By Mary Shanklin.
My financial guy paused when I told him I was going to sell my house and buy another one in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, we were under home isolation orders. Understandably, he said, “Are you sure you want to do that at a time when people are supposed to stay at home?”
How COVID-19 ultimately affects our boom-bust real estate market remains to be seen. Rising unemployment in our tourist town is likely to push down demand in the residential sector. In April, we saw sales down more than a quarter from a year earlier. Yet prices were up and buyers had less negotiating power, according to an Orlando Regional Realtors report.
For several reasons, we are unlikely to see the foreclosure bust that hit Central Florida starting in 2007. First, the market isn’t propped up with fundamentally flawed mortgages that led to the record downturn. Second, the realities of home isolation will push people toward new spaces.
During this year’s stay-home time, employees have balanced work and family on their knees at the kitchen island. Parents with schoolchildren have longed for neighborhood pools and parks to open. Renters in high-rise apartments have donned masks to brave elevators. Apartment fitness centers have been locked. New Yorkers have eyed exit strategies. In short, home isolation has forced people to take a harder look at their nests.
For my husband and me, the house we crafted so carefully just four years ago in a front porch-style neighborhood of Winter Garden now seemed claustrophobic for two working adults. Voices echoed off walls as my husband and I both “Zoomed.” Noise grew as neighbors partied beside their pool. Our outlet became the outdoors, and our back yard was more like a cute courtyard than a peaceful oasis.
A friend who lived nearby texted about a house that had just listed in our neighborhood. It featured an abundance of private space inside and out. My husband grudgingly came with me to see it on a Friday night. Let’s face it: Everyone contemplates moving when they’re stuck at home sharing walls, but the fantasy ends when we wake up to the hassle of moving.
On the front porch, we found blue shoe covers. Inside, a bottle of hand sanitizer was waiting for us. We toured the house and liked what we saw, so we asked for a second showing three days later. The Realtor let us know we weren’t the only ones going back for another round.
Despite the competition, we snagged this kinder, gentler abode. Then we had to sell our place.
My financial advisor’s cautions echoed in my mind as we priced our house just below our Realtor’s suggestions. During the next two days, a parade of buyers competed for showing times. We “Lysoled” door handles, put out masks and provided hand sanitizer.
This was not the COVID-19 house-listing picture we had feared. Multiple full-price offers came. Buyers wrote imploring letters about how they would love to raise their children in our house. After we picked the buyer most likely to close on our timetable, we got a backup offer. One friend told me, “You left money on the table.” A different friend told me, “Lions eat. Tigers eat. And greedy pigs who want more get eaten.”
Two doors down from us, a neighbor had listed her house during the spring. Two executive chefs quickly signed a contract. Then they lost their jobs because of restaurant shutdowns at the beginning of the pandemic and the deal went bust.
Things happen, and Central Florida’s unemployment rate is likely to shift the equilibrium in what has long been a seller’s market. But even in uncertain times, we are a mobile society and the urge to move calls us — in ways that not even trusted financial gurus might understand.
Mary Shanklin is a freelance journalist based in Central Florida and the founder and publisher of Fifth Estate Media.