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Business and Economy

Maine Real Estate Sales Have Cooled, But Agents Say The Market Is Still Competitive

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Courtesy Hannah Holmes
Cornerstone Title & Settlement Owner Kirk Armstrong shuttles paperwork between four sellers and two buyers, all isolating in different vehicles, in a real estate closing in Portland.

Among the sectors of the Maine economy that have been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic is real estate, which has seen a slowdown in sales since emergency orders went into place. But that doesn’t mean that buying and selling have stopped — the demand for houses is still there, and agents are finding new ways to safely show properties.

Just a couple of months ago, steady streams of prospective homebuyers were going to open houses, peeking inside closet doors and flipping light switches. And some of them weren’t really in the market for a house at all.

“There are folks that just go out and look at houses, that’s just what they do,” says Tom Landry, broker and owner of Benchmark Real Estate in Portland.

Landry says things have changed.

“That’s gone away, so we have much more serious group of people on the buy and the sell side,” he says.

Those buyers and sellers, and the brokers representing them, are faced with a number of new restrictions in the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills has included real estate as an essential business, but has issued mandatory guidelines including that agents and buyers narrow down the list of houses to be viewed to just a few.

Broker Hannah Holmes of Keller Williams in Portland says she’s asking her clients to drive by a house they’re interested in and see if they like the location. She also encourages perspective buyers to use Google Earth to check out the neighborhood to see if there are power lines or gravel pits nearby that might lessen their interest.

“And then the Realtor can go to the house and do a showing through FaceTime or Skype, where they’re walking through the house and opening cupboards and checking linen closets and that sort of thing with the clients on the other end of the phone. It’s not really satisfactory, and clients are going to want to see the house in person under most circumstances,” she says.

Holmes says when it’s time to finally show the house, she and the prospective buyers put on masks, gloves and foot coverings.

“And I carry a bottle of spray disinfectant with me in addition to that and hit doorknobs and so forth as we go through to make sure we’re not leaving anything behind if we should have missed something,” she says.

But despite the extra hassles, real estate professionals say that there is buying and selling going on, and there are still multiple offers being made on some properties. Luke, who asked that we not use his last name, says he and his wife just made an offer on a house in a community south of Augusta, but they were not alone.

“Sure enough, we hear back from our Realtor that there were nine offers put on the house. With that, the seller decided to go with another offer, so we didn’t get it, and I think that indicates that the market is still competitive regardless of the current situation,” he says.

In fact, Holmes says that the Portland market is as intense as ever on the demand side, but many sellers are waiting until things quiet down and they can more safely show their homes.

Landry says some sellers are also concerned about the price they might get right now. According to the most recent stats from Maine Listings, listings in Portland are down by more than 60 percent compared with the same time last year. Until last week, the city had not included real estate in its list of essential businesses.

Landry says he’s advising his clients to get their properties ready now so they can list when the stay-in-place orders are completely lifted. He’s telling his buyers to look for properties right now, but with a warning.

“You might not get the steal. If it’s listed for $300,000 you’re probably not going to just go in there and offer them $250,000 and think you’re going to get it. Not everybody’s going to be in a financial situation where they are overly motivated and panicking about this. We’ve seen very little of that actually,” he says.

According the Maine Association of Realtors, the real estate market was robust in the first quarter of the year, and some observers say things will pick up again in the summer or fall.

Originally posted 5:51 p.m. April 22, 2020