Covid-19, or coronavirus, is all that everyone is talking about. And there are dozens of questions related to it. Is it preventable? How fast is it spreading? How dangerous is it? Will a treatment or even a cure be found in time?
All those questions are fair, and from a public health standpoint, should be asked and answered by those who are tasked to answer them – like the Centers for Disease Control.
However, this global pandemic, while terrifying millions around the world, is also having an impact on global financial markets and likely will impact the U.S. Real Estate market soon.
“U.S. Mortgage rates hit an all-time low in early March, with the average rate of the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage dropping to a staggering 3.29%.”
Mortgage interest rates are plummeting, and according to a report on CNBC in early March, they could fall as low as zero percent, and even then, the Fed could go even farther.
“We certainly think the Fed would be prepared to do more,” said Michael Gapen, head of U.S. Economics at Barclay’s in an interview with CNBC. “There’s a lot of volatility in markets, and the Fed is very concerned about market functioning and keeping liquidity free flowing and credit available.”
In addition to the plummeting mortgage interest, an already slow real estate market will be impacted by a lack of Chinese buyers.
“China has been the most important source of foreign demand for real estate,” Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors®(NAR) told Realtor.com. “The upper-end market can expect to be softer as a result.”
That’s because wealthy Chinese buyers often purchase luxury properties in places like California and New York.
According to NAR’s most recent data about foreign buyers, Chinese buyers spent $13.4 billion on U.S. homes between April 2018 and May 2019 – which is a 56% drop from the previous 12-month span.
While some of that drop can be attributed to more strict rules by the Chinese government on international spending combined with tougher immigration rules in the U.S., even those Chinese buyers who would still come to America to buy real estate have been put on ice based on travel restrictions, flight cancellations and required quarantines and self-isolations.
This takes away the incentive to buy real estate because when a potential buyer can see the property remains unknown.
The Mortgage Interest-Free Fall
U.S. Mortgage rates hit an all-time low in early March, with the average rate of the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage dropping to a staggering 3.29% according to Freddie Mac, eclipsing the previous low set back in 2012. Just a year ago, though, mortgage rates were hovering in the mid-4% range after almost touching 5% at the end of 2018.
However, some experts, like Jay Farner, CEO of Quicken Loans, sees this as an opportunity for current homeowners to refinance their mortgages and pay down the loan even faster.
“So, 30-year mortgage rates have dropped quite a bit to the low-to-mid three percent range on a 30-year fixed-rate, and we’re now below three percent on a 15-year fixed,” Farner told MarketWatch “ So, I’d say for the vast majority of Americans, they’re now in a position where they can save money by refinancing. So, they should be doing something.
“The one potential conundrum for lower mortgage interest rates is that it could create a slippery slope where more buyers enter the market trying to get a good deal, allowing sellers to jack up their prices.”
“Interestingly, one of the things we’re talking a lot about is people moving from a 30-year to a lower term, a 20-year or 15-year, because rates are so low, they can get a payment today at a 15-year that is similar to a payment they would have made four or five years ago on 30-year when rates were in the fives, yet they could pay their home off in 15 years for far less interest.”
Farner added though that we shouldn’t expect to see the 30-year fixed rate mortgage to drop below three percent. Uncertainty creates volatility in the market, which impacts interest rates. However, once there is certainty, either positively or negatively regarding coronavirus, it would cause interest rates to be on the rise again.
“Even if they come out and say maybe the coronavirus will be a little bit worse than we thought that would bring certainty. If it makes sense, you can save money, you got to lock your interest rates. Take advantage of the savings. And if I were a betting man, I’d say there’s a higher probability rates will rise in the (near future).”
The one potential conundrum for lower mortgage interest rates is that it could create a slippery slope where more buyers enter the market trying to get a good deal, allowing sellers to jack up their prices at a time when home prices are increasing exponentially even without the impact of a global pandemic.
Getting back to China, where Covid-19 originated, considering China has the World’s second-largest economy and it also has a worldwide supply chain. Limits on that supply chain impact businesses around the world. This can slow development even further as developers will need to wait longer than usual to get the supplies necessary to build.
The last time a health risk had this kind of impact on the global economy was in 2003 during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Mortgage interest rates also dipped during that outbreak, but the impact on real estate was minimal, if at all.
That’s because Chinese investors weren’t as interested in the U.S. market at the time. Considering how much Chinese interest there is now, it leaves a lot of uncertainty as the Covid-19 virus spreads.
Luxury Homes could see a boost long-term
Wealthy buyers from China seem to be more interested in U.S. properties after negative stories emerge from their own country.
For example, there was a spike in Chinese purchases of property in the U.S. after the 2019 anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
Covid-19 could bring the same rush from China to the U.S. market as these Chinese buyers see the U.S. as a safer option than at home because of the civil unrest.
“[Chinese] people who are wealthy may feel tired of the perception of China as being a third-world country,” Yun said. “They want to park their money in a first-class world economy, which is Australia, Canada, and the U.S. Hence, we may see greater demand from Chinese, wealthy households.”
While real estate is not usually subject to volatile swings in the stock market, which has been impacted by the spread of Covid-19 and the uncertainty of its real impact on public health in America, the reality is, it’s hard, and potentially impossible to close a deal on a real estate transaction of travel restrictions are put in place.
Whether a sale is contingent upon the buyer seeing the property before signing the dotted line, or due diligence is required before closing an ongoing deal, the impact of Covid-19 could cause a delay in closing, or potentially even put a kibosh on the deal in total.
Travel restrictions that are being put in place, as well as recommendations of self-isolation and the general fear of the unknown could have people sheltering themselves in their current homes and not venturing out until necessary. These kinds of actions, even if done in the minority, could create a real estate transaction slowdown, albeit temporarily.
On the commercial real estate market, transactions had started slowing long before Covid-19 was a thing. According to Bisnow, in New York City, there was a 31 percent drop in the sale of investment-grade real estate from 2018 to 2019.
“The market was soft before the news of the virus hit,” Compass Vice Chair and commercial investment sales broker Adelaide Polsinelli wrote in an email to Bisnow. “If you aren’t afraid to do business in real estate in New York City, you aren’t afraid of coronavirus.”
She added that there is a positive outcome that is running parallel to the slowdown, because some investors are seeing the drop off in competition for real estate as a golden opportunity to lock down a deal.
“This is the perfect storm for buyers,” she said. “Competition has slowed down, sellers are nervous, interest rates are low and opportunities are increasing.”