Real estate traditionally has been more a "people" business than a technology business, but with advances in recent years, tech has certainly established its place in the industry.
During trying times that require social distancing or sheltering in place, those tech tools can be saviors. Buyers can virtually tour homes via the internet, make offers, and apply for home loans online. All parties involved can sign documents electronically and sometimes even get documents notarized remotely.
All those things are components of most home sales. Having the means to do them online allows for real estate deals to continue, even during social distancing. But that doesn't mean it's all going to be smooth sailing. Here are some ways social distancing could delay a home sale.
Reduced staffing and hours of operation
When companies are attempting to keep fewer people in the office, or workers are out for extended periods of time, or even if a business just cuts its hours, work can take longer. It's a matter of fewer people doing the same amount of work with less time each day to do it. Backlogs can happen.
A good example might be the mortgage business. When very low interest rates hit, there are surges in demand for refinancing that can come right as companies find themselves shorter-staffed. As long as fewer people are working, or working shorter hours, in banks and title companies, there could be delays in home sales.
Home inspections are especially tricky during a time of social distancing. Unlike a buyer on a virtual tour, a licensed home inspector is required to physically be in the home they're inspecting. That can cause some hiccups.
For example, a seller might not want a stranger in their home. On the other hand, maybe not every home inspector wants to go poking around in a stranger's house, which may or may not be properly sanitized.
Most real estate agents have pre-written addendums - some issued by the state - that cover any delays in a sale related to public health or social distancing. Some homebuyers might forego their right to a home inspection, and some sellers might agree to one so long as the inspector is the only person in the home and is properly equipped with safety wear. If not, a delay in the sale can be addressed with an addendum to the contract with neither party penalized.
When a home inspection is done, the inspector could do a virtual walkthrough with the buyer and/or provide them with more visual results (pictures and video) in their report than they would in normal times.
Real estate appraisals are typically done in person as well, but there's more leeway for appraisers than there is for inspectors.
For one, the Federal Housing Finance Agency in March 2020 allowed for appraisals without necessarily requiring an appraiser to look at a home's interior. The term "drive-by appraisal" has been around for years, but it's more literal when people are under stay-at-home orders.
And even in normal times, not every appraisal includes an interior inspection. In markets that are very active, it's not difficult for appraisers to ascertain a home's value using mostly a computer, because there are plenty of comparable recent sales. But in slower markets, or for homes with unique features, an appraiser or lender might not be comfortable with an appraisal that doesn't include an in-person look at a home. That sort of circumstance could also delay a sale's closing.
Again, a proper addendum to the sales contract should be able to satisfy all parties involved should such a delay occur.
The bottom line
Technology has advanced enough in recent years to help real estate adapt to a period when face-to-face interaction is limited. While not every step in the home process can be automated, the result during social distancing could be delays at certain steps in the homebuying process, but safety measures alone should not grind a home sale to a halt.