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Buying a House During COVID-19 Lockdown: A Real-Life Account

[Updated: Apr 15, 2020 ] Apr 02, 2020 by Lena Katz
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First-time homebuyer Lauren Brown and her husband knew that 2020 was going to be their year to buy a house. They gave themselves till summer. When the Connecticut couple found their dream home early, the process wasn't seamless -- the seller walked away from negotiations, and they thought the deal was at an end. But when the seller came back, they moved forward in the mortgage process aggressively, with plans to close by the end of March.

"We took it as a sign, this was meant to be," says Brown.

And then COVID-19 arrived, rolling over signs and massacring best-laid plans by the millions. Its implications were not immediate for Brown, as they weren't for most of us. She didn't worry till she got a call about three weeks prior to closing that her daughter's school was shutting down.

"I started panicking. This is unprecedented. I reached out to a Realtor, mortgage broker, lawyer. I had all these new questions: How do we close? How do I move if we do?"

No one could tell her anything, although many people on her team were pushing for her to continue fast-tracking the closing process.

"My thought was, We have to move before they lock us down," she said.

Then the governor of Connecticut made an announcement on Friday, March 20, that nonessential businesses had to close. The new rules were scheduled to go into effect at 8 a.m. on Monday.

"Our lawyer said, 'I don't know what this means,' and I thought it was done at that point," says Brown.

Then, when the guidance on mandatory closures came out on Sunday, March 22, legal services were considered essential. And moving also was considered essential. Everyone involved in the transaction did another rapid reversal and worked together to close by the original date of March 27.

If life circumstances or an unmissable opportunity has you considering a scenario like this, here are some things to prepare for once your offer is accepted -- all things that Brown and her family either had to go through or are working their way through right now:

Financially, it becomes a numbers game

"Do we pay an extra month on our old house and plan to move in May, or tell the landlord right now and ask him to apply our final month to April? We can't afford to pay rent and mortgage," explained Brown. This is a very common dilemma among average Americans moving houses, but it's exacerbated by the general uncertainty -- you could easily end up giving notice in April and then being unable to move till July.

Every calendar date also becomes part of a numbers game

Apart from the closing and move-in dates, you have to think about every other date, from how much time you allow to have bank transfers processed to how far in advance you call the cleaners. With everything restricted and staffed down, you should expect slower and less certain service.

Pre-move cleaning and organizing may not happen the way you'd expected

On a similar note, realize that you may need to be flexible about the move itself more than the transaction. The simple conveniences you used to order with a few taps on an app now may be unavailable or very backed up. Cleaners, painters, donation pickup services, and movers have all changed their policies or paused services.

Many steps formerly done in person have shifted to virtual and video

Real estate has always been slow to adopt technology. This is a course correction. Things like appraisals, document signings, and lawyer consultations are finding their footing in the electronic space…exactly as they should have five or 10 years ago.

Social distancing may mean more physical work for you

"One of the things I'd like to do is start bringing things over to the new house myself to alleviate how much we need a mover," says Brown. As a full-time working mother, this is not something she planned on doing before the pandemic. For that matter…

"We need to paint the new house, and we were going to hire someone to do it for us, but at this point, I'll probably have to do it myself," Brown said.

As usual, the parties that only get paid upon closing will be pushing you to close -- but circumstances can force even them to change plans

In Brown's situation, the lender and attorney were enthusiastic about her moving forward, even as the economy became shaky to the point where newer applicants were being turned away. But once the governor issued orders, they realized they had no path forward, and they gave up -- until two days later, when a clarification set things in motion again.

Once the mortgage loan process gets past the point of clearing conditions, it may do you more harm than it's worth to back out

Even in this volatile and unpredictable time, there are certain milestones that signify a transaction is too close to the finish line to be canceled. Brown found herself in this boat when the Connecticut governor was mulling over his state's options. Although she mainly wanted to know whether an extension was an option, others in her position may have tried to back out. As a general rule of thumb, know that everyone who's assisted you on this journey will want you to see it through -- unless a drastic change to your financial situation means you no longer qualify.

Moving in the time of COVID-19: Can you handle it?

While there are so many variables that can't be predicted or prepared for in this new state of existence, people's need for housing is a constant. If circumstances force you to find a new place, understanding the many changes to the process can help you manage how many surprises you bash into along the way. Homebuying's difficult enough in uninteresting times.

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