By Jacob Passy
The coronavirus pandemic sent shock waves throughout the real-estate industry. But does that make now a good time to put in an offer on a property?
The answer to that question will largely depend on what you plan to do with the home — particularly if you’re an investor.
“It’s a good time to buy an investment property if you can find inventory at a good price,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president of market economics at real-estate website Auction.com.
‘You shouldn’t expect a low price and that you may not have a lot of options to choose from.’
Danielle Hale, chief economist at Realtor.com
But finding homes at a good price could be something of a challenge.
When the coronavirus pandemic began to trigger stay-at-home orders across the country, it upended the home-buying process.
Companies that specialize in buying and selling homes for a profit put a temporary pause on operations, and real-estate agents had to innovate, moving toward virtual open houses and remote closings to adhere to social-distancing protocols.
With the backdrop of these changes — plus the rapid rise in unemployment — sellers responded by pulling their listings. New listings were down more than 44% in April compared with the previous year, according to data from Realtor.com.
That meant there were roughly 189,000 fewer homes on the market last month than during the same period in 2019. At the same time, new-home construction slowed in April as many builders became concerned about the state of the housing industry amid the pandemic.
“That doesn’t mean it’s a bad time to buy an investment property, just that you shouldn’t expect a low price and that you may not have a lot of options to choose from,” said Danielle Hale, chief economist at Realtor.com.
Before the coronavirus crisis began, economists had warned that the U.S. housing market was starved for supply. Years of slow home-building activity in the wake of the financial crisis has meant that the number of homes for sale was falling well short of demand.
The apprehension among home sellers and builders could exacerbate that problem — especially if the housing market sees a V-shaped recovery. Indeed, there is already evidence that buyers are returning to the market, particularly in states where stay-at-home orders have been loosened.
Another factor making it harder for people to score a deal on an investment property: The lack of foreclosures.
Another factor making it harder for people to score a deal on an investment property: The lack of foreclosures, due to foreclosure moratoriums . “We’re seeing many investors who primarily acquired at the courthouse foreclosure auction migrate to buy bank-owned (REO) homes via online auction, which also provides the added benefit of allowing them to buy with no in-person interaction,” Blomquist said. The added competition for these homes could drive up the prices.
However, there are some categories of properties that could start to come on the market in droves in the coming months. The downturn in travel has wiped out the bookings for people who owned vacation homes and rent them out on websites like Airbnb and VRBO.
Many of these people relied on the income generated from these short-term rentals to pay for their mortgage. “I don’t think many of those folks have the reserves that Marriott or that Hilton does,” Glenn Kelman, Chief Executive of Redfin /zigman2/quotes/203726414/composite RDFN -1.17% told MarketWatch. “Investors who own Airbnb properties are looking for immediate liquidity.”
Similarly, many mom-and-pop landlords are struggling as tenants miss rent payments. Like vacation-home owners, those payments tend to go directly toward the mortgage. Savvy investors could find a solid buying opportunity by making an attractive offer to these property owners.
‘Looking at the housing market right now, it’s hard to say that prices are low.’
Danielle Hale, chief economist at Realtor.com
But investors in the housing market should also consider their end goal. Those looking to buy a home and hold onto it in the long term, particularly as a rental property, won’t face as much risk. Indeed, 64% of investors who primarily buy investment properties as rentals said they planned to increase or keep their acquisitions, despite the pandemic, according to a recent survey from Auction.com.
It’s a different question for someone looking to buy a home and then immediately flip it. That could turn into a very risky bet, given that it’s not clear where real-estate prices will go. “For investments, you always want to buy low and sell high,” Hale said. “Looking at the housing market right now, it’s hard to say that prices are low.”
While many economists predict that home prices will continue to rise, much will depend on the economy’s ability to bounce back from the pandemic. Home price appreciation has slowed so far, Hale said, but prices are still rising.
“What makes this time unique in recent history — and truly unprecedented — is the uncertainty in the weeks and months ahead,” said Mike DelPrete, an independent real-estate industry analyst. “No one knows with any degree of certainty what will happen. There are a lot of unknowns, and the overall pandemic situation has to play its hand.”