For the past several years, the housing market here on Delmarva has been strong. Historically low interest rates, combined with ample government loan and grant programs and affordable home values, made for a buyers’ market that we saw slowly shift to a sellers’ market as inventory decreased. Consumers were happy and homes were selling. In 2019, sales numbers remained steady here in Wicomico County, with similar trends seen across the country.
The first part of 2020 saw nothing but positive projections for the remainder of the year. The average sales price in Wicomico County had increased to $204,127 (as compared to $185,129 at the end of 2019), and settlements were up 8% year over year. Realtors were busy and were looking forward to a strong spring market. Then, everything changed.
In early March, the Coronavirus, or Covid-19, which had been disrupting life in other parts of the world for the past two months, had begun to spread in the United States. As the month progressed, first public schools were closed, and then, slowly, other types of businesses began to close, some voluntarily and some due to government orders. By the end of March, life as we knew it had come to a standstill, with over 80% of Americans under orders to remain at home unless absolutely necessary. As businesses closed indefinitely, many were out of work, and as unemployment claims grew, so did unease about the economy in general. Without knowing when this health crisis would end, our financial future was uncertain.
Where did this leave the real estate industry? Could people who needed to buy or sell a home still do so in the middle of a pandemic? And what about buyers and sellers in the middle of a real estate transaction, much of which is traditionally conducted in person? And would there even be a real estate market to come back to when this was all over? These questions and more were on the minds of Realtor advocate groups as they began to work with the government to create guidelines by which we could continue to operate our real estate businesses, while adhering to public health and safety regulations. Finding innovative solutions and promoting policy changes that would allow our clients to move forward in their real estate transactions would be a necessity.
Real estate agents found that it was more important than ever to utilize technology and other tools to provide services to their clients remotely. While products like electronic signatures and virtual tours have been around for years, now Realtors need to be able to offer more, especially when it comes to marketing a home for sale. With most buyers viewing houses online from the comfort of their homes, having professional photography and videography, easy-to-navigate websites and apps, and virtual open houses are almost a requirement to attract, and keep, consumer attention. There is a captive audience, but they have a lot of options. Most buyers are not going to schedule an in-person showing right now unless they are very serious about buying a home, so it’s important to find other ways to “get the buyer in the door”, so to speak.
Once a buyer does decide he needs to see a home in person, our showing procedures are drastically altered as well. From asking buyer and sellers to sign certifications allowing property showings, to limiting the number of people inside a home, we are no longer welcome to invite the whole family along to see potential homes. Fear and apprehension could make this seem like a cold, uncomfortable process, but Realtors have found a way to lighten the situation, bringing along necessities like hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, and surface wipes. Sellers are getting involved, leaving lights on and doors to closets and other rooms open to reduce the need to touch anything. And when a buyer likes a home, but isn’t quite ready for an in-person showing, agents are providing private video tours and walk-throughs. Real estate companies and agents are advertising Virtual Home Sales Packages, offering to provide many parts of a real estate purchase from start to finish without the need for person-to-person contact. We are able to utilize tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to review contracts and inspection reports with our clients, and most documents can be signed and shared with just a cell phone. Innovation and technology in the real estate industry has allowed us to continue working, while keeping ourselves and our clients safe.
The Realtor community has been busy at a state and national level as well, paving the way for legislation that will make it easier for us to service our clients remotely. Remote notary services are now legal, and we may soon see most, if not all, of the settlement process conducted remotely. The National Association of Realtors is working with Washington DC to ensure protection for property owners who may suffer as a result of forbearance. At a local level, our City and County governments have ensured that essential services can still be provided and that real estate related matters can move forward, whether it be a septic system installation or an electrical permit.
Throughout March and into April, our local real estate market has remained surprisingly strong. Some sellers have withdrawn their homes from the market until the crisis has passed, and some buyers have halted their purchasing plans, but many have not, and real estate agents remain busy. Even with a tightening in financing guidelines that could decrease a buyer’s purchasing power, contracts are being written and new listings taken every day. Mortgage experts predict that, despite the changes in guidelines on some loans, interest rates will remain low when we emerge from this pandemic. While we do not know how long this will all last, we do know that we will be ready to hit the ground running when it is over.
In the meantime, Realtors at ERA Martin Associates have been finding ways to help support their community while working from home, opening “First Responder Tabs” at several local restaurants, for first responders, doctors, nurses, and other heroes working on the front lines of the pandemic to grab a hot meal. “Most of us are safe at home right now and are unable to help on a large scale except to stay there. We wanted to find some way to give back to the first responders and healthcare providers who are out there risking their health and safety to help others. As an added bonus, we were able to support several local restaurants as well.” says President Joni Martin Williamson. Chairman Bill Martin, who founded ERA Martin Associates in 1985, was proud to give back, saying “Community is one of our Core Values, and we were thrilled at the opportunity to support those who are out there right now making a difference, while also supporting other locally-owned businesses.
ERA Martin Associates is the largest locally-owned real estate firm in Wicomico County, licensed in MD, DE, and VA. ERA has been the top real estate firm in Wicomico County for the past seven years, but the company is equally proud of their Customer Satisfaction Rating, which is currently a 4.94 out of 5, making ERA #1 in Sales and #1 in Service.