Video tours? Suburbs? Coronavirus changes how and where we buy homes

Jessica Chamorro’s dream of owning her first home was upended in March after she was furloughed from her catering job at a hotel chain in Tampa, Florida.

She and her husband, who have three children, had just started their pre-approval process to purchase a home this summer when the pandemic hit. Now their plans have been put on hold after the hotel industry was battered by travel restrictions and lockdowns. They are currently stuck in a 1,000-square-foot rental that they had been staying in temporarily to stash money away for a down payment.

“I feel like the rug has been pulled out from under us,” Chamorro, 38, says. “Our goal was to get out. Now we’re stuck in this tiny house. It worries me because we were already living on top of each other to save money. I don’t know if I’ll even have a job to go back to.”

Like Chamorro, millennials and other younger Americans starting families and hitting their professional stride were poised this spring to achieve another milestone — buying their first home. Then the coronavirus hit, shuttering open houses, delaying deals, and causing would-be buyers to push pause as they worried about their health and the fate of their jobs.

Now, applications to buy a home are again on the rise as states lift orders to stay inside. But the pandemic has altered how residential property is bought and sold, changes that aren’t likely to disappear any time soon and that could reshape the American dream long after the current crisis has passed.

A growing number of Americans are considering fleeing cities for the suburbs, to put more distance between themselves and their neighbors. Video home tours, a trend that was already increasing, may become routine.

And rather than gathering in a courthouse or office conference room, more and more buyers and sellers are signing documents remotely instead.

“All the technologies we’ve built for visualizing a home and virtualizing the closing process will just keep growing in importance,” says Glenn Kelman, CEO of the national brokerage Redfin.

The coronavirus has changed how Americans buy and sell homes.

Online searches for housing in small towns are growing at nearly twice the rate as queries for major metropolitan areas, he says. “Prior to this pandemic, the housing affordability crisis was already driving people from large cities to small,” Kelman says. “Now more permissive policies around remote work, and a rising wariness about close quarters will likely accelerate that trend.”

The new reality will greet many of the buyers and sellers easing back into a thawing market.