Lowcountry real estate sales continue despite coronavirus crisis

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Lowcountry real estate sales have suffered since the novel coronavirus outbreak began, but low mortgage interest rates coupled with social-distancing sales strategies are enticing some buyers back to the market, local agents say.

“For anybody who is secure in their job, now is a great time,” said Charles Sampson of Charter One Realty.

Real estate was deemed an “essential service” and exempt from South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s order closing non-essential business. But the traditional ways of doing business — in-person showings, open houses, and agents driving potential buyers around to look at properties — have had to change. One solution? Many brokerages are pivoting to virtual open houses and tours.

 

Real estate companies already had been using these video tools before the outbreak, especially when catering to buyers from out of town, but the technology has taken on new importance now that many buyers and sellers want to avoid or minimize actual property visits. Real estate agents are taking these virtual house tours one step further by hosting them on Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms. Local realtors say they’re also using apps like FaceTime on their smartphones to walk buyers through homes and villas.

“It’s more interactive,” said Rick Saba of Carolina Realty Group. “They can ask me to open closets and to show them how large the pantry is.”

But some buyers still want in-person showings. If the sellers agree to it, Saba and Sampson said agents ask buyers not to touch anything. Either the agent or the seller turns on the lights and opens the doors, and many agents wipe down doorknobs when they leave. Agents and their clients drive to see property in separate cars, said Randy Smith, managing broker of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Hilton Head Realty, adding that gated communities are being cooperative about letting real estate agents and their clients enter.

And because many rental villas on Hilton Head Island have been vacant for several weeks thanks to the state’s stay-at-home order, he said, potential buyers feel more comfortable touring them.

While homebuyer demand has fallen since the outbreak began, there are still people who need or want to move, and the Lowcountry lifestyle remains an attractive draw — in part because many large cities are coronavirus hotspots. Buyers who live in those locales may be looking to relocate to less densely populated areas, analysts speculate.

“If you are in a big city and now you realize that you can work from home, [Beaufort County] is a nice place to live,” Sampson said.
 
Other buyers want second homes near the beach to use as a retreat in case stay-at-home orders continue, Smith said. Those who brave the real estate market now could get some of the best deals in years.

Mortgage rates are at historic lows, with rates “in the low 3s for a perfect borrower” seeking a 30-year loan, said David Crowell of Mortgage Network on Hilton Head Island.The rate decline is being driven by investors shifting money out of the stock market and into the safety of U.S. Treasury bonds as the coronavirus outbreak has continued. Crowell’s company has also seen a spike in interest in refinancing, especially among homeowners with larger mortgages, he said.

For first-time buyers with good credit and a secure income, purchasing a home now might lower their monthly expenses, said Hilton Head Realtor Blanca Martinez of At Home Realty.

“Buying a house can actually be a way to save money,” she said. “But if you’re struggling, now isn’t the time to do it.

Once buyers and sellers have reached a deal, there’s one final hurdle: closing. Right now, many experts agree that closings should be conducted virtually, using tools like Zoom and DocuSign if all parties agree to this. Hilton Head real estate attorney Rick Haight of Minor, Haight & Arundell, P.C. said power of attorney closings, in which the buyer’s attorney has the authority to sign many of the paper documents required in South Carolina, have been used for years for out-of-state buyers but are becoming more common for buyers who are local.

“I hope more lenders will start allowing them,” he said.

Several local realtors and mortgage lenders said that for now, many real estate investors seem to be waiting in the wings to to see how the prices of homes, lots and villas will be affected by the COVID-19 crisis.  But Crowell said the real estate industry isn’t in danger of collapse.

“Real estate was at the center of the 2008 financial crisis,” he said. “Not this time. In some ways, real estate will be separate from it.”