The numbers: The index of pending home sales dropped 20.8% in March as the coronavirus pandemic took a significant bite out of real-estate activity, the National Association of Realtors reported Wednesday.
This represented the lowest level of pending sales since 2011.
The index measures real-estate transactions where a contract was signed but the sale had not yet closed, benchmarked to contract-signing activity in 2001. It serves as an indicator for existing-home sales reports in the coming months.
What happened: Compared with March 2019, signings were down 16.3% nationally.
On a monthly basis, pending sales dropped in every region with the West seeing the largest decline at 26.8%, followed by the Midwest (down 22%) and the South (19.5%). In the Northeast, contract signings only decreased 14.5%.
The big picture: While the coronavirus outbreak has not caused real-estate activity to stop entirely, it has put a major damper on what economists had anticipated would be a strong spring home-buying season thanks to low mortgage rates and pent-up demand among buyers. Without the spring home-buying season, home sales are expected to drop 14% in 2020.
“As consumers become more accustomed to social distancing protocols, and with the economy slowly and safely reopening, listings and buying activity will resume, especially given the record low mortgage rates,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors. “The usual spring buying season will be missed, however, so a bounce-back later in the year will be insufficient to make up for the loss of sales in the second quarter.”
With stay-at-home orders and social-distancing guidelines in effect for most of the country, the process of buying a home (and then moving) has become more complicated. Nearly one-fifth of Realtors said that stay-at-home orders made it nearly impossible to finish deals, according to a recent poll by the National Association of Realtors. (Another 40% of Realtors meanwhile said some aspects of the home-buying process still required in-person interaction, but that wearing masks and gloves could make it safer.)
Amid these orders, open houses have gone virtual, and documents are now being signed in parking lots rather than the offices of title insurers and attorneys. In some parts of the country, the closure of government offices means that sales cannot be recorded as quickly as usual.
Some would-be sellers have held off on listing their homes, worried about a potential dip in prices or demand. Between the first and last weeks of March, the number of new listing was down 30%, according to data from Realtor.com. Comparatively, the number of listings grew by 15% during that same stretch of time last year.
What they’re saying: “New listings continued to fall in April, as COVID-19 concerns prompted sellers to wait, which means additional declines in pending and closed home sales are likely ahead,” said Danielle Hale, chief economist at Realtor.com. “Although fewer buyers signed contracts to buy as they stayed home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, surveys suggest that most home buyers expect just a few months delay in their journey.”
“How infection rates respond in states reopening will be a telling sign as we move forward on how long we can expect a slump in sales to persist,” said Ruben Gonzalez, chief economist, Keller Williams. “If we see no resurgence in infections, we could see sales begin to stabilize in early June; however, if there is a resurgence in infection rates, a substantial backslide across all sectors of the economy is likely.”
Market reaction: The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 were both up in Wednesday morning trading in spite of the downturns in pending home sales and GDP. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note was down slightly.