Real estate in a pandemic

(First published in the April 16, 2020 issue of City Pages)

Tactics are changing, but the local housing market is still going strong, so far


Realtor Lora Bladow, who also is part of the local “Home Selling Homies” podcast, does a Facebook Live outside of a house she sold.

One might think that real estate sales would have completely fallen off the map during the coronavirus pandemic that has shut down so many businesses. It turns out, that’s not exactly the case. Real estate is considered an essential business, and real estate agents are turning to digital tools to keep showing clients houses with as much minimal contact as possible.

“It’s a lot of technology, and a lot of safety precautions,” says Lora Bladow of RE/MAX Excel. “A lot of extra communication. These are the pillars of surviving while dealing with the public.”

Bladow recently launched her first 360 house tour, which allows potential clients to see houses on the market by logging on and taking a virtual tour of the house, moving the camera around up and down, left and right. And agents are using video tours, walking through the houses themselves with their phones through Facetime or Google hangout to show clients all the features of their prospective new homes.

In-person showings are still happening, but with strict conditions. If a showing does occur in person, Bladow is advising potential sellers to disinfect their houses before and after. And she is screening potential buyers to make sure they are well before entering someone’s home.

Real estate agents are being really strict about who can come on a showing, says Nichole Guenthner of EXIT Greater Realty. Both Bladow and Guenthner say only those with decision-making ability — in other words, those who are going to sign the title — are allowed on in-person tours. Ordinarily it’s common for parents, kids and even other friends with some housing expertise to join on tours. That’s not allowed now during the state Safer at Home lockdown order, which restricts travel and business to those deemed essential operations only.

And those tours are pretty strict too. Bladow says sellers are asked to open cabinets and other things ahead of time. Only the real estate agent is allowed to touch anything in the house. “And I’m wearing gloves. I haven’t decided yet on the mask,” Bladow says.

Sales have definitely decreased, but not as much as one might think, Guenthner says. Many houses are still seeing multiple offers and one house had several offers within 24 hours of listing, Guenthner says. But there is still an inventory shortage.

In March at least, real estate sales were still strong: 5,685 homes were sold last month in Wisconsin, an 8% increase over March 2019. In Marathon County sales were down a little from the previous year: 98 to last year’s 112. A small drop but not what one might expect during a pandemic lockdown.

Buying/selling advice

For those waiting for the pandemic to end to sell their houses? Now is a good time to start working on those home improvement projects to get the house in selling condition, Bladow and Guenthner say.

Sprucing up the front of the house can make a huge difference, Bladow says. “Painting the front door is the most valuable thing I can recommend,” Bladow says, for those whose doors are dingy.

That “sidewalk appeal” applies to other outside aesthetics like shutters, the lawn, etc. A fresh rug at the front door and updating lighting fixtures can make a big difference too.

Guenthner also recommends potential sellers start their spring cleaning projects, including decluttering. Even though thrift stores such as Goodwill aren’t taking donations right now, one can get all that extra stuff boxed up and ready to go for when they do open.

And for buyers right now? Even if you’re waiting, both Guenthner and Bladow recommend contacting a real estate agent to get an idea of the market, and becoming familiar with the online tools available to buyers.

It also makes sense to keep in touch with your bank, Guenthner says. Getting pre-approved is a good idea so that if a buyer does see a house they’re ready to jump with the financing set.

And keep tabs on that pre-approval since credit scores can change drastically in these uncertain financial times. CNBC reports that even though mortgage rates have fallen back to recent lows, some loans are becoming hard to obtain and lenders are changing credit criteria in response to overall market conditions due to the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.