For Sale

A "For Sale" sign sits in a yard on Whispering Oaks Dr. in Washington Monday, Sept. 21.

Against a backdrop of a growing number of COVID-19 infections and deaths, of parents working remotely while kids are attending school in the next room and the sudden stop-and-start of businesses, the coronavirus pandemic has had an unexpected — and seismic — impact on Franklin County’s residential real estate.

The virus has turned out to be an unexpected boom for the local housing market, according to multiple area real estate agents.

“You might think that with people stuck at home due to the pandemic that home sales would grind to a halt, but it hasn’t been that way here. I think if you ask anyone in real estate they are going to say they have been incredibly busy,” said Stephen Flannery, a Realtor with Realty Executives Premiere in Washington and a past president for the local Realtors association.

“The biggest downside for the real estate market here in Franklin County is that there has not been enough inventory to meet the demand we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Flannery said.

“I attribute it to low interest rates. More people are looking to upgrade, but because of COVID-19 we are not seeing the inventory,” said Mark Thayer, broker-manager with Coldwell Banker Premier in Washington. “We are seeing multiple offers and people going over list price and putting more earnest money down to show they are serious buyers.”

That scenario is evident in the numbers. Last year, 1,018 residential homes and condos were sold from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, according to Multiple Listing Service (MLS) data for Franklin County, which includes just reported sales. That compares with 985 homes during the same period this year. Last year, the average home sale price was $191,243; this year it’s $206,626. Average days on the market last year were 73; this year it’s 81.

“Last year was a good year for our office, and this year we are on track to do that or better despite COVID-19,” Thayer said, adding his office closed 70 deals last month. “It looks like a boom this year, especially since I don’t see interest rates going up any time soon.”

Jacob Stallmann said the region’s real estate has been extremely competitive in recent months.

“Really for the past two or three years, we have had low inventory. That means that people who have been looking for a long time are striking out because of the competition. This market has been incredibly high-active,” said Stallmann, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Premier Group in Washington.

“I’ve had clients who have been looking for that perfect house literally drop everything they are doing to get in an offer made on a house that just entered the market,” Stallmann said. “It is just that competitive that people can’t wait a day or two to schedule a home tour and make an offer.”

Local Realtors said a variety of factors are contributing to the buying frenzy, including more homebuyers moving from urban centers and suburban communities to more rural communities like Washington, Union, New Haven, St. Clair and Pacific.

“Washington is a hot market right now,” Flannery said. “You can say that is because of new home construction, the new subdivisions or a combination of other factors that is driving up home sales, but Washington’s real estate market is really hot right now. ... Washington has always been a strong market. You have a lot of unique homes and a great community feel throughout the city.”

Flannery also said buyers are motivated by record-low interest rates. Mortgage rates last week hit a new record low for the 30-year-fixed of 3.05 percent, according to a weekly Bankrate survey of large lenders.

Derek Schriewer, a Realtor with RE/MAX Results in Washington, said his office is “definitely seeing a lot more traffic, especially on the weekends, of prospective home buyers who are coming from outside of the area and looking for property to buy.”

Stallmann said he too is seeing a number of clients who are moving from urban centers and hoping to buy a few acres in the country or a vacant lot in the city.

“Even though building costs are at an all-time high, lots of people are looking for a place to build their dream home,” Stallmann said.

Lumber prices are up dramatically, as are other building costs, according to Lisa Brown Greife, president of LNE LLC, which owns Sawgrass Apartments, other area rental properties and the soon-to-open Sirens Hotel in downtown Washington.

Greife said lumber was in short supply during construction of the Sirens as mills shut down due to the coronavirus, driving demand and prices up.

“Lots of people (and) companies are looking to buy rental property because building prices keep going up, and it’s pricing some people out of building,” Brown said. “It’s not just Washington. Union is the same way. It’s a hot market there, too.”

Schriewer agreed that Union is a hot market as well. “It is not just in Washington that we are seeing these homebuyers. We are seeing them in Union’s downtown near the square, where there has been a decent amount of traffic, and in New Haven, where we are seeing prices ease up as the number of prospective buyers there continues to increase.”

Some common popular features that prospective homebuyers are seeking, according to these local Realtors, include walkable communities, patio spaces for outdoor dining, community events and activities, quality parks and recreational opportunities.

While COVID-19 has ignited the real estate market, it’s also changed the homebuying experience. Prospective buyers are viewing digital photo galleries and doing video tours instead of going to open houses, which have been almost non-existent since March as health-conscious sellers opt to go to private showings.

According to Stallmann, however, even private showings have changed.

“Depending on the seller’s personal preference, we have seen everything from requiring the Realtor and prospective homebuyers to wear masks and gloves to limiting the amount of touches that happen at a showing,” he said. “For example, it is fairly common for people in a showing — prior to COVID-19 — to open up closet doors, cabinet doors and the pantry to see the size of the space. Now, some home sellers are asking the Realtor to do all of those upfront steps of turning on all of the light switches, propping open those doors and sanitizing everything once the showing is over.”