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LOWCOUNTRY REAL ESTATE SALES CONTINUE WITH PRECAUTIONS

Lowcountry real estate sales have dipped since the novel coronavirus outbreak began, but low mortgage interest rates coupled with social-distancing sales strategies are enticing some buyers, 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 changed. 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 houses one step further by hosting them on Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms. 

Local real estate agents 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 and wipe down doorknobs when they leave. Either the agent or the seller turns on the lights and opens the doors. 

Those who brave the real estate market now could get some of the best deals in years.

– DAVID CROWELL, MORTGAGE NETWORK 

Agents and their clients can 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. Many rental villas on Hilton Head Island are now fully booked, so the best time to see them may be during the turnover period when they have just been cleaned. 

And 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 while social distancing and fear of air travel 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 low rates are driven by investors shifting money out of the stock market and into the safety of U.S. Treasury bonds, and economists expect them to stay low for several months at least.

Crowell’s company, like many others locally and nationally, 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 of the parties involved may want closings to be conducted virtually, using tools like Zoom and DocuSign. Hilton Head real estate attorney Rick Haight 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.

Local realtors say that most of the buyers they’re working are acquiring the property for their own use. They believe real estate investors are largely waiting to see how prices will be affected. So far, Lowcountry home prices have remained strong, and Crowell said the 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.”