Metro Atlanta home buying, selling jolted in coronavirus pandemic

A home for sale sign is displayed in the yard of Lois and John Schmitt at their home in Powder Springs, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The Schmitts are downsizing their belongings and are finding it hard to get rid of bigger items, like furniture. They said donation sights have stopped taking furniture amid the COVID-19 world pandemic. Their current closing date is April 21.
A home for sale sign is displayed in the yard of Lois and John Schmitt at their home in Powder Springs, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The Schmitts are downsizing their belongings and are finding it hard to get rid of bigger items, like furniture. They said donation sights have stopped taking furniture amid the COVID-19 world pandemic. Their current closing date is April 21.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer, alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer, alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Leni Dubois found the perfect house — an adorable two-bedroom in Woodstock she loved so much that she bid $5,000 over the asking price. Dubois was thrilled when her offer was accepted.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit Georgia.

The loan program Dubois, a self-employed insurance broker, planned to use to finance her purchase was suspended. Without a loan, Dubois couldn’t afford the $195,000 purchase price and she couldn’t find another lender.

“I’m completely heartbroken,” Dubois said of losing the house.

Across metro Atlanta, the coronavirus pandemic has upended the process of buying and selling homes — a $95 billion industry that makes up 16.2% percent of Georgia's economy.

Despite being considered an essential activity under Gov. Brian Kemp’s shelter-in-place order, health concerns and fear of the pandemic’s impact on the economy have brought swift changes to the ways people buy and sell homes.

Industry experts told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they’ve seen many sellers pull properties off the market, and people under contract walk away, sometimes losing their earnest money in doing so. And those who decide to list a property are taking precautions — from virtual showings to coronavirus clauses in contracts.

Closings are being held outdoors, sometimes in parking lots.

Nearly 1,000 metro Atlanta homes that were on the market last month moved to a “hold” status that temporarily pulled them off the market, said Jeremy Crawford, president and CEO of the First Multiple Listing Service, which serves North Georgia and some other geographies.

Crawford said new listings for the last week of March, when spring buying season typically picks up, were down 20% from the same week in 2019.

And showings are down nearly 50% in Georgia from 2019, according to data from ShowingTime, a company that tracks residential real estate showings.

‘Sitting on the hold button’

Winston Etheridge III was looking for a second rental property outside the Perimeter, but pulled back when the company he works for, Asbury Automotive, furloughed 2,300 workers. He still has his job, but he's paid by commission — so there's no telling what his income might be.

"If buyers are out there at this time, they're serious," said Jennifer Pino, presidents of the Atlanta Realtors Association and managing broker of Atlanta Fine Homes Sotheby's International Realty. "Everyone is seeing the effects of this."

Pino said she has seen buyers who no longer qualify for loans because their salaries have been cut. Sellers have been nervous about having strangers in their houses, not knowing what they might touch, she said.

“During this time of crisis, a lot of people are sitting on the hold button,” Pino said. “We are in unprecedented circumstances and you can’t take this lightly.”

Anna Williams knows that firsthand.

Williams, who is under contract on a home in Smyrna, was an hour and a half away from the end of a due diligence period on the West Midtown home she is selling when she received a termination letter from the buyer, who owns a restaurant. She’s had to re-list her house, with the aim of selling it in the next 30 days — an extension the people selling the Smyrna home granted in the hopes that they, too, wouldn’t have to start over.

Not everyone is so lucky.

Deneé Sizemore, a Realtor at Re/Max Around Atlanta, said she worked on a sale that was supposed to close March 27. But six days before that, the buyer lost her job at CNN and scrapped the purchase. The seller kept the earnest money.

Sizemore said she won’t sue for the $38,250 lost commission. She knows the buyer hadn’t intended to back out, but it “kind of crushed” Sizemore financially.

“Right now, we’re in that panic mode with the virus,” she said.

Still, there are people who are moving forward with moving.

Crawford, CEO of the listing service, said there was an increase in lockbox sales at the end of March over the previous week and people remain in the market.

Brad Schambach is one.

Schambach, who lives with his parents in Loganville, is still commuting twice a week to the downtown office where he works as a product developer for Coca-Cola. Schambach planned to live at home until he paid off some loans, which he accomplished in February.

Now, on top of a 46-mile one-way commute, he’s contending with a fuller house. His father is also working from home, and his sister, who was studying to be a physical therapist, is home now, too.

If virtual tours are available, Schambach said he will take them. But he called himself old-fashioned, saying he still wants to see homes in person. So he wears gloves, covers his feet with booties, dons a mask and uses hand sanitizer when entering houses. Schambach compared it to washing to go into a lab.

“It has seemed to be a little on the crazy side,” he said.

For Lois Schmitt, who lives in Powder Springs, that’s an understatement.

Schmitt, 73, wants to be closer to her grandchildren in Gainesville, Fla. She put her house on the market in February and after accepting an offer March 14, is set to close April 21. But she said if she had gotten the offer a few days later, she likely wouldn’t have sold.

The sales process made her anxious, as she walked back into her home after each showing wondering what had been touched. She wiped off all the doorknobs and banisters each time anyone went through.

Now, realtors are recommending people turn all the lights on in their houses and open every door, so no one will have a reason to touch a knob or flip a switch. They’re also asking people if they have a fever or have had contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 before they let them in.

It was comforting, Schmitt said, to see piles of used gloves in a trash can outside the front door. But now she worries about the movers who will touch her belongings and how she can dispose of items she doesn’t need, since many trash haulers have dropped bulk pickup for the duration of the pandemic, and will only take bagged trash in containers.

There’s also the stress that comes from buying her new home, in Florida, without getting the chance to set foot in it.

“Don’t move in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “It’s like camping out in a forest fire.”

Harold Hudson, a closing attorney, said his industry also had to scramble in response to the coronavirus. While closings used to take place in packed conference rooms, he’s now leaving documents in his trunk to meet clients in otherwise empty parking lots where they can sign contracts while remaining apart.

Hudson puts an old Christmas bow on top of his car so he can be easily identified, then watches over FaceTime as buyers or sellers sign, then return documents to his open trunk.

To exchange keys, he leaves them on top of cars.

Some realtors think the market will come back, roaring, this fall, once the immediate threat of the coronavirus has abated. Others are not so sure.

Kristen Mehr, CEO of Truly Fine Homes Atlanta, said she’s petrified of what the future might look like. She needs to sell homes to pay for her own basic needs.

“It is so frightening to me right now,” she said. “With this economy, there’s no way it’s ever going to be the same for a while. This is not a joke.”