California is calling but the coronavirus may keep Sheila Fram and Aaron Strong in the Washington area a little longer.

Strong, an economist with a nonprofit organization, is relocating to Los Angeles, and Fram, a teacher with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, has been offered a teaching position with the Los Angeles Unified School District. For more than a year, they’ve been planning their move and identifying a school district where they want to enroll their 10-year-old son.

Now, they’re among many homeowners caught in the conundrum of how to move during a pandemic.

“We planned to move around the first week of June because I need to be a California resident by July 1 for my new job,” says Fram. “We put our home on the market in February, assuming it would take about two months to sell and close. The first couple of weeks we had a lot of people at open houses and two or three showings each week, but then the virus hit, and the interest slowed down fast.”

Stay-at-home guidelines have evolved since February, with open houses canceled. Some real estate agents are doing virtual tours and limited in-person home tours using social distancing and other precautions to protect buyers, sellers and agents from potential exposure to the virus.

Fram and Ellen Cohen, her real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Bethesda, Md., have gotten creative with marketing the townhouse in the Kentlands neighborhood in Gaithersburg, Md.

“I did a virtual walk-through myself with FaceTime with one possible buyer who didn’t want to come to the house in person,” says Fram. “I answered a lot of her questions, so it wasn’t just me walking around. I’ve also been recording short videos on my phone, including one about how short a walk it is to Whole Foods from our house, that Ellen puts on Facebook and her website.”

Cohen says all her listings come with a TruPlace virtual walk-through and lots of professional photos.

“Now we added a 3-D Matterport tour on the site so people can feel even more like they’re walking through and can even spin around to go back and look at other rooms,” says Cohen. “They dropped the price, but the issue is that there just aren’t enough people out there to look at it.”

The townhouse, initially listed at $638,000, is now priced at $618,000, says Fram.

“We think that’s what it is worth given historical values in this neighborhood, the location right on a square near the clubhouse and because we made a lot of upgrades when we bought the townhouse five years ago,” says Fram.

Some other townhouses in the same community have lowered their prices further, says Fram, which hurts their prospects.

“A big issue is that if buyers don’t have to move soon, they’re waiting,” says Cohen. “They know there are a lot of homes off the market, so they’re willing to wait until there are more choices.”

Cohen says other potential sellers in Alexandria, Va., who were planning to move out of state decided to take their home off the market for now.

“They didn’t want photographers and visitors in the house, plus they knew the market where they plan to move is also basically shut down and it would be hard to look for a new home,” says Cohen.

Accelerating a sale

While many sellers opt to wait out the pandemic, Dave and Cindy Franco, owners of a single-family home in the Penderbrook golf course community in Fairfax, chose the opposite path and accelerated their moving plan.

“We were talking about relocating at the end of the school year and putting our house on the market in May,” says Dave Franco, who works remotely for Dell. “Our daughter Sophia is in kindergarten and we wanted to move to New Orleans to be closer to family. But once they canceled school for the rest of the year, we decided to push up the plan and move now.”

The Francos started prepping their home for sale for a May listing, but their real estate agent Joan Reimann, with McEnearney Associates in Vienna, alerted them that the coronavirus is a “game-changer.”

“The sense I had is that they might have a better chance of selling fast now because there’s less competition from other sellers,” says Reimann. “Even though there are few buyers, the buyers who are out there now are relocating or they sold their home and need to move. They want to take advantage of low interest rates and they know there’s tight inventory. Some buyers are moving ahead now because they think there will be less competition from other buyers.”

Franco says he “went into overdrive” to prep his house for sale, spending every moment he wasn’t working to paint and make minor repairs.

“I was very worried about showing the house because both my wife and my daughter have heart conditions and I have asthma,” Dave says. “But Joan took all kinds of precautions.”

The Francos’ house, which was listed at $839,900 on a Thursday in April, received two offers on the following Monday. Both were for more than the asking price.

“I did a virtual open house on Saturday for people with a live video feed that I had promoted with an email campaign and on Facebook,” says Reimann. “I also showed the house in person, allowing buyers to go in separately if they were wearing masks and gloves. We would have them take off their shoes, avoid touching surfaces and then wipe down everything with disinfecting wipes before and after each visit. We also stayed at least six feet apart.”

Reimann also markets her listings with a video tour on her website, email marketing campaigns and social media such as Facebook and Instagram.

Another of Reimann’s sellers also accelerated their plans to list their home in Centreville.

“They moved in with family, so the house was vacant and we showed it 22 times in person over one weekend,” says Reimann. “They had five offers that were well over the listing price, which was in the $400,000s.”

Earlier this year, says Reimann, a typical open house might have 30 to 50 visitors. Now, she says, even though there are fewer buyers, they are well-qualified buyers.

“I was worried about rushing to put our house on the market because this is unknown territory for everyone,” Franco says. “But the only real difference is that there weren’t any casual buyers coming to our house. It was a smaller number of people, but we still got multiple offers.”

Vacant houses now appealing

Concern about exposure to the virus means everyone is sensitive about being in the same room with people outside their household and having strangers in their home even when the owners are not there. That makes vacant houses more appealing than usual. In the past, vacant homes could sometimes be seen as more difficult to sell because it can be hard for buyers to visualize their furniture unless the property has been staged.

“Vacant properties are by far preferred right now by buyers and their agents,” says Catherine Czuba, a real estate agent with Compass in Washington, D.C. “One thing that’s consistent, especially in these challenging times, is to have a picture-perfect property. The sellers I’ve worked with so far this year have all signed on for extensive market prep, including deep cleaning and staging.”

Julie Hademenos and Steve Tobey’s home in Foxhall Village in Northwest Washington, which was listed for $895,000, went under contract quickly with Czuba’s help.

“We bought the house 40 years ago and recently bought our retirement home in Delaware,” says Tobey. “We were doing lots of renovation on the D.C. house with the help of Compass concierge services, but we were paying two mortgages while that went on. Then the virus hit and we were worried that we’d have to do that longer.”

Hademenos says the concierge service allowed them to finance the extensive renovations on the property with an interest-free loan that will be repaid at the settlement.

“We moved to Lewes at the end of January so the renovations could be done, including a new kitchen, a new bathroom, new hardwood floors, a new roof, a new air conditioning system, chimney repairs and fresh paint,” says Hademenos. “The strategy was to make the house move-in ready.”

Since the couple had moved out, they weren’t concerned about social distancing when the house was shown to buyers.

“We let people know in the listing information that the house was vacant and staged,” says Czuba. “We had planned on open houses and a neighborhood event, but we canceled those to show the house by appointment only. We set up the house with disinfecting wipes and hand-washing stations and used social distancing when buyers were there.”

In addition, Czuba did several personal video tours with FaceTime for buyers who wanted to see the property before they visited in person.

While buyers in the market may be looking for a bargain under the assumption that sellers are highly motivated, Tobey says that they opted to price just slightly below their hoped-for final price.

“We ended up with five offers from qualified buyers and eventually signed a contract for more than we anticipated, especially in this market,” says Tobey.

Each offer was above the list price and included an escalation clause, says Czuba.

The covid clause

While Hademenos and Tobey and the Francos have their homes under contract, their home sales won’t be final until the end of April.

“We’re kind of holding our breath until the closing,” says Hademenos. “Our contract has a ‘covid clause’ that allows for delays if anyone gets sick on either side of the transaction, which is a compassionate response to this situation.”

The Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors and the Maryland Association of Realtors all have a covid addendum on their contracts now to set expectations for everyone that delays are possible, says Czuba.

Sellers can review the settlement documents and use a mobile notary service to sign their documents, although rules are changing fast about remote notarization options so Hademenos hopes they may be able to use electronic signatures for their paperwork.

Anecdotally, Czuba says she is aware that many sellers have opted to take their homes off the market temporarily to avoid having strangers in their homes. But some sellers have been able to overcome the challenge of selling with the help of virtual visits, a vacant house or a carefully managed in-person tour.

“Everyone is being extremely resourceful in managing this crisis,” says Cohen. “I think everyone may continue to take advantage of these new tools like virtual visits even when things go back to normal.”

Tips for selling during coronavirus outbreak:

● Move out if you can.

● Vacate your home during all tours.

● Insist that all buyers preview your home online or see a virtual tour. Provide loan preapproval information before showing your home to eliminate buyers who aren’t serious.

● Offer live video chat tours yourself or ask your agent to provide them.

● Be sure your property’s marketing includes a virtual tour and as many professional photos as possible.

● Prepare for an in-person visit with hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, open doors and light switches on to minimize the need to touch surfaces.

● Disinfect before and after each visit.

● Price your home for today’s market.

● Be prepared for fewer potental buyers.

● Sign a covid-19 addendum to acknowledge potential delays.