Real Estate’s Spring Sales Season Slows to a Trickle


By the looks of things in New York City’s real estate market, spring will be a little late this year.

The spring sales season usually starts to ramp up during March. The typical number of new listings that come on the market in March is 1,780, but only 734 properties have been listed so far this month, according to UrbanDigs, a website that offers real estate data and commentary. The number of properties that have gone into contract this month, at 432, is less than half of the typical March figure, and 430 units were also taken off the market.

“This year we’ll continue with the spring selling season but it will shift to summer,” said Richard Grossman, president of the real estate brokerage Halstead, adding that sales were strong through the end of 2019 and into early March.

He said that the market usually has two selling seasons: spring, which on his calendar, starts in mid-January and ends around July 4, and the fall season which begins after Labor Day and wraps up just after Thanksgiving.

“When things get back to normal there will be pent-up demand,” he predicted. “Interest rates are low and if you’re quarantined, you’re going to be saying ‘I want a new place to live if this happens again.’ ”

The current uncertainty among buyers and sellers, though, is not restricted to New York, as reflected in a pair of surveys conducted by the National Association of Realtors earlier this month. On March 9, after the first weekend in the month, almost 80 percent of association members said the virus was having no effect on buyer interest. After last weekend, less than half of the respondents said that buyers were carrying on as though living in ordinary times. And the number has no doubt dropped significantly as state governments have ordered all nonessential workers to stay at home.

Meanwhile, on the sell side in the March 9 survey, only 3 percent of association members said they had seen sellers delist their property in reaction to the virus. A week later, the figure was 16 percent, and 20 percent in areas where there were presumed or confirmed cases of the virus.

The closure of government recording offices around the country in response to the pandemic will further complicate the buying process. These county offices, which handle title searches and deed filings, are vital to the buying and refinancing processes.

The Real Estate Board of New York, a trade group, is incentivizing skittish sellers who fret that a property listed now is a property that will be tagged “stale” once things return to normal: Until further notice, REBNY has eliminated the “days on market” calculation that is a data point on its Residential Listings Service and is used on most consumer-directed real estate listings sites. Streeteasy has followed suit.

To entice prospective buyers, brokers are offering video tours of properties; virtual tours using Facebook Live, Instagram Stories, and 3-D technologies like Matterport as well as live interactive tours via videoconferencing sites like Zoom. And however old school, there are also lots of photographs.

But whether virtual tours will lead to an actual offer is doubtful.

“Investors might have the resources and knowledge to buy homes without actually seeing them in the flesh,” said Emile L’Eplattenier, the managing editor of TheClose.com, a real estate strategy website. “But I have yet to meet an actual buyer willing to do the same.”

Agents generally spend money on virtual tours more to cater to homeowner’s whims than to actually sell real estate, Mr. L’Eplattenier added. “Covid-19 isn’t likely to change that.”

But Jason Haber, an associate broker at Warburg Realty, said: “I think there’s a new market: the online market, the only one we have now. We want to be in that marketplace. You have the most number of eyes looking at a property and you want that property to be part of the conversation.”

And, he insists, there is still plenty of conversation going on.

“You might think the upheaval would cause everyone to stand down,” he said. “But Covid-19 is a Rorschach. The way you view the virus you project out to the real estate market.”

He said he had clients who felt there was too much uncertainty to move forward right now, “But I have other clients who are frankly opportunistic, and are looking to see what discounts sellers are willing to do.”

Judy Szablak, an associate broker in the Westport, Connecticut office of the real estate firm Coldwell Banker, said she hadn’t seen much of a slowdown and had fielded several calls from prospective buyers last week.

“If people are contacting me at this particular time they are very motivated, whether they’re downsizing or they’re moving here or somewhere else for a new job,” said Ms. Szablak, (although the process in Fairfield and elsewhere is complicated by the closure of government recordings offices, the locus of title searches and deed filings).

In case lower Fairfield County goes into lockdown, she is putting together video presentations of her listings, and hoping for the best. In response to the virus, her office added a “sight unseen” disclosure to the purchase contract to indemnify agents against charges of misrepresenting the property a client might buy without first visiting.

Ms. Szablak has made just such a sight unseen sale before; no reason she can’t do it again, she said. “It’s all about motivation. If the client’s motivation is strong even with what’s going on now, the transaction is going to happen.”



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