The COVID-19 real estate paradox: Time to buy or sell?

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According to a September 2020 study by Yelp, the U.S. has witnessed small businesses closing at a rate of 800 per day. The U.S. has seen some of the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression. And yet the real estate market is booming.

Home sales continue to rise as the new work-from-home economy makes moving to the big city or tiny village of your dreams more feasible than ever. Mortgage applications jumped 26 percent in 2020. How can that be, you might ask, and how does that affect me as a homebuyer, home seller or homeowner?

Let’s take a look at some of the forces at work in the real estate market right now and find out.

Money is cheap for homebuyers

If you listen to the radio or have a friend in the real estate business, you’ve probably heard by now that it’s a great time to buy a house because mortgage interest rates have dipped to record lows. The second part of that statement is objectively true. In the early 1980s, the average interest rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage topped 18 percent. Compare that to June of 2020, when Freddie Mac reported an average rate of just 3.61 percent.

And that’s just the average. Borrowers with excellent credit were able to secure even better mortgage rates. If you’re thinking of buying a home, bear in mind that even a quarter-point drop in interest can save you many thousands of dollars over the lifetime of your loan. That means, among other things, that you may be able to afford more home now than you could last year.

But not so fast.

The second side of the story

As interest rates have plummeted, the demand for homes has climbed sharply. In many parts of the country, there’s a shortage of houses on the market. And that has sent home prices soaring, too. Comparing December 2020 to December 2019, home prices jumped nationally by over 10 percent.

The trend is most pronounced where you might not expect it to be: in small- to medium-sized Midwestern cities. Historically, the price of real estate in large cities drives national averages up. While predictions of a COVID-driven mass exodus from urban centers were never born out, in a few cities, including San Francisco and New York City, more people are seeking to move out than to move in.

Home prices are declining. If you’ve been hankering for a high-rise on the Hudson, now might be a good time to make a move.

But as recent experience confirms, real estate markets are fluid. What comes up might come down. The point is, no matter where you’re moving, your living expenses will ultimately be influenced by multiple factors. And it’s important not to get swept up in the moment. Keep your long-term income outlook and your personal goals in mind as you consider buying a home.

And if you’re thinking of selling your home to take advantage of rising home prices in your neighborhood, remember that you’re going to have to move somewhere.

The chapter everyone has to read

Sure, some of us are lucky enough to be able to pay cash when buying a home. But many of us need a mortgage to purchase a home. And that’s why having a strong credit profile is essential.

Keeping track of your credit score is an important habit to get into. If you’ve never paid much attention to it before, you’re not alone. It’s not something most parents teach their kids to do—many parents don’t talk to their kids about money at all.

A recent survey found that more than 35 percent of U.S. adults don’t know what their credit score is. And at least as many people don’t know how high a score they’ll need before lenders will give them a mortgage or car loan, for example.

Are you on top of your credit score? Before you even begin hunting for a house, it’s time to get a clear picture of where you stand. You can start by downloading a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus: Transunion, Equifax and Experian. Your credit score is the highlight, of course. But it’s important not to fixate on a single number. When it comes to credit, the devil is in the details.

How credit scores are determined

The single most important factor credit bureaus consider when assigning you a score is your payment history. Missed credit card or loan payments take the biggest bite out of your score, and if there’s one piece of advice you remember after reading this article, let it be this: keep on top of your bill due dates and make them on time—religiously.

If you want to improve your credit score before you apply for a mortgage, one of the best things you can do is bring all your accounts up to date. But guess what? Creditors make mistakes. If you discover late payment notations on your credit report, be sure to reconcile them with your own payment records. Having credit reporting mistakes corrected can bring your score up considerably.

Next, review all of the accounts listed on your report. Having too many open accounts can drag your score down. Just make sure you’re considering how closing a particular account will affect your overall credit age and total available credit—you don’t want to close cards that are actually helping you.

Credit bureaus also take your credit utilization ratio into account when determining your credit score: that is, how much of the credit available to you are you actually using? Experts say that 30 percent is the absolute high-water mark and you’ll do much better in the credit market if yours is much lower.

One way to reduce your credit utilization ratio is simply to request an increase in your credit limit on one or more of the credit cards you have in your wallet. Pick one with a low or zero balance to increase your chances of getting approved for a higher limit. Then avoid using the card. You don’t want more debt, just more available credit.

Is it time to call in the experts?

It’s easy to get into credit trouble and, sadly, during the economic crisis precipitated by COVID-19, more and more Americans did. But getting out of trouble is more difficult. It takes time and patience, and there’s a fair amount of drudgery involved.

Some people who are struggling with bad credit enlist the services of a credit repair professional. Many credit repair companies use a combination of human expertise and artificial intelligence to develop and execute a comprehensive credit repair plan for their clients.

They’re trained to detect errors, as well as credit card fraud, which is on the rise and can be devastating to your credit. Some companies offer ongoing credit monitoring along with credit repair. Remember how we said monitoring your credit is a good habit to get into? You can also farm out the job.

Increase the odds of getting a great mortgage rate

While technically not a factor in your credit score, mortgage lenders will take your debt-to-income ratio into account when deciding whether to offer you a loan and at what rate. Most lenders require a DTI ratio of 36 percent or lower. Your credit report will list all your debts, and you already know your income.

You can use a DTI calculator to crunch the numbers. If your ratio is higher than 36 percent, you may want to take some time to pay off your existing debt before applying for a mortgage. With mortgage rates so low right now, why wait? Because buying a home is a life-altering decision on many accounts. Your home may be the single largest purchase you ever make. And at the outset, your mortgage may be your greatest financial liability.

But over time, your home may become your greatest financial asset—if you make well-considered decisions, like securing the best mortgage deal you possibly can. Getting your financial affairs in order before you buy a homeis an investment in time that’s likely to pay off in real dollars down the road.


This article was contributed by Money.com, an online editorial that provides up-to-date news, educational resources, and tools to help everyday people create meaningful investments and lasting returns.