Do you want to sign the documents for the house closing in your car in the title company’s parking lot?
The question was not a joke.
In fact it was augmented with details of a masked and gloved representative providing me a clipboard with the documents and a pen.
But then another question followed.
Or would you like to meet with a masked and gloved lawyer alone in his office?
Both were asked by our realtor to prepare my wife and me for taking ownership of a new property.
Both also are a peek into the strange new world of real estate transactions — just one of the situations I’ve encountered while buying a new house, moving, and listing my old house during a pandemic.
Obviously it wasn’t planned that way.
My wife and I had owned our former home for 16 years. It’s in good condition and served us well. But we had decided a few years ago to move to a place that fit new needs and interests.
And with savings, good credit history, and the decision to sell our then-current home after buying a new one, there was nothing to hold us back.
So in 2019 we contacted realtor Linda Kelly, a Smires Realty agent with 17 years of real estate experience.
We picked her because we knew her through the regional arts community — she’s the wife of artist Tom Kelly — and developed a comfortable and honest relationship.
In a matter of days she had a number of regional properties for us to look at and consider.
In early 2020 we had focused on Bordentown City and started to get more serious.
Meanwhile COVID-19 also started getting more serious and started taking over the headlines.
While we did not take the virus lightly, we also pushed it to the back of minds and kept inspecting and passing on properties.
Then we found something that fit our criteria and announced our interest to buy with a strong and acceptable offer on March 15.
But the next day New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy also made an unprecedented announcement, an executive order that mandated social distancing practices and closed schools, entertainment venues, and non-essential retail businesses to stop the spread of the virus.
It also made us stop and consider what to do. Could we move forward under Murphy’s mandate? And should we move forward while an invisible menace is spreading through our state and communities?
After Kelly boned up on what the order meant for the real estate business, she advised us that we could continue, but there were two caveats.
One was that we would have to comply with social distancing practices. The other was that with businesses closing and people working from home, we were moving into uncharted territory.
We then took stock of our situation. We had a deal, a pre-approved mortgage, and interest rates were low. So it made sense to continue.
But what about the ethics of doing so while our fellow citizens are dying, getting ill, or being laid off from work or furloughed?
The answer was that by continuing we would make a positive statement about the future and support community businesses.
So we decided to move ahead with the purchase and immediately put our current home on the market.
We did not anticipate how strange and oddly challenging it was going to be compared to our last house purchase.
The strange came fast. Instantly everyone we were dealing with wore a mask and showed their awkwardness by fidgeting with the coverings to make them fit more comfortably. (The only exception was the owner of the moving company, who met us video-face to video-face on Zoom during his virtual estimate-making tour of our house.)
Included in this parade of masked participants were home inspectors, movers, home repairers, a painter, and a house cleaner — none of whom I would recognize if I ever met them again.
And since we had decided to close at the lawyer’s office, there was the eerie experience of being greeted by a masked receptionist as we entered the office and then being ushered into a conference room where one masked man with gloves was waiting alone for us — unlike our last house purchase where we sat with our realtor, the sellers, the attorney, and an assistant.
While all of this was becoming more and more like a strange dream of a world where no one has a face, it got even stranger when a masked Verizon technician arrived at our new home to install the telephone and internet.
Following Verizon’s COVID-19 related protocol of not entering homes, he stood out front as he used a smartphone to instruct me to find the network box and send him email images.
When it was clear that there was a problem, the technician then stationed himself at the basement window and started giving me instructions on how to change wires.
When I asked if there were any potential of me getting electrocuted (a valid question), he sighed and said, “If we didn’t have the virus I could be in there and fix the whole problem in a short period of time.”
But there was the virus and it was wreaking havoc on the state.
Instead of thinking about it, my wife and I are trying to pack and discovering that formerly simple moving-related tasks were now a challenge.
That included something as mundane as picking up moving boxes. With closed shops or limited hours as well as state-enforced driving restrictions, it was suddenly a planned effort.
Then there was the downsizing practice of donating. But with Goodwill, Salvation Army, Trenton Rescue Mission, and numerous other donation centers closed, we had to get creative.
Clothes? We had to make a list of donation bins we spotted on our travels and plan night drop-offs.
Books? With libraries that host used books sales closed, I remembered that used book stores could probably use several boxes of books in great condition and contacted Classics Books in Trenton.
But what about 200 VHS tapes? While I could have thrown them in the trash, I wanted to be environmentally conscious — after all I had assigned and edited several U.S. 1 articles on recycling.
And in the midst of a pandemic and a move, I found myself on what felt like an absurd search for green alternatives for a worthless collection of tapes that ranged from Ingmar Bergman to “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
After exploring several options and finding out that I’d have to pay a hefty sum to get rid of them, I found a New Brunswick recycler who welcomed them.
But, once again, I needed to plan a delivery without violating the state’s travel restrictions.
Curious about what others were going through and what was happening in real estate market, I asked Kelly what factors were making her job odder and more difficult.
“We must think safety first,” she replied.
She then added some examples. “There are hold harmless releases, being signed by both buyers and sellers. This makes it evident that people have safety in the forefront on both sides.
“(And) now it is customary to use personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, and shoe coverings when looking at homes being offered. People are good with this as they understand it is for the safety of all involved.”
As for other changes, she said, “More sellers are asking to see mortgage pre-approvals to ensure the potential buyers are qualified financially. This minimizes exposure to only qualified visitors to see the home.
Kelly said virtual video home tours were also becoming a new trend and “will stay popular in the future as it can make it more efficient time-wise, to rule homes in or out of consideration for buyers.”
But, she said, “Buying and selling of a family home is a very emotional ordeal. We know this. People want that personal guidance, ear to listen and shoulder to cry on. They rely on our expertise. We still must be there for the clients. No matter how advanced technology is today, the trust our clients have in us as a real estate professional can never be replaced.”
As for how the virus was affecting real estate traffic, Kelly said, “The market was super crazy in the beginning of this year. January and February were record months for New Jersey. With the announcement of COVID-19 and when the initial shut down was enforced, it became quiet for a couple weeks.”
But, she continued, “Now with limited inventory, the seasonal spring market, and low mortgage rates, prices are starting to rise and many homes are receiving multiple offers and selling over asking price. The other trend we are noticing is the exiting of the cities and densely populated areas. The new buyer demands are in-home offices, more square footage, and now in-ground pools.”
Talking about how the presence of the virus had affected her personally, she said, “I was always a germ-aware person to start with. Wiping off door handles and being aware of contact points while showing properties was always in the forefront and a minor obsession with me. So I am even more prepared and conscious of this factor of safety.”
But something she could not prepare for was an office closed for social distancing. “I am a full-time realtor, and I like to be in the office every morning to make my calls, do my research, and start my day. In the office I get energized with my colleagues. We share ideas, experiences, and insights on specific homes, neighborhoods, and strategies. We also help each other with recommendations for lenders, tradespeople, inspectors, and legal needs. I miss the camaraderie and the group guidance.”
Then mixing the professional and the personal she said, “The bottom line is that people are still buying and selling. The full-time agents like myself need to work and provide for our families. The part-time agents may be able to sit on the sidelines a little, but I think it’s easier to keep momentum than to gain momentum. Just as in 2008 with that recession, the market will come roaring back, and those with momentum will hit the ground running.”
One difference, she said, is she has to be safe and mentally strong for clients — and anticipate the look on their faces when they are asked if they want to sit in their car in a title company’s parking lot and read and sign a real estate contract.
By the Numbers
The trends that Smires agent Linda Kelly cites in Dan Aubrey’s account of his mid-pandemic move from Hamilton to Bordentown are reflected in data on April home sales recently released by New Jersey Realtors, the Trenton-based trade group.
Across the board, all numbers were down compared to April, 2019, except for prices, which have increased.
“It’s a case of supply and demand,” said 2020 New Jersey Realtors President Angela Sicoli about the rise in costs. “Far before this pandemic, we had an inventory shortage throughout the state and now, compounded with a large percentage of people who were ready to sell in March but have put their plans on pause, you are seeing buyers who have far less to choose from. With only a small pool of homes to choose from buyers are sometimes paying slightly above asking or finding themselves in a situation with multiple offers on the property.”
In New Jersey new listings were down 63.1 percent year over year, with 7,272 listings added. A total of 35,714 homes were for sale in April, a 35.6 percent decrease from the year prior. The median sale price, however, rose to $333,000, a 14.4 percent increase from last April.
In Mercer County there were 202 new listings of single-family homes in April, compared to 597 in April, 2019, a 66.2 percent decrease. Median sale price, however, rose from $261,500 to $283,750, and homes spent on average five fewer days on the market.
Statistics are similar for townhouse and condo units. New listings dropped from 134 to 55, while the median price rose from $168,000 to $195,000. The average time spent on the market dropped drastically, from 79 days in 2019 to 52 days this year.
Finally, new listings in adult communities dropped from 23 last year to 13 this year, while median price rose from $315,000 to $320,000. Such homes spent an average of 40 days on the market, compared to 54 last year.