While it’s not a priority for many, there are some who wonder if they can still buy a home right now, considering we’re all practising social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The short answer is yes.
But, of course, there’s a longer answer, too…
It’s certainly not business as usual for builders or real estate agents. But most are adapting with surprising swiftness to offer as much customer service as they can to assist buyers.
And whether or not to move forward with a home purchase will come down to a buyer’s comfort level.
What’s changed for new-build homes
Builder sales offices and model homes are closed, although most builders have switched to full virtual interactions to serve clients.
“It’s been extremely busy just adjusting to that, putting systems in place, communicating to staff, to customers,” says Tanya Buckley, who is vice-president of sales and marketing for Cardel Homes.
New measures include electronic signatures, virtual appointments, video conferencing, online chats, e-transfers, wire transfers and virtual tours.
And Cardel, along with some other builders, does not intend to stop releasing new lots “to signal to the market we’re open for business, but always being mindful that we’re encouraging best practices,” Buckley says.
Others such as Minto, which is one of Ottawa’s largest builders, have chosen to postpone new lot releases, although lots that are already available can still be purchased.
“Some people have put a pause on major purchases until (things return to normal),” says Brent Strachan, who is division president of Minto Communities Ottawa. “But, in the meantime, we are still reaching out to those people on our lists who were interested in buying a new home and making sales.”
Is it feasible to buy a home when you can’t tour models and see things?
Absolutely, says Buckley, but “it’s going to come down to the consumer’s comfort. We can convey the same information over a video conference as we can standing in front of you. The same information can be shared… What obviously can’t happen is the physical walk-through of a home right now.”
Buyers who had already done much of their research and legwork before social distancing measures kicked in will likely have a higher comfort level, as they would have more familiarity with a particular builder or project, and have probably already toured the model homes.
But the circumstances buyers find themselves in now are no different than what long-distance buyers have always faced.
“We’ve had to deal with this for out-of-town clients anyway,” says Buckley. Now it’s just more so. “A lot of what we’re talking about setting up, we’re going to keep in place… I don’t see the practices we’re putting in place as being temporary.”
For any new releases, there certainly won’t be lineups at the sales centre but, again, measures are being put into place. Cardel, for instance, will ask buyers to express interest electronically. It will then hold a lottery on the release date, reach out to potential buyers in order of selection and give them the opportunity to put down a lot deposit.
All of it will be done electronically, followed by a video meeting and electronic signing. “It will be interesting to see what kind of initial response we get,” Buckley says. “Are you going to throw your hat in the ring?”
Because buyers can’t drop into the sales centre to get information, it will be important to sign up for email notifications from builders and watch builder websites, social media feeds and advertising platforms to stay up to date on new releases.
Understanding floor plans
More than ever, being able to decipher a floor plan and appreciate room dimensions is important when you can’t physically walk through the home. But this is a talent many find difficult.
To give you something to compare a floor plan to, sketch out the layout of your current home on paper, then measure the width and length of each room and note that on your layout.
Then, when you’re looking at builder floor plans, you’ll have some context for how big or small the spaces are.
The province has declared residential construction an essential service, meaning construction sites can remain open as long as they follow strict health and safety measures.
As well, the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association, which represents the housing industry, says planning applications, inspections and building permits undertaken by the city are continuing, meaning construction can stay on track.
But in a market update March 25, industry analyst PMA Brethour Realty Group warned that “there has been pushback from several unions related to protecting their members on site… so expect some sites to have limited activity.” (Editor’s note: On April 3, the province amended the essential services list to limit new home construction to those homes that are already under construction or had a permit for footings already issued.)
And for homes that are nearing completion, there are changes to things like the pre-delivery inspection, or PDI, which is a walk-through of the home with the buyer and the builder shortly before a newly built home is turned over to the buyer.
“Given the present circumstances, we do not consider it a requirement that the PDI must occur prior to a closing in the presence of both the builder and the homeowner,” says Tarion, which administers Ontario’s new home warranty act.
What about resale homes?
While buying a home without being able to walk through it is common with new builds, that’s not the case for a resale home, where every home is unique and needs to be seen to assess its true state.
The pre-pandemic “feeding frenzy” in Ottawa’s resale market — as Realtor and Ottawa Real Estate Board president Deb Burgoyne describes it — may have eased, but interest hasn’t stopped altogether.
“I can’t believe how many new listings are coming on this week,” she said more than a week after the pandemic was declared in Canada. In the two-week period from March 11 to 25, there were 1,342 new listings in Ottawa, compared to 1,356 for the same two-week period last year.
“Clearly there are buyers and sellers and Realtors that are going, ‘You know what? This might be a good opportunity for us,’” Burgoyne says. “But let’s heed all the health department’s warnings about how we should conduct ourselves.”
Those measures include a warning from the Ontario Real Estate Association (OREA) on March 24 noting that while real estate has been declared an essential service “this does not mean business as usual for Ontario’s Realtors,” says president Sean Morrison in a statement. “It’s time to stop all face-to-face business including open houses, maintaining agent and public office hours and in-person showings, especially in cases where a property is tenant-occupied.”
OREA recommends virtual showings, video conferencing, electronic signing and other measures to facilitate sales without face-to-face contact.
It’s up to individual brokerages to determine just how they will proceed on showing and selling homes, but open houses have been cancelled and the Ottawa board is urging agents to do all business virtually, meaning no in-person visits to homes.
Janet Conley (not her real name) began her home search a couple of months before the pandemic hit. The 27-year-old government lawyer is hoping to find a condo apartment that will fit her budget, but so far she has not found “the one”, something that has perhaps been a good thing given the frenetic pace and bidding wars that have been associated with sales in the last few years.
For the time being she has stepped back a bit, cautious about COVID-19 concerns. But she still gets notifications of new listings and if something catches her eye, she’ll ask her agent how she can go about seeing it.
“I’m not going to throw myself at it; I still want to be smart about it,” she says. “And if the window (to buy) is now, the window is now.”