A for-sale sign sits outside of a townhome on Fulton Avenue in 2019.
A for-sale sign sits outside of a townhome on Fulton Avenue in 2019. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Shortly after real estate agent Libby Ross listed her client’s far Northside home in mid-March, San Antonio officials reported 25 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the community and the governor declared a state of disaster.

“We listed the home right as the crisis was beginning,” said Ross, a team leader at the Ross Group. “We did see a decrease in showings for probably two or three weeks. But then we did have in-person showings.”

Those “touchless showings,” when homeowners leave all the lights on and the interior doors open to minimize surface touches and potential buyers wear masks while inside the home, have become more common, she said.

But on Thursday, the buyers closed on their new Rogers Ranch home, having made an offer without ever seeing the house in person. As physicians relocating to San Antonio from another state, the buyers were not able to physically visit the four-bedroom, four-bath home until the day before they closed, said Jeff Wendel, a realtor with the Levi Rogers Real Estate Group.

Wendel had walked his clients through the home using FaceTime. That’s also not uncommon, he said, especially for military servicemembers moving to San Antonio from outside the country and during a traditionally busy season for home showings and sales.

But the pandemic is bringing new challenges for both buyers and sellers.

While total home sales in San Antonio were up 4 percent in March from the previous month, nationwide, existing home sales fell in March following a February that saw significant nationwide gains, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Then came April, a turning point in the pandemic and the economy with governments imposing travel restrictions and social distancing requirements, and businesses closing their doors.

Last year in San Antonio, residential real estate transactions were brisk in April, with a total of 3,003 homes sold and 3,182 sales pending, and May produced another 3,608 sales, plus 4,779 new listings, according to the San Antonio Board of Realtors (SABOR).

This April, home buying and selling slowed somewhat, with total sales reaching 2,748, according to SABOR. The average days on the market was 61, one fewer than the previous year.

Pending sales for the month of April are at 2,652, according to the SABOR report, an indication that home buying and selling is still on the move, even amidst a pandemic.

“We are still seeing movement and progress in the housing market in San Antonio, especially when compared with the state and other parts of the country,” said Kim Bragman, chairman of the board at SABOR. “We have to remember the magnitude of what we have experienced across the world and expect that we will see some numbers that change the trend, but we are optimistic when looking at the big picture that momentum will keep driving forward in the housing market.”

The month of May and the coming summer could be the bellwether. Last year, May and July had the highest number of new listings, with July posting a total of 10,763 active listings.

Currently, there are 9,498 existing homes for sale in San Antonio – a slight increase from March – with 3,543 newly listed in April. Last year in April, there were 10,031 total active listings and in May.

Ross has four of those active listings. “Which is down from probably 15 that I should have right now,” she said. “I usually keep 15 to 20 and just cycle through them.”

But sellers are nervous right now, she said.

“In the beginning, even before the sheltering order came out, we had normal showings for the first week or two, then it dropped off significantly as everyone really hunkered down at home,” Ross said. “But then it started back up … we had probably 10 homes on the market early this year, and they’re all sold. So people did not stop buying houses. People stopped putting their houses on the market.”

Houses that were already listed for sale when the pandemic began to spread across the U.S. have likely sold, she added, resulting in a very low inventory now.

“In the last three weeks, we’ve been looking at the statistics in various neighborhoods where we knew we had listings coming,” Ross said. “[Homes] that had been sitting for 250 days are under contract. So that was a testament to how low the inventory was [because] this stuff that was still hanging around is selling.”

Additionally, record-low mortgage rates should be attracting buyers. The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.28 percent during the week ending May 14. A year ago, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 4.07 percent.

For those reasons, Ross has been encouraging tentative sellers to put their homes on the market rather than waiting out the pandemic.

“I have one in Terra Bella … we’ve probably already had six showings and we’ve been on the market less than a week, and I think there’s an offer coming in on that one,” Ross said. “So, for sellers, we’re encouraging them that even though they might still be a little wary, we can do this safely.”

Showcasing homes with video is one of those safety precautions. Open houses also are being held with visitors asked to use hand sanitizer and wear face masks, and limiting the number of people who enter at one time.

A survey by the National Association of Realtors revealed that 92 percent of their members said home sellers have made changes because of the coronavirus, including stopping open houses or requiring all those who enter the home to take appropriate precautions before entering.

But marketing and safely showing a home is just the first hurdle. Ross said one agent in her firm recently had three offers fall through because the buyers were unexpectedly furloughed from their jobs.

Distressed sales – foreclosures and short sales – represented 3 percent of all home sales in March, according to an April report by the National Association of Realtors. That’s up from 2 percent in February, but unchanged from 3 percent in March 2019.

The full scope of the impact on home sales in a tanking economy – in which 36.5 million Americans are unemployed – has yet to be revealed.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.