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Austin real estate business deemed ‘essential’ during coronavirus pandemic

State order allows home showings, says board

Two side-by-side contemporary houses. One has three stories and an asymmetrical, angled roof. The other has gabled roofs. Both appear to be made of stucco, limestone, and/or hardiplank. There are small, connected lawns and a sidewalk in front. Shutterstock

When the city of Austin issued a stay-home/work-safe order last on March 24 because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, it specified some examples of the kinds of services and activities that should be considered “essential”—including things such as delivering and buying food and medicine, certain government functions, and health care.

For some businesses and activities, such as real estate and construction, the situation was murkier. Since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had previously declared a statewide public health disaster and activated the Texas National Guard but had declined to call it a stay-at-home order, it was left up to cities and counties to make the call on whether and how areas of those industries should continue to operate.

In Austin, many types of construction were initially classified as nonessential—putting the city’s longtime building boom on pause—while Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio allowed residential and commercial construction to continue (and local construction groups pushed back against Austin’s guidelines).

Similarly, many activities connected to real estate were curtailed. On March 25, the Austin Board of Realtors issued a statement discouraging in-person home showings in Travis County, reading that county’s order as one that deemed such activities nonessential in Austin and the county as a whole. (The board also stated that showing activity might have been be allowed in Williamson County at the time, but strongly discouraged in-person showings in all cases.) The statement also encouraged closings already in progress to continue, though not necessarily in person.

Wednesday, however, the board reversed that position, based on a new statewide executive order Abbott issued Tuesday, which was in turn based on U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s guidelines March 28 and supersedes any conflicting orders from the city or county.

According to ABoR’s new statement, it interprets Abbott’s order to allow “residential and commercial real estate services, property management, and construction to continue, effective immediately.” The board continued to encourage work from home for even essential services and limiting in-person contact unless absolutely necessary. Real estate agents can “show property across the market but should exercise great caution in doing so,” it reads.

While it’s fare too early to measure effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the local market, ABoR’s February Central Texas Housing Market Report showed a 6.8 percent increase in residential home sales in the Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Statistical Area and a 12.8 percent increase in median sales price, to $327,140. Sales increased year-over-year, to 2,524 homes sold in February, but new listings have decreased 11.8 percent since the same time last year. Inventory also dropped to 1.5 months’ worth.

ABoR’s president is, naturally, upbeat about the situation. “Historically low interest rates are a driver in the market response we saw in February and will continue to act as a driver despite our shared concerns over the impact of COVID-19 in our community,” said ABoR president Romeo Manzanilla in a March 19 press statement.

“Effects will still be felt, especially by those who depend on each paycheck to pay their bills and provide for their families, and that cannot be discounted,” said Mark Sprague, state director of information capital for Independence Title, in the same statement. At the same time, he said, “Austin’s economy and housing market look to be resilient during this uncertain time” and noted the long-term potential for investment for employers in the local market and predicted that “those looking for a more affordable cost of living compared to other major U.S. metropolitan areas will still look to move to and buy homes in Austin.”