weigh out all your options,” says lender Andrews. “The way that the forbearance was rolled out, people thought it was a payment holiday and were not advised of the consequences.”



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New-Home Sales Plummeted. What Does This Mean for the Future?


The coronavirus pandemic has dealt builders of new homes a hefty blow.

The number of newly constructed homes sold and for sale fell by a steep 15.4% in March compared with the previous month, according to the seasonally adjusted numbers in the most recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That’s an unsettling swift slide as the stay-at-home orders and astronomical unemployment filings didn’t begin until toward the latter half of March.

New-home sales were also down 9.5% in March compared with the same month a year ago, as buyers closed on just 627,000 new homes.

Sales were particularly down in the parts of the country that have been hardest-hit by COVID-19. Monthly sales were down 41.5% in the Northeast and 38.5% in the West in March. These are the areas that were quickest to institute stay-at-home orders and close down nonessential businesses.

And sales numbers are likely to continue to drop until the public health crisis is under control.

“The drop in March sales reflects buyer concerns over the virus,” Robert Dietz, the chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders, said in a statement. “The weakening in sales is in line with our builder surveys that showed dramatic declines in buyer traffic and builder confidence in April. We expect further slowing of the pace of new home sales in April, as jobless claims continue to rise.”

Prices of new homes also fell, dipping to a median $321,4000—a 2.6% decline from February. However, they were up nearly 3.5% from March 2019.

“Buyers still in the market for a home might take a fresh look at new homes in the months ahead, especially if new-home prices soften,” realtor.com Chief Economist Danielle Hale said in a statement.

The number of existing-home sales met a milder fate. Sales of the previously lived-in homes were down 8.5% from February to March, but up 0.8% year over year, according to the National Association of Realtors®’ most recent report.

And median prices were up in March, to $280,600—an 8% annual rise.

Building experts expect that sales will rebound once the crisis is contained, Americans can safely go back to work, and the economy has improved.

“While we expect to see some further impacts to the industry, we remain confident that housing will be a sector that will help lead the economic recovery,” Shrewsbury, NJ–based builder and NAHB chairman Dean Mon said in a statement.



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This Is Just How Much the Coronavirus Has Affected Home Prices


As the coronavirus crisis has evolved from solely a once-in-a-generation health crisis to a financial one as well, many folks have wondered what it will mean specifically for America’s housing market.

In the past few weeks, the number of homes for sale on realtor.com® has plummeted by nearly half as sellers are pulling them off the market or holding off on listing their abodes. And as nonessential businesses remain shuttered and unemployment soars, reaching 22 million jobless claims in just four weeks, home price growth is also beginning to slow.

Home prices were up just 0.8% year over year in the week ending April 11. That was compared with a 1.6% annual rise in the week ending April 4, a 2.5% bump in the week ending March 28, and a 3.3% increase in the prior week.

“Demand is already evaporating and, with that, prices will absolutely decline,” says George Ratiu, senior economist for realtor.com®. “And we’re beginning to see that decline.”

The slower price growth is a marked contrast to the first two weeks of March, before the stay-at-home orders began in earnest around the country. Median list prices were going up about 4.4% annually on average during those weeks.

Near record-low mortgage interest rates are also likely to bring the costs of purchasing a home down as well. They were just 3.3% for 30-year fixed-rate loans for the week ending April 16, according to Freddie Mac.

But even the most motivated buyers aren’t likely to find a home easily. The number of realtor.com listings plummeted 47% year over year in the week ending April 11, according to realtor.com data. That’s a dramatic drop considering the number of new listings on realtor.com were rising by about 5% in the first two weeks of March, before the COVID-19 crisis erupted on U.S. soil.

Many sellers are taking their homes off the market or delaying listing them as they don’t want to lose out on fetching top-dollar for their properties or move during a worldwide pandemic.

“Sellers are recognizing the economic downturn is already a lot deeper than expected,” says Ratiu.



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Do You Have the Right To Know If Your Neighbor Has Coronavirus?


As the cases of coronavirus have surged and an increasing number of Americans are sheltering in place, more people are worried about catching COVID-19 from their neighbors. And while the prospect of having an infected neighbor in a cul-de-sac is scary, it’s far more terrifying if you live in a large apartment, co-op, or condo building with everyone sharing (and even coughing in) the same elevators, laundry rooms, and other common spaces.

The issue: At present, building owners and boards aren’t legally required to disclose whether someone tests positive for COVID-19—even if many of the building residents are elderly or have underlying health conditions, say real estate attorneys. However, federal, state, and city laws seem to be changing by the day, so new requirements could come into play at anytime.

But most buildings are sending emails and memos to let folks know if one of their neighbors has contracted the virus so that they can take extra precautions. However, real estate attorneys and lawyers have strongly advised boards, building managers, and property managers against revealing who’s contracted the virus and which unit they live in. And residents can’t be evicted or asked to leave just because they’re sick.

“From a legal perspective, we’re in uncharted territory,” says Omaha, NE–based housing attorney Scott Moore of Baird Holm. “The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits inquiries into whether a tenant has a disability and the nature and extent of their disabilities. That would include questions about medical conditions.”

But federal and state regulations are being shaped and reshaped as the crisis mounts. So just because there aren’t COVID-19 disclosure requirements today, doesn’t mean there won’t be tomorrow.

“The concern is privacy issues versus contaminating an entire building,” says real estate attorney Edward Mermelstein, a partner at One & Only Holdings in New York City. “Every management agent is doing this by the seat of their pants.”

What can building managers disclose about a resident who has COVID-19?

There also aren’t any universal guidelines for management companies and boards on what they can tell worried neighbors about an infected person living in their building.

Some aren’t informing residents, but some are. In fact, some are even disclosing which floor those folks live on—which many real estate attorneys believe is a step too far in compromising the sick person’s privacy.

“The idea is to keep others from getting infected,” says Mermelstein.

It’s also to protect the health of building staff. No one wants superintendents or other apartment building personnel to unknowingly enter an apartment where someone is sick to make a minor repair and wind up contracting the virus.

But most buildings managers are highly sensitive about the need to keep information that an infected resident isn’t comfortable with from being blasted out there.

“Disclosing against the wishes of the infectee could potentially expose the board to a lawsuit,” says New York City–based attorney Aaron Shmulewitz, who represents co-op and condo boards. He is a partner at Belkin Burden Goldman.

Buildings that don’t disclose that an infected person lives there could be opening themselves up to a lawsuit, warns Michael Spence, a Seattle-based real estate attorney with Helsell Fetterman.

“God forbid someone catches the virus from a neighbor,” Spence says.

Are residents required to inform building management if they contract COVID-19?

Concerned neighbors may have to keep guessing if someone in their building has gotten sick with the virus. As we’ve mentioned, legally folks aren’t required to let the people a flight below, down the hall, or next door know about their health conditions, and their neighbors don’t have a legal right to know either.

Ethically, however, some folks argue that they should. This allows management to clean the infected person’s hallway, elevator, and stairwells a little more frequently and maybe even add an extra bottle of hand sanitizer in the lobby. And it allows residents to be extra careful when entering the package room or opening doors in the building.

But some folks may fear the stigma that comes along with being the person in 5B with COVID-19.

“It’s the right thing to do. It’s the neighborly thing to do,” says attorney Shmulewitz. “[But] once you let it out, it could be impossible to get it back in. That’s why many people may not disclose it.”

The same privacy protections for residents may not extend to building employees. Residents are going to want to know if an infected handy person has been in their unit.

And if such workers do come forward, buildings can’t contain them in their apartments or demand that they don’t use elevators or other common spaces without a court order. These folks also can’t be evicted or asked to temporarily leave just for having the virus.

“There’s no legal playbook for any of this,” says Shmulewitz. “We’re all making it up as we go along.”



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Could the Coronavirus Derail the Spring Home-Buying Season?


Kids furloughed from school, bars and restaurants closed, and people told to stay at home except for essential errands—the coronavirus pandemic has already upended life as most Americans know it. Now it’s expected to turn the typically busy spring home-buying season on its head as well.

Despite the extremely low mortgage interest rates, the nation could be in for a rocky home-buying season. A recession triggered by COVID-19 appears to be on the way, and the stock market has plummeted, giving many buyers pause. There are also likely to be fewer homes on the market, longer closing times, and plenty of unanticipated delays in the coming weeks, say experts.

“I don’t think we’re going to have the spring boom that we have every year,” says national real estate appraiser Jonathan Miller. “It’s reasonable to assume that people will shift from the drive to save money with lower rates … [to protecting their] personal safety.”

It’s also not yet clear if the recent actions by President Donald Trump, Congress, and the Federal Reserve will stimulate the economy enough to stave off a prolonged downturn. The Federal Reserve slashed its short-term interest rates to between 0% and 0.25% and promised to buy billions of dollars of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities in a bid to buoy the economy.

The president and lawmakers are also weighing a variety of plans to help the economy. Still, they might not be enough to turn the spring market around.

“This was shaping up to be a fairly competitive home-buying season, and that may not be the case” now, says realtor.com chief economist, Danielle Hale. “It doesn’t mean that we won’t still see sales. But I would expect fewer crowds at open houses. I would expect more shopping online.”

Hale doesn’t believe home prices will plummet, as they did about a decade ago. That’s because during the previous financial crisis, there were more homes available than there were buyers. Today, there is a severe housing shortage, and even now there are many more eager buyers than reasonably priced properties for sale.

“I don’t expect [prices] to decline unless the recession becomes extraordinarily long,” says Hale.

Some real estate markets will be harder-hit than others

The problem is that just about everything is uncertain, with the news changing by the minute. San Francisco is a very hot market, but with the city and surrounding counties under order to shelter in place, home sales are almost certain to slow.

Going to a home showing is probably not considered an “essential outing” under the order. Sellers could pull homes off the market, closings could be delayed. And more big cities and smaller communities could find themselves in similar situations.

“It’s probably going to be very different in every market,” says Hale. “I would expect bigger impacts in areas that have seen the greatest numbers of the virus. People are more likely to stay home in those areas.”

In badly affected areas, sellers are beginning to pull their properties off the market. Others likely won’t list their homes until the crisis wanes. At least one multiple listing service, based in the Seattle area, is no longer advertising open houses. And many buyers are canceling showings.

“Do you want 20 people walking through your open house?” asks appraiser Miller. “Do you want to go into a stranger’s house?”

Some buyers are worried about contracting the COV-19 virus. Others are hesitant to deplete their life savings and lock themselves into a 30-year loan with a potential recession on the horizon. And many are concerned about both.

Coldwell Banker agent Danielle Schlesier says she is virtually showing homes around the Boston suburb of Brookline, MA, to eliminate person-to-person contact. She’ll do FaceTime tours with her clients while inside a home for sale, and shoot videos.

The upside is that there isn’t expected to be as much competition from home shoppers.

“They can negotiate for better prices,” says Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors®. “And of course, mortgage rates are exceptionally low.”

Closings could take longer this spring

Low mortgage interest rates have also spurred a refinancing boom from homeowners seeking to lower their monthly payments. Lenders are inundated. And that could slow down the mortgage approval process for first-time and other home buyers.

With all of that business, lenders might issue loans to only the most qualified among them, says Elysia Stobbe, author of “How to Get Approved for the Best Mortgage Without Sticking a Fork in Your Eye.”

She expects loan officers to look for applicants with higher credit scores, more stable income, lower debt, and more savings.

“It’s crazy,” she says. “Everything is slowing down” when it comes to loan processing times.

Other in-person services, such as home inspections and appraisals, could also cause delays in home buying. Some worried sellers, inspectors, and appraisers have canceled or delayed these services.

Still, buyers’ interest won’t be going away.

“The uncertainty doesn’t change people’s long-term desire to own a home,” says Hale. “They may not be brave enough to jump in and submit an offer now, given all the uncertainty. But they’ll still be looking.”



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