There are so many ways in which 2020 is not turning out the way most Americans expected. In terms of real estate, we were hurtling toward a busy spring season. All the economic indicators looked strong, boosting buyers to battle it out for a limited supply of homes. But then the coronavirus pandemic swept across the nation, upending those expectations and forcing us to reassess the year ahead.
Home sales have fallen and real estate listings dissipated as the COVID-19 pandemic made many buyers and sellers think twice about buying, selling, and potentially even moving with a deadly and highly contagious virus on the loose. But home sales will rebound in the late summer and fall, driven by millennials eager to own a home of their own, according to a revised forecast for 2020 by realtor.com®'s economists.
Markets in smaller, more affordable cities and surrounding suburbs could be particularly brisk as folks reevaluate the appeal of big-city life during a pandemic. But realtor.com also predicts the housing market will experience a second round of pain in the form of another downturn toward the end of the year.
"COVID-19 has really dramatically changed the way the housing market is going to perform this year," says realtor.com Chief Economist Danielle Hale. "We started off with the potential for the best year in more than a decade for sales. But we're going to see ups and downs as the market grapples with an unsteady economy. This will affect buyers and sellers across the board."
Sales of existing homes are expected to drop about 15% in 2020 compared with the previous year. Realtor.com is anticipating 4.5 million sales this year, compared with 5.34 million last year. The company's economic team had originally forecast, late last year, that 5.25 million sales would take place in 2020.
While many cash-strapped buyers have eagerly anticipated prices falling, triggering a real estate bonanza similar to the Great Recession, that's not likely to happen this time around. That's because the number of homes on the market has fallen, by about 45% in April, and so has demand from buyers. There's no glut of for-sale homes driving prices down.
"Sellers don't like to reduce their prices. So they decide not to sell," says Hale. Instead, they just pull their homes off the market.
The median price for an existing home is expected to hold steady, rising by just 1.1% in 2020 over the previous year.
"Were it not for COVID-19, we probably would've seen prices rise in the 2% to 4% range," says Hale. That's because even before the pandemic, available housing fell well short of demand, pushing prices up.
Buyers shouldn't despair. Record-low mortgage interest rates will offset some of the slightly higher prices. Rates are expected to be around 3.2% this year, down from nearly 4% last year. And they could even fall into the 2% range later in 2020, amid further financial uncertainty.
The problem is, buyers may have a harder time snagging those low mortgage rates. Lenders are requiring higher credit scores and down payments, in some cases, as the nation grapples with unemployment rates that are likely in the 20%-plus range.
Another downside for buyers is that home construction is expected to slow, exacerbating the housing shortage. Housing starts, or the number of homes on which construction has begun, are expected to drop by 11% this year. Before the pandemic stalled construction sites in certain states, realtor.com had expected starts to jump by 10% in 2020.
Where buyers go shopping could also shift in the wake of the coronavirus. Those cooped up in small apartments in pricey cities may seek out smaller cities and suburbs where they can get more square footage and a backyard for less money. And with unemployment as bad as it's been since the Great Depression, buyers may also seek out these areas for their lower prices.
"The experience of being at home for a long period of time has everyone rethinking their priorities," says Hale. "People are recognizing space is more important, so they're looking for more affordable areas where they can have more space at the same price."
Clare Trapasso is the senior news editor of realtor.com and an adjunct journalism professor at the College of Mount Saint VIncent. She previously wrote for a Financial Times publication, the New York Daily News, and the Associated Press. She is also a licensed real estate agent. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @claretrap