“Open House” signs are gone. Building inspectors wear hazmat suits. Renters will pay $40,000 a month for a home — but you can no longer rent for just 30 days.
Welcome to the new normal in one of Westport’s oldest obsessions: real estate.
The tried-and-true dance that long linked sellers, buyers and realtors has — like everything else in the world — been turned topsy-turvy by COVID-19.
But real estate professionals are flexible and creative. To get a sense of how they’re adapting, and the new Westport market, I turned to a veteran.
Karen Scott of KMS Partners @ Compass says the rental side is particularly interesting.
Westport has always had a thriving summer rental market — primarily at the beach, but elsewhere too for folks wanting a bit more yard for fun and entertaining. Our amenities are great, plus we’re a lot easier to get to (and cheaper than) the Hamptons.
Residents who rent out their properties often travel in summer, or head to second homes.
The pandemic hit New York right as renters were signing contracts. Suddenly, they were joined by others who did not care about Compo or cookouts. They just wanted to flee the city.
“Anything on the market was scooped up,” Scott says. People called realtors, friends in town, friends of friends — anyone they could think of.
A few more homes came on the market — by snowbirds who figured they’d stay south a bit longer, for instance — but prices shot up “overnight.” Suddenly, non-beach homes were renting for $25,000 to $40,000 a month. Some of those were previously unsold homes, which their owners converted to rentals.
That frantic pace has slowed somewhat, Scott says. But that does not mean there is much inventory.
Meanwhile — as the prime summer rental season looms — people who always rented out their homes are reassessing their plans. They may not leave town this year.
Last week, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe issued an order prohibiting leases of less than 31 days. That further upends the traditional rental market.
Home sales are affected too. With college kids back, and homeowners working from home instead of commuting to distant cities for work, some owners took their properties off the market.
But there are still houses for sale. And, Scott says, “buyers are out shopping. They want something immediately.”
Some were already looking to settle in this summer, to get used to the town before school begins. The pandemic spurred others to make a move they may have been thinking of only casually. Very low interest rates make buying now an attractive option.
The process of showing — and seeing — a home has changed dramatically, notes Scott.
“Virtual” tours of a property — including 3D walk-throughs — now include less-sexy (but more practical) areas like pantries. To reduce personal interactions some homeowners are making their own videos, rather than relying on realtors or professionals.
Traditions like open houses have been upended. Casual looking is gone. “Anyone entering a home now is a serious buyer, not a weekend browser,” Scott says.
Some sellers don’t want anyone entering their home. Some have imposed strict rules, like only one potential buyer inside at a time; no touching allowed. Afterward, every surface, door knob and light switch gets wiped down anyway.
Some realtors stay outside, when the client goes in. Even so, all wear masks and gloves. Every interaction is discussed in advance. Realtors honor all requests, from sellers and buyers.
Of course, real estate transactions involve many other people. Scott says that building inspectors are being ultra-careful (like the one wearin a hazmat suit). Attorneys work remotely. Title searches — which must be done in person — can be a challenge.
But, Scott adds, “Everyone has been very collaborative. The entire real estate community puts safety first. It’s been very satisfying so far.”
Scott has been a realtor long enough to have seen dark, dismal times: 9/11 for example, and the Great Recession.
“When we’re in the thick of things, the future of real estate looks unknown and scary,” she says. “But we got through them. We will get through this. We can maneuver through prevailing winds. We deal with situations. We help people get whatever is needed done. We advise and guide, and we are doing that right now.”
Despite — or perhaps especially during — the current crisis, housing is an important need. Westport remains an attractive destination for many homebuyers.
And not just for its amenities. Potential buyers have seen the outpouring of spirit, by neighbors and strangers, during the pandemic. “They see and read about so much compassion, care and sense of community. They want to be part of this amazing place,” Scott says. “They see people doing things for each other and the town. It gives them hope.”