Not long ago, Molly Lynch and her husband found their dream house in Medfield. And with that, they put their current home — a charming, four-bedroom Colonial in Dover — up for sale. After all, it’s been harder to buy a house than to sell one in Greater Boston for the past few years, so it seemed like they had already cleared the biggest hurdle. That was on Thursday, March 12.
Lynch and her family began social distancing the next day; by that Sunday, Governor Charlie Baker had issued an emergency order shutting down schools statewide and limiting restaurants to takeout service. “The timing for this sale was truly terrible,” says Lynch, who’s the director of marketing and partnerships at Erin Gates Design in Newton. “[But] because we are already under contract for the new house — which we love, love, love — we decided to keep our house on [the market] and hope for the best.”
Selling their house in the midst of a pandemic has meant leaning heavily on FaceTime showings, Lynch says. To minimize the need for physical tours, she’s also posted videos on YouTube where she walks through the house and explains how her family of four uses the space, trying to anticipate questions buyers might pose: The kitchen counters are quartz; yes, the fireplaces work. She’s hoping that will help whittle down the field to serious buyers.
When it’s time for an in-person showing, the whole family goes for a car ride — after Lynch does a quick cleanup. (Imagine keeping your house staged to sell when your 3-year-old and 10-month-old are at home 24/7.) “If someone really wants to come see for themselves, we’re asking them not to touch anything, and I wipe everything down before and after,” Lynch says.
Meanwhile, house hunters Karen Galbraith and her husband, Byron, haven’t viewed a house in person since the outbreak — but that’s partly because their search is taking place several states away. They’ve been renting in Brookline since 2016, and had been fruitlessly house hunting nearby for much of that time. Recalling one would-be home lost to a bidding war, Galbraith says, “Even though we offered $50,000 over asking and waived the inspection, we were outbid by over $200,000.”
So they decided they’d relocate and buy in Pittsburgh instead. The “up-and-coming tech hub” is closer to both of their families, Galbraith says, and offers better odds of finding the bigger house and private yard they want at a price they can manage. “We’re both 39 and have never owned a house, and I personally am eager to have something I can put my stamp on — where I can put in a play set and put holes in the walls,” she says.
After taking a three-week scouting trip to Pittsburgh with their three young children last August, Galbraith and her husband returned a couple more times before partnering with a realtor there in February. Subsequent house-hunting trips, however, were foiled by COVID-19. And while they’ve done some Zoom video tours, new listings seem to have dwindled to a trickle, Galbraith says.
Their original plan was to close on a property by May, but Galbraith says they’re now constantly reevaluating their expectations and timeline. “We made a decision last summer not to renew our lease and to move no matter what—of course, never imagining this particular ‘what,’ ” she says. At this point, she’s not even sure how they’ll go forward if they do find a home they’re interested in. “Neither of us is comfortable buying something sight unseen.”
That’s not to say it can’t be done. When Kristina Arsenault moved her family back to her native Massachusetts from the Pacific Northwest three years ago, she bought an updated Marblehead ranch without ever stepping foot in it. Now, she’s turning to video tours as a seller, having just listed the house for sale in early April. Arsenault had already accepted a job offer back in the Pacific Northwest before the COVID-19 outbreak exploded in the US.
Having bought a home from over 3,000 miles away once before, Arsenault is optimistic about the potential of virtual tours. “It gives buyers the opportunity to ask questions one-on-one in a private session with their agent, and have that interaction in real time,” she says. “You can get the feel of the place. . . . It’s not exactly the same, but you have the ability to talk to your realtor and drill down into anything you want to ask them about.”
Arsenault had some light painting and staging work done on the house in preparation for the sale, but says she did quite a bit of the work herself because of social distancing requirements. One of the hardest parts, she notes, was finding a home for unwanted stuff in good condition, such as the children’s furniture her kids have outgrown. Many donation centers are closed or not accepting items, but her staging team helped locate someone willing to pick up items while taking plenty of precautions. “We all kind of did it in this orchestrated dance, where none of us got close to each other,” she says.
The entire real estate industry has had to react quickly to keep people safe while ensuring sales can still make it to closing, says Matt Dolan, broker with Team Harborside at Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty in Marblehead. “Everyone is doing their part to minimize face-to-face interactions,” Dolan says. “There have been some delays on financing and paperwork, but, ultimately, deals are still getting done with some tweaks.”
It’s still possible to get a home inspection and to hire movers, Dolan notes, as those services have been deemed essential, “but there have been safety precautions put in place.” Other players in the process are adapting, or trying to. “Many lenders will now consider a drive-by appraisal to be good enough,” says Adam Rosenbaum, a realtor at Century 21 Adams in Arlington. “I had a closing last week that no one attended, but was delayed a couple of days because FedEx was not delivering. So, there are bottlenecks that appear and disappear.”
However, plenty of buyers and sellers have simply stepped to the sidelines to wait things out. By the last week of March, the number of homes pulled off the market nationwide had increased 148 percent from the previous year, according to real estate brokerage Redfin, and new listings were down 33 percent.
“I’ve got two elderly sellers who didn’t want strangers in their Cambridge condos, so I withdrew the listings until it is safer,” Rosenbaum says, with a pause. “Whenever that is.”
Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.