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Has coronavirus concern kept people away from SF open houses?

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“Buyers are out there, and they want Purell”

A woman’s hand opening the front door of a house. Via Shutterstock

The last place most people want to find themselves amid growing public concern about COVID-19 is in the close quarters of a living room with dozens of strangers walking in off the street—and yet when potential buyers show up to open houses, that’s exactly where they will be.

A handful of realtors tell Curbed SF, anecdotally, that showings have slowed in the last week, while others say that even with “social distancing” advisories in effect, people are still willing to show up with the right motivation.

“On Sunday there were huge crowds,” Vanessa Bergmark, CEO of Red Oak Realty, tells Curbed SF. “Buyers are out there, and they want Purell.”

Of course, last weekend, when COVID-19 concerns jumped to the top of most major news outlets, especially in San Francisco, it was a different world in terms of public sentiment about the story.

“There’s an overwhelming amount of information, and that leads some to believe that it’s a complete panic while others think it’s no big deal,” Paul Kitchen, a realtor with Compass, tells Curbed SF of the market mood this week. “Generally, that uncertainty is bad for business.”

Kitchen says some sellers have delayed listings for homes they had previously been hot to sell, hoping that in a few weeks or months the public will be less anxious.

“For listings that are on the market already, it is certainly a bit unfortunate,” he says.

Derek Jackson, a Vanguard Properties realtor, told Curbed SF that showing for this Waller Street studio in the Upper Haight last weekend had “lower than expected turnout,” but he remains confident that those who did show up were “serious and well-prepared buyers.” He suggests that those with a casual interest are more likely to skip open houses, but that moneyed folks who want to cash in on low interest rates will make an appearance.

However, Marco Carvajal, a fellow Vanguard Properties broker, says that this week brought disquieting developments. “I had a building listed with two units for sale for $1.5 million, and over the weekend we had probably 30 showings and 28 information requests in spite of virus fears,” Carvajal tells Curbed SF. But then as stocks plummeted Monday, only four people followed up, a showing that Carvajal calls “historically low.”

A few other homeowners who were ready to list decided to sell off-market—meaning they listed without any publicity—in order to avoid the dozens of people an open house would attract to their home, he says.

Carvajal adds that some buyers could treat the crisis as an opportunity, noting that interests rates are down and median earners, less worried about market antics, might see the chance to buy where deeper pockets once outbid them.

“If you want to live on a specific block, you have one shot when that property comes up,” he says.

Patrick Carlisle, a market analyst with Compass, tells Curbed SF that it’s too soon to guess how novel coronavirus will influence SF home buying. But in the meantime, he says, “I’m not seeing or hearing of any big negative change.”

Over the past week, there have been more homes falling out of escrow, but it’s too soon to tell if that’s related to COVID-19 concerns. Compass hasn’t seen a decline in listings yet, he says, adding, “To my surprise, I’ve been hearing of open houses that were jammed last weekend.” But things change fast.

Anthemos Georgiades, CEO of SF-based homes site Zumper, said in an emailed statement that the site’s search traffic declined 8 to 10 percent last week. He proposes that “people are postponing going to open houses as they wait to see how the dust settles.”

The National Association of Realtors issued new coronavirus guidelines last week, which stop short of advising against open houses, but do promote “alternative marketing opportunities for your seller’s consideration” like virtual tours, and stress the importance of disinfecting hands and doorknobs alike.

“Do not panic, stay informed, and use your best judgment,” say the guidelines.

Those are good guidelines for buyers too, especially in a digital age when robots give home tours and there are an increasingly diverse suite of options for viewing properties remotely. Everyone has to make those decisions for themselves, but don’t let the sound of opportunity knocking lull you into undue risk.