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There are numerous homes for sale in La Grande. Local real estate agents and brokers say the efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 is leading to a slower market and changes in how they show homes.

LA GRANDE — The efforts to clamp down on the COVID-19 outbreak also are reaching the housing market. People who were about to sell their homes are taking down “for sale” signs, and people who are looking to move are taking extra precautions in house hunting.

John Howard, principal real estate broker for John Howard and Associates, La Grande, said COVID-19 is slowing down business. The real estate company remains operational but closed the La Grande office to the public.

“It certainly has changed things,” Howard said, “and we are adapting to the changes in the real estate community.”

One major change, Howard said, is not as many people are selling their homes. Potential sellers with underlying health conditions don’t want to expose themselves to the virus, and others have taken their homes off the market because their financial situation has changed due to layoffs.

But while the market isn’t bustling at the level it was a month ago, Shawna McKinnis, real estate broker and owner at RE/MAX Real Estate, La Grande, said the market remains active.

“We are still getting calls to list and show properties,” she said. “We’re doing market analysis, we’re having showings on our properties, (and) we’ve had accepted offers.”

Anna Goodman, Century 21 real estate broker in La Grande, said all the agents in her office have work.

“Some buyers are going to hold off, but there are still some buyers out there looking,” she said.

While some sectors of Wallowa County’s economy are suffering greatly from COVID-19 shutdowns, real estate seems to be holding its own.

“I’ve had calls and listings are coming in,” said Claresse O’Connor of Timberline Realty, Joseph. “That’s surprising. Listings are coming in. Nobody’s afraid to list things.”

New ways to show homesOne showing was particularly memorable, O’Connor said.

“I did have a showing where the owner said they had a caregiver in the house and the owner, an older gentleman, was very frail,” she recalled. “Their agent called and said, ‘There will be gloves and masks on a table (outside) where you enter the house. Please put them on.’”

O’Connor’s client decided to skip the showing because she didn’t want to put anyone at risk.

“Distancing is something we are doing now,” O’Connor said.

Precautions for real estate brokers include limits on the number of people per showing, sanitizing hands before entering and after leaving a property, wearing booties, gloves and masks, and wiping down everything with a Clorox or other sanitizing wipe.

“We are doing more virtual showings on Facetime and other platforms,” said Anette Christoffersen of Ruby Peak Real Estate, Joseph. “We are showing to only two people at a time and they need to be prequalified with a letter from a lender. We are supposed to be wearing face masks, and there’s a screening questionnaire we can give to clients.”

Howard said it comes down to protecting the Realtors, the buyers and the sellers from COVID-19.

Urban refugeesDiane Daggett, a premier agent with the national real estate website Zillow as well as Ruby Peak, said she has seen some interest from what she termed “urban refugees.”

“I get a ton of Zillow calls,” she said. “About a third of the calls I’ve had in the last two weeks have been people looking for something in a very remote area. One call, for example, was from a man in the Portland area who was refinancing his house so he could buy a place away from everything. There’s definitely a fear.”

The ability for someone to move from one home to another also is uncertain.

“We in the moving business are usually right behind the real estate market,” said Kaiger Braseth, general manager of Mountain West Moving and Storage, La Grande.

Braseth explained with fewer people buying houses, less people will need movers. He said with social distancing measures, many people are renting trucks to move themselves and some are postponing moves until things become more stable. Braseth predicts if the trend continues, moving companies could suffer, but he said there always will be business as people need to move out by certain dates and cannot always move themselves.

Lenders get leeryThe availability of loans has taken a hit, however. It’s not so much from a lack of consumer credit as it is the government’s bailout.

“The forbearance is a great opportunity for people to get some relief from mortgage payments,” Daggett said. “But if that person is purchasing a new house and they exercise their forbearance right on the first payment due, it disqualifies that loan from being sold on the secondary market. So primary lenders, who usually don’t carry as much cash, have a negative impact because they are selling the loans right away.”

The result is lenders are more reluctant to make loans. And despite the Federal Reserve’s lowering of prime interest rates, rates for home-buyers are beginning to creep upward.

“The fear in the financial market is that for loans where the new homeowner exercises forbearance (which all government loans are able to do), the primary lender, usually a local bank, is reluctant to make loans because if forbearance is invoked, the primary lender has to make the monthly payment to the secondary market,” Daggett said. “This is especially true of manufactured homes, which are seen as a riskier market.”

Realtors confidentThe real estate experts also said while the local markets have slowed, they remain solid overall.

Goodman in La Grande said even during the 1980s, when interest rates were high, and in 2008 during the crash of the Great Recession, the market recovered.

“I’m not myself trying to stress too much. You can’t do anything about it,” she said. “The housing market always seems to come back.”

McKinnis also doesn’t expect the housing market to take a major hit.

“(Based on) the fact that we’re still listing properties and showing properties in many different ways and seeing offers coming in on a consistent basis, I don’t think at this point our market has been seriously adversely impacted,” she said.

She said she thinks the housing market will be the first to bounce back when coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

“Once all of this lightens up and things start getting back to what our new normal is going to be, it’s going to be all hands on deck,” McKinnis said. “I think the real estate market will be one of the very first things to recover because it was so incredibly strong prior to this situation.”

COVID-19 or not, it seems the in-migration to Wallowa County will continue.

“I see a large number of clients who are looking for a slower paced life in a nice community with recreational opportunities and beautiful scenery,” Daggett said. “The number of people calling just because of the virus right now seems small compared to those who just want to change their lives.”

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