Buyers remain interested in the local housing market, but the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated Morgan County’s shortage of homes for sale, local real estate agents said.

New listings were down 16.5% in March 2020 from a year ago for Morgan County while pending sales were up 38.6% and closed sales were up 9.1%, according Valley Multiple Listing Service.

More recent data is available for northeast Alabama, from DeKalb County in the east to Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties. Through the week ending April 11, new listings in that region were down 19.8% while pending sales were down 4.9%.

Kim Hallmark, an agent with Re/Max Platinum and president of the Morgan County Association of Realtors, said the Decatur area already had a shortage of homes on the market entering 2020, and that’s made it tougher for buyers to find homes.

“But there are still buyers out there wanting to buy and sellers wanting to sell. It’s still a seller's market,” Hallmark said.

Shawn Garth, of MarMac Real Estate, said the pandemic arrived when the normal spring selling season would have begun.

“About the time people are usually putting their homes on the market, we got hit with the COVID-19,” Garth said. “I think the virus made our low inventory (of homes available for sale) worse.”

Garth and Hallmark said buyers still want to look at properties even though the state is under a stay-at-home order and social distancing remains an issue.

“The buyers aren’t scared,” Garth said. “I’m the one who is afraid, and they’re wanting to get out and look at homes.”

Hallmark said most of her potential buyers want to look at one specific home found on the MLS at a time, but some of the Re/Max agents continue to have clients who want to spend a day looking at multiple listings.

Taking precautions

Real estate agents have taken steps to protect themselves and their clients from the spread of the new coronavirus.

One tool has been to show homes virtually. If a client insists on a visit, agents are asking sellers to leave the lights on or the agents are unlocking the property and turning on the lights before the client arrives to reduce the number of people touching switches. Agents also are asking visitors to touch as few surfaces as possible.

“If the house is empty, I’ll wait outside while they look at it,” Garth said. “If the seller is still living in the house, I’ll tour with them but try to maintain social distancing.”

Lenders, agents and attorneys are conducting many closings remotely using the internet or mail for paperwork and telephone or digital meetings for reviewing documents. Other closings bring buyers and sellers in at separate times to complete the paperwork.

North Alabama is still under a self-imposed suspension of open houses through April 30, and Hallmark said it will likely be after Gov. Kay Ivey issues new directives this week before the board decides whether to extend the ban.

Hallmark said the coronavirus is keeping some sellers from entering the market because their jobs and financial situations have changed.

Hallmark said agents are trying to get hesitant sellers to realize that now is the time to sell while the inventory is low. She said she reminds sellers that a low inventory means an increase in price and competition among buyers. Homes sell more quickly when inventory is low, and multiple offers are more likely.

“In a few months, they could get lost in the large number of homes that flood the market,” Hallmark said.

Low interest rates

Mortgage rates also are conducive to home sales. Interest rates Friday ranged from 2.75% on a 15-year loan to 3.25% on a 30-year, contingent on credit score.

Blake Robbins, senior loan officer of Synovus Bank, said he's been "as busy as I've ever been" lately in dealing with refinancing and purchases because rates are so low.

Previously, the minimum credit score accepted was 620, but Robbins said the Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Administration briefly increased the required score to 660 before dropping back to 640.

"People are still willing to buy," Robbins said.

Limestone County is usually one of the hottest housing markets in the state. Valley MLS reports new listings were up 45.4% in March over last year. Pending sales were up 32% and closed sales were up 8%.

Linda Coons, agent with Crye Leike of Athens, said March was a good month, but she has seen a slowdown in April from buyers and sellers.

“We’re just not getting as many people who want to sell,” Coons said. “We’re not getting any new business.”

Coons said her company is still getting local buyers, but the relocation referrals from out of the state slowed dramatically.

“We’re getting nothing from out of state,” Coon said. “It’s probably because of the job concerns and the travel limits from the virus.”

On the Morgan County Association of Realtors Facebook page, several agents reported getting out-of-state clients who, due to concerns about COVID-19, insist on looking only at vacant homes.

Frank Pate, of Pate Enterprises, said his company focuses mainly on remodels and additions, and he was fortunate to have several projects underway.

“We have had some postpone or go into a holding pattern,” Pate said.

Pate, who is active in the Greater Morgan County Homebuilders Association, said he’s worried about the coming months because the uncertainty of when the pandemic will end is keeping people from starting projects.

“We’ll get past this,” Pate said. “We just don’t know when that will happen.”

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bayne.hughes@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2432. Twitter @DD_BayneHughes.

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