A single mother and nurse in her mid-30s could no longer afford her Delaware County house. So she took all the money she could scrape together for a security deposit and the first and last month’s rent for an apartment, and she put her house on the market.
To help make ends meet, she needed the profits from her home sale, originally set to close April 6.
Two weeks ago, she lost her job. Last week, her buyer backed out. The buyer, a house flipper, worried that he wouldn’t be able to get renovations done because Gov. Tom Wolf ordered nearly everyone to stay home and businesses to close to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
Now, she’s stuck with a mortgage she can’t pay, an apartment she can’t afford, and stress over how she will cover groceries and her family’s other living expenses, said her Realtor, Brian Kane.
“She’s in a major financial bind,” he said. “She can’t get work. She needs the money, and now the sale isn’t happening.”
In the weeks since the coronavirus pandemic upended daily life, and Pennsylvania deemed real estate activity nonessential, real estate agents have been doing what they can to complete sales. But buyers are stymied by financial uncertainty and the unavailability of inspectors and contractors. Sellers waiting for the busy spring real estate season don’t know whether to list their houses as scheduled.
And no one knows just how long the uncertainty will last.
When Karina Sharma and her husband closed on a house in January and finished repairs on their old home, the Bucks County couple considered themselves lucky. Their townhouse would be ready to list in mid-March, just in time for real estate’s busy spring season. A few neighbors’ houses had just sold quickly, and they had no reason to think theirs wouldn’t, as well.
Then the coronavirus hit. The couple couldn’t get the professional photographs they’d wanted, and potential buyers can’t visit. Sharma’s husband, Aaron Butler, lost his job at an auto repair shop last month when the company downsized as business slowed.
Now, the couple have two mortgages: on the townhouse in Chalfont Borough, and on their new house on more than two acres in West Rockhill Township. They invested a large chunk of their savings on fixing up the old house and making their new place feel like home.
“I thought, ‘Hey, I’m going to have some equity from this old house coming eventually,’” said Sharma, 46, who works in information technology for a pharmaceutical company. “But I thought ‘eventually’ would be in two or three months.”
The couple should be OK financially into June, she said. “But beyond that, we have to think how we’re going to do things to be able to carry both of these mortgages.”
They plan to wait out April and hope to list the townhouse by early May. Sharma isn’t sure whether they’ll even be able to rent the townhouse, which had been their contingency plan if it didn’t sell quickly.
“I never thought, ‘What about if no one can leave their house?’” she said. “That was never in the realm of possibilities I considered.”
Stories piling up
For the last two weeks, Realtor Mike McCann’s team has had a singular focus.
“All we’ve been spending our time doing is keeping transactions together,” said McCann, whose Philadelphia-based Mike McCann Team is an affiliate of Keller Williams Philly.
They’ve gotten home prices reduced and persuaded sellers to throw in a couple months’ mortgage payments. Mortgage assistance helped soothe two worried clients who work in the restaurant industry and don’t know when business will go back to normal.
“This fear and uncertainty has caused a lot of people to want to get out of the transaction,” said McCann, noting that buyers have usually been the ones with second thoughts. “This is a time of crisis right now. People are freaked out and fearful.”
One of Stephen Ferguson’s clients received an offer on a home a few weeks ago, “right before things got a little more serious,” said Ferguson, founder of the Stephen Sells Philly Team at Compass Real Estate. Both sides agreed orally, and Ferguson sent the paperwork the next morning. But the buyer pulled out.
Other buyers wanted a home inspector to check repairs the seller agreed to have done before settlement, but Pennsylvania deems home inspectors nonessential during the pandemic. They settled for checking on repairs they could see.
“They need to go to closing,” Ferguson said. “Their lease is up. Their home has been re-leased by the landlord.”
One husband and wife planned to use the proceeds from selling their Havertown house to pay the nursing home where they both live. If the sale doesn’t go through soon, their future there could be in jeopardy, said Kane, the Delaware County-based Realtor.
And any sale would require additional approval from county Orphans Court, which is closed except for emergencies through the end of April under orders from the state Supreme Court.
Kane said he has grown increasingly concerned as the Wolf administration considers the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors’ request for a waiver from his shutdown order.
“Forget the fact that you’re affecting the livelihood of 30,000 Realtors in the state,” he said. “This is affecting buyers and sellers, and that’s way, way more important. It’s ruining people’s financial lives, and threatening to make people homeless.”
Fariqua Rahman, 39, and her husband, Muzammil Mustufa, 37, had searched for a bigger house for about two years so they could move out of their narrow townhouse in Philadelphia’s Bella Vista neighborhood with their baby and toddler.
They went under contract in February on a home in Society Hill and set the closing for June.
Before moving in, the couple want to remodel the bathrooms and the kitchen, finish the basement, and turn one room into two for their children. They had planned to start as soon as they closed.
“We don’t want to have two mortgages for longer than we need to,” said Rahman, a pharmacist.
Now, they’re not sure whether any of the contractors they’ve contacted will be able to begin work in a couple of months because the state does not consider remodeling essential.
Rahman said she has been “freaking out,” but her husband is more optimistic.
“For now, it’s just we’re going full steam ahead,” said Mustufa, who works in marketing and commercial planning for a biomedical company. “We need the room, and it kind of is what it is.”
Contractors have said they don’t know which of their projects will continue, given the pandemic’s negative effect on the economy and clients’ budgets. They also don’t know how long shelter-in-place orders will last. But they’ve said they can probably start on the couple’s house in June.
“They’re all promising a lot,” Mustufa said. “We’re trying to be realistic.”
Niggling at the back of their minds, the couple said, is whether the closing will actually happen during these “unheard of” times, even though the sale seems to be a done deal.
“You have no idea what people are possibly thinking,” Rahman said. “Maybe they’re scared to rock the boat and change their current situation.”
Housing limbo as the virus prevents a move
A husband and wife in their 70s are under contract to sell their three-story home in Philadelphia’s Spring Garden neighborhood in favor of a condominium near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But the condo building is barring them from moving in.
Management fears the spread of the coronavirus because a large number of tenants are elderly and more susceptible.
“We’ve got no place to move to yet, so that’s our predicament,” the wife said. The couple requested their names not be used, citing privacy concerns.
“Our buyers — I’m sure they’re anxious to get out of an apartment,” she said.
She and her husband are “sort of playing it by ear,” she said.
“We’ll wait until we’re forced to make a decision, I guess,” she said. “Everybody’s got their own sad tales to tell.”
Navigating first-time home buying in a pandemic
Even as the coronavirus started to creep into American life in late February and early March, Julia Elberfeld, 26, and Spencer Fecho, 28, thought they’d found a silver lining.
With interest rates at historic lows, they secured a great deal on a mortgage for their first home — an 1880s rowhouse in Lancaster with restored original hardwood floors, exposed brick, and, as Elberfeld describes it, a “great old-city charm.”
They were scheduled to close this week. But the coronavirus clampdown put the transaction in doubt.
With home-repair services shut down, fixes that were supposed to be completed after the inspection screeched to a halt. They wondered whether the title company would be open to process their paperwork. And with a national recession looming, Elberfeld and Fecho worry whether it’s still wise to move forward with a major financial commitment.
“It’s been incredibly frustrating,” said Elberfeld, who works at a tutoring center. “I’m still working full time, but my boyfriend works in the entertainment industry, and everything is stopped. We have deposit money down — that’s money that’s tied up.”
But late last month, they received promising news. The seller found someone to do the necessary repair work, and their agent believes they can close as scheduled.
“We’re just crossing our fingers,” Elberfeld said, “and hoping that nothing changes between now and then.”
Staff writer Katie Park contributed to this article.