More than 30,000 Western Washington real estate agents have been warned off hosting open houses for the rest of the month to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Northwest Multiple Listing Service, which coordinates homebuying activity in 23 Washington counties, including King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, Monday afternoon disabled features in its online home listing database that allow brokers to “input, search, or view … open house information,” according to an email sent to agents — eliminating agents’ most effective tool to find and advertise upcoming open houses. The group also removed existing open house listings.
The “decision is strongly supported by the Governor’s office,” the email read. Geoff Wood, CEO of Seattle-based brokerage Windermere, previously asked Gov. Jay Inslee to add open houses to the list of events the state has banned, which include most gatherings of more than 50 people.
The stock market plunge and coronavirus pandemic have not slowed home sales activity from February’s white-hot market, brokers say, potentially posing an obstacle to officially mandated social distancing measures.
At open houses over the weekend, some brokers saw hundreds of home shoppers come through the door.
The Bellevue home at 15911 S.E. 42nd Place came on the market Friday, was shown 25 times that day, then was visited by nearly 150 hopeful homebuyers over the weekend, listing agent Michael Syltebo said.
“I think the only thing people are doing is looking at real estate right now,” Syltebo said.
Some hopeful home shoppers may be hoping for a cheaper mortgage after the Federal Reserve cut its key bank lending rate to near zero Sunday.
“My email was full of people asking for 0% mortgages,” said Amie Edmonson, a mortgage lender at Umpqua Bank.
Those buyers are in for a disappointment. The Fed’s rate is only loosely correlated to mortgage rates. In response to surging refinance applications, many banks have actually raised mortgage rates in recent weeks.
Even before the recommended halt on open houses, some brokers predicted homebuying activity would likely slow in coming weeks, as pandemic-induced market pressure dampens economic activity.
However, new research by Zillow suggests any slowdown that does occur may not last long.
During pandemics, home sales activity tends to slow but prices remain stable and markets recover quickly, the Zillow report said.
During the 2003 SARS epidemic, for instance, home prices in Hong Kong did not fall significantly. Sales volume, though, plunged by as much as 72% before returning to normal levels when the epidemic was contained.
Some large Seattle-area brokerages are following the NWMLS’ lead by taking similar steps to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Windermere asked its 6,500 agents to stop holding open houses Monday morning, before the NWMLS announcement.
John L. Scott plans to limit showings of its own listings to appointment-only, and will instruct buyers’ agents not to take clients to open houses.
Stopping open houses may not change the market’s overall dynamics, said Coldwell Banker Bain owner and CEO Bill Riss. He said he’s still evaluating how his brokerage will respond to open house restrictions.
“We’ve listed and sold a lot of houses over the years without the benefit of open houses,” he said. “We seem to sell real estate in spite of that.”