House hunting goes virtual as coronavirus spreads

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NEW YORK (CBS) February was a strong month for home sales. But now with the coronavirus, sales are expected to take a major hit. Some realtors are finding new ways to keep buyers on board.

Joel Clausen is a realtor in Indianapolis and, like many, saw his business shift overnight.

"For us, it was, we could see the drop off in showings and such, I mean, almost immediately," he said.

But Clausen says serious buyers are still in the market, so he's been getting footage for virtual home tours.

"Just to try to show off what's inside the house," he said, "so someone can really virtually see the home from their living room and not have to get out and be, you know, exposed to anything."

An analysis from Capital Economics predicts home sales could fall 35% this spring compared to the end of 2019. With open houses and showings called off, some realtors are relying on technology to sell homes.

"Robot realtors," screens on wheels, can help realtors give tours of homes without being there in person. Zenplace, a company that sources "robot realtors," says they've seen a big boost in business since the pandemic started. But realtors are still facing some hurdles like getting signatures to close a deal.

"I've actually got a closing that happened and buyers are in one room, sellers are in another, everyone brings their own pen," Clausen said.

There are also challenges in getting home inspections done. Lawrence Yun is with the National Association of Realtors, which is pushing the government for a virtual option with homeowners using their phones to show inspectors the interior.

Yun says it's not clear where homes sales are headed.

"So we don't know how everything will play out," he said, "but if it's only two to four months, I think we will see an immediate bounce back in the housing, homes sales activity."

If the coronavirus shutdowns are more extensive, Yun believes the real estate market could be in for a long recovery. He says a 30% to 35% drop in home sales activity is not out of the question for the next few months. But he also believes home prices could remain steady during that time.