Crisis? Not for North Carolina’s real estate market

‘It’s such a huge relief’


CHAPEL HILL – Cindy Billings, a longtime Chatham resident, put her Governor’s Village home on the market on March 20 and received a final offer by Mother’s Day. The home was put back on the market on May 29 after the deal fell through. But by June 1, a home contract was signed.

The closing is scheduled for June 22.

“It was such a relief,” Billings said. “It’s not fun to be paying an extra mortgage, and because of COVID, I was unsure as to how many people were actually going to be out looking.”

Instead, a satisfactory final offer left Billings feeling “so fortunate.” Her experience reveals a real-time phenomenon: we may be experiencing a global crisis — leading to immense uncertainty and record unemployment numbers — but it seems that North Carolina’s statewide real estate market hasn’t gotten the sobering memo.

According to recent data from the residential listings database, the year-over-year median listing price for Chatham homes has decreased by a smidge more than $14,000: from $579,950 last April to $565,800 this April. The data showed that 269 Chatham homes were on the market this April, compared to 369 homes last April. Homes spent about 10 more days on the market this April compared to last year: 88 days on the market compared to 78.5 days last April.

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Jill Ehrenfeld, the real estate agent who helped sell Billings’ home, has worked in Chatham for about 12 years. She has a front-and-center view of the market and sees Chatham benefiting from the unexpectedly smooth pace of home sales.

“I’m still selling homes,” she says. “We’re bringing great people into Chatham County. We have a fabulous story to tell about Chatham County, and people who are here love it, and everybody else wants to be here.”

But that assessment comes with nuance. Particularly, Ehrenfeld says she is seeing a seller’s market for homes under $400,000. Those homes are usually sold quickly and garner multiple bids. For homes listed over $400,000, she says, it’s more of a buyer’s market.

“Because [with homes] over $400,000, we have more people who are still living in their house,” she said. “Now, if it’s vacant and easy to see, that’s one thing. But if the person is living in it, particularly if it’s a person who has any underlying health issues, they don’t want people walking in their homes.”

The pandemic has complicated the day-to-day reality of the realty business. Ehrenfeld, who owns two real estate companies, is pivoting to virtual home-tour experiences and insisting that prospective homebuyers wear face masks when they tour homes. She makes sure that a few cabinet doors and drawers are opened before prospective buyers enter homes, so that they can look inside without touching the handles. Her office provides face masks, gloves and booties for home tours.

Through it all, Ehrenfeld is focused on a primary goal: selling homes as quickly as possible. This way, she reasons, she can mitigate the risk of contamination and illness.

To sell Billings’ Governor’s Village property as quickly as possible, the home underwent some upgrades. It was repainted, some of the flooring was replaced, and new countertops were installed in the bathrooms. It also received a new roof and air conditioning unit.

“And then that was when COVID really started, was that third week of March,” Billings said. “We did have people come because the house was empty and staged. So from that standpoint, people didn’t have to worry about coming into a home where who knows what germs were there. So we actually had quite a few showings at that time.”

Ehrenfeld said that, in light of COVID-19, vacant homes “are easier to sell.” If the current homeowners aren’t living in the home, neither they nor prospective buyers need to worry as much about contamination. Data from Triangle Area Residential Realty seems to echo this: compared to April 2019, April 2020 “new construction” home sales decreased by just over 3 percent, while “re-sales” decreased by almost 12 percent.

Before the pandemic, Ehrenfeld said that multiple parties of interested buyers could walk through a house simultaneously. Now, she only allows one group of buyers — and their real estate agent — in a home at a time.

COVID-19’s impact on retirement homes is also making things more complicated for aging homeowners who had been planning to transition into retirement communities.

“Now with all of the issues with the retirement homes and the COVID …,” Ehrenfeld said, “you now have people who were thinking of selling because they want to go to retirement home doing a rethink and going, ‘Do we really want to go to a retirement home? Or are we better off just aging in place, and living in our current home?’”

But that might become less of a concern in light of a growing trend: virtual home tours. Using 3-D photography tools or video communication like Apple’s FaceTime feature, real estate agents can help buyers see a home without stepping inside. West coast buyers considering Chatham homes are “not interested in flying right now,” Ehrenfeld said. Some are instead requesting virtual showings. In a few instances, buyers have submitted offers without physically seeing the home.

“I have another set of buyers...where we wrote up an offer and she did not even see [the home]. The husband was available to go to see the home and then through FaceTime and everything we showed her the home. They wrote up an offer and are purchasing a home that she didn’t even see at first.”

Moving forward, Ehrenfeld believes virtual showings like these will “continue to be more popular than they ever were before.” She sees these new techniques as positive: just another way to “answer to the demands of the consumers.”

“So if the consumer wants to do more virtual looking at homes, let’s do that,” she said. “Let’s do it in spades.”

In the meantime, Billings advises fellow home-sellers to “hang in there.”

“I would say pick the right agent and just be patient,” she said. “Because there are people who are looking and are going to be buying. This is going to get better, especially now.”


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