(Courtesy Laura Grace Tarpley) The coronavirus is affecting nearly every aspect of American life. If you used to work in an office, you probably work from home now. If you had been planning a trip, you might find ways to grow your vacation fund until you can travel again. If you had been looking for a house to buy — well, what are you supposed to do in response to coronavirus? There haven't been many clear answers.
The process of buying a house changed drastically over just a few days. Volatile interest rates, canceled open houses, and longer wait times have left people scratching their heads. Whether it's your first time buying a home or your fifth time, you probably haven't faced this type of situation before. You may decide to put off buying a home until the pandemic settles down. But if you want to continue with the process, professionals recommend you do four things to adjust to changes caused by the coronavirus. 1. Remember that mortgage rates are volatile right now You might be surprised that mortgage interest rates are changing so frequently in response to the coronavirus. The Federal Reserve has lowered its rate twice in 2020, which has caused interest rates to decrease on everything from credit cards to savings accounts. Shouldn't mortgage rates be lower, too? The federal funds rate affects short-term loan rates more than anything else. Mortgages are long-term loans, usually ranging from 15 to 30 years. There's often a correlation, but the federal funds rate's effects on mortgages aren't as cut and dried as its impact on other types of loans. Instead, mortgage rates heavily rely on demand. For example, when rates were low in early March, lenders were flooded by refinancing applications. Raising mortgage rates helps slow down the stream of applications. "Generally speaking, when the economy is struggling, mortgage rates fall," says Beatrice de Jong, consumer trends expert at Opendoor. "However, the situation we're in now is unprecedented and rates are constantly changing due to the volatile market. Though rates are increasing today, they could decrease tomorrow."De Jong recommends buyers prepare for rates to change and try to remain flexible. 2. Start the process as early as possible "I recommend working with your lender early, even before the offer is accepted," says de Jong. The home buying process is taking longer than usual, and you could end up waiting around if you don't get a jump start. Yes, the influx of refinancing applications has overwhelmed lenders — but that's not the only reason the process is slowing down. Many companies' employees are now working from home, which sometimes hinders them from working as quickly. The coronavirus affects more than just lenders, though. There are slowdowns practically every step of they way. "Take, for example, an appraisal," says Andy Taylor, General Manager of Credit Karma Home. "The appraiser physically has to go out to the house ... Many of them are actually asking to have quarantine clauses built in. They want to know that the home they're going to isn't under quarantine because someone there is sick from this virus that's going around." "The average appraiser is 55 years old," continues Taylor, "so they're 100% in the strike zone of people who might be affected by this." If you're hoping to buy and move into a home by a certain date, you probably want to contact a real estate broker and lender earlier rather than later, just to get the ball rolling. 3. Ask for video and virtual tours Many companies have canceled open houses and tours to prevent the spread of germs. Thankfully, you don't have to just rely on online pictures. You can take a digital tour. "You can essentially live chat with that agent to have them walk you through it," says Taylor. "You can say, 'Hey, I'd love it if we could check out the kitchen now. What kind of countertops does it have? Does the cabinetry have soft-close hinges on it?'" Some companies also have access to technology that provides virtual tours. "They'll come into a house and they'll essentially scan it, and it produces a 3-D model that you can walk through the home — almost like a video game," explains Taylor. Remote buyers have already used this technology in recent years, but it is becoming more widely used as people practice social distancing. The technology is already well-developed and reliable, which might make you feel better about using it in lieu of visiting a home. 4. Find a real estate broker who takes the coronavirus seriously Taylor recommends choosing a broker who is willing to go above and beyond to help you choose a home during this unique time. "You're certainly not going to go buy a house you've only seen pictures of," he says. Tours aren't the only part of the process that should be virtual. Normally, closing on a house is done in person with a notary present. If the state you're living in allows it, Taylor also recommends finding a provider that lets you close on a home digitally.