Camile Thomsen and Gloria Howell

Camile Thomsen, left, and Gloria Howell, real estate agents with Gate City Real Estate, stand in front of a newly listed home for sale in Pocatello. Despite a nationwide downturn in housing markets caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the real estate market in Bannock County is still on the upswing.

Even as the coronavirus outbreak wreaks havoc on the housing market nationwide, Pocatello area real estate agents say the local housing market is still going strong.

In March, sales of existing homes in the U.S. plummeted 8.5 percent, with 5.27 million homes sold. That was down from 5.76 million homes sold the previous month, the National Association of Realtors reported in April.

According to data from realtor.com, the number of homes for sale nationwide dipped 15.3 percent last month compared to April 2019 and the inventory of newly listed properties plummeted by 44.1 percent.

Home prices nationwide were also down 0.6 percent last month compared to April 2019, according to the data, and homes sold four days slower than last year in the U.S., with the average time on the market being 62 days.

Zillow, an online real estate database, predicts that home prices nationally will fall 2 to 3 percent in 2020. If that prediction holds true it would only be the second time since the Great Depression that U.S. home prices have fallen.

Despite interest rates being close to record lows, people nationwide are wary of buying and selling homes right now. According to the Fannie Mae Home Purchase Sentiment Index, 46 percent of people surveyed nationwide in April said it was a bad time to buy a home and 65 percent said it was a bad time to sell one.

But the data from Bannock County, including the cities of Pocatello and Chubbuck, is telling a very different story.

“The market is still going strong. That hasn’t changed a whole lot,” said Eli Townsend, a real estate agent with Premier Properties in Pocatello and the Greater Pocatello Association of Realtors’ president for 2020. “(As far as) market confidence, we’re kind of in a unique location. Granted, I think every market is going to have people affected by the pandemic, but for the most part, we’re an essential area and I don’t think that we have been hit as hard as some of the other parts of the country.”

Statistics aggregated with information from the Multiple Listing Service and provided by Greg Johnston, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty in Pocatello, show that the housing market in Bannock County is doing just as well or better than it was at this point last year.

At the end of the first quarter of 2020, there were 136 active single family home listings in Bannock County compared to 107 at the end of the same quarter last year. The average price of those listings also increased 14.3 percent year-over-year from $293,998 to $336,036.

As of March 31, 239 homes had sold in Bannock County so far this year compared to 175 during the same period of 2019. The average price of those sold homes increased 23.3 percent year-over-year to $234,861. In 2019, the average price of a home sold in Bannock County was $190,551.

New construction listings have also increased with 27 in March 2020 compared to 22 in March 2019. In March of this year, 12 of those new construction homes were sold, up from six in March 2019, and the selling price was up 7.2 percent to $333,154.

Bannock County’s housing market continued to do well in April, with 136 active listings and 97 homes sold. Comparatively, 90 homes sold in March, 83 in February, and 64 in January.

Last year in Bannock County, 82 homes sold in April, 53 in March, 58 in February, and 46 in January.

There were fewer homes under contract in the county last month, however, at 124 compared to 147 in April 2019, and new construction home sales were down slightly last month compared to April 2019, from 11 to eight.

Bannock County Assessor Sheri Davies said during a press conference earlier this month that housing prices in Bannock County are continuing to go up, and property owners should expect new assessment notices reflecting those increases in the mail by June 1.

BUSINESS UNUSUAL

While the housing market locally is still robust, the coronavirus has forced local real estate agents to do business a little differently.

There are more virtual showings via online video and fewer people are allowed during home visits. For now, open houses are a thing of the past.

“Traditionally, I like to have my buyers in my car with me so that we can talk about the houses as we go out and look at homes,” Johnston said. “But to have safe social distancing practices, I now ask them to follow me in their own car rather than riding with me.”

Johnston says some buyers show up to houses with masks and gloves on, and some sellers leave hand sanitizer at the door for buyers to use. Sellers are also asking that real estate agents not bring in prospective buyers who have been sick during the past few weeks.

“The real difference is telling buyers, ‘Hey, we don’t want to go look at homes just for the sake of looking at them,’” Johnston said. “‘We want to make sure you’re really interested, you’re a qualified buyer. Let’s not waste anyone’s time or risk spreading any germs if you’re not ready to buy a home.’”

Gloria Howell with Gate City Real Estate said agents with the company spend time wiping down doors, doorknobs, chairs, light switch plates and other items in the homes before they show them to potential buyers. The agents also provide booties — when available — as extra protection and ask visitors to try to avoid touching things.

“It’s changed things,” Howell said of the effect the pandemic has had on the real estate industry. “We’re meeting at the homes and we’re asking (everyone) to wear masks and gloves. And we’re asking that only the buyers show up. Not the buyers’ parents or children or friends.”

For people who can’t come to see a house in person or who want to get a feel for the house before seeing it for themselves, there are virtual open houses that allow visitors to look through a home for sale from a remote location.

“I think just about every agent has requests for a video showing, or a virtual showing, where they’ll do a video walk-through of the house prior to that prospective buyer showing up and seeing it in person,” Townsend said. “I think there’s been a greater increase in homes being listed with those virtual tours already in place so that buyers can have real-time access to those at any given point.”

In fact, Johnston said he thinks traditional in-person open houses just won’t happen anymore, even after the pandemic restrictions are lifted.

“We don’t do open houses now because you can’t have too many people in one group, so open houses are kind of going away,” he said. “They really slowed down the last few years anyway with all the pictures we put online.”

Real estate office protocols have changed as well because of the pandemic. Howell said Gate City Real Estate agents are no longer gathering for weekly sales meetings, and when agents do go into the main office they’re asked to use wipes or wear gloves and to be very careful. Office hours have also been reduced.

Gordon Wilks, a broker at Gate City Real Estate, said the local real estate industry has successfully adapted to the pandemic and it’s business as usual.

“The public is still positive and they still want to see houses (and) they still want to buy them,” Wilks said.

Some title companies are even offering the option of curbside closings, said Camile Thomsen, another Gate City Real Estate agent. The parties can close on the home when the appropriate documents are brought to their vehicles.

That reduces the potential exposure to COVID-19 for everyone involved.

“It’s a shift in perspective (but) it will be so nice to shake hands once again and have those meetings,” Thomsen said. “So it’s really given us an opportunity to reflect on that.”

Howell said she’s been really encouraged by everyone involved in the home buying process.

“The neat thing I’ve encountered is that everyone seems kind, careful, concerned, protective and encouraging of one another,” Howell said. “I think they’ve been very appreciative that we’re trying to be very careful.”

STILL A SELLER’S MARKET

So what makes Bannock County different from much of the rest of the country?

According to Johnston, the driving factor is that Bannock County currently has a low inventory of homes for sale.

“Nationwide, we’re hearing a lot of talk about recessions and slow real estate markets, but in Bannock County, we have not seen any decline in home values or the number of home sales,” Johnston said. “Part of the reason is because we already have a low housing market inventory. There’s not as many homes on the market as we had a few years ago. With that low inventory, that is what is helping home values to stay stable.”

Additionally, the economy is growing in Bannock County with more people moving in, and Johnston says, “There’s just a lot of good reasons to be purchasing now and buyers are taking advantage of that: low interest rates, affordable programs to buy with low down payments. We still have affordable (home) values. I think people know values are going up and they’re trying to buy while they can.”

Wilks said he’s seen a small decrease in the number of people looking for homes, “but it definitely has not turned into a buyer’s market.”

He added, “I was surprised at how many people are still interested, and I think that speaks to the strength of the market. In spite of all the bad news that’s been thrown at us by the media, people are still interested in and almost driven to want to improve their lot and move their housing up.”

Wilks said it’s still not unusual in Bannock County for a house that is priced correctly to get multiple offers within 24 hours of it getting listed.

“The market is competitive out there, and if the houses are priced accordingly, they don’t last on the market very long,” he said.

Townsend said he doesn’t predict the local housing market will change too much in the near future and in fact he thinks the local market will still “hit really decent year-over-year increases on home values” throughout 2020.

Townsend added that when Gov. Brad Little partially lifted the statewide stay-home order, Premier Properties saw an immediate increase in people coming into its office.

“We felt an increase in business, which surprised me because I don’t think we reduced much in the first place, but it seemed like the flood gates opened,” Townsend said. “With that amount of buyers coming back into the market, that’s what’s really driving our prices and our market in general, so I don’t foresee us seeing any kind of negative hit from this pandemic, at this point anyway.”

Johnston said he is curious to see what the May statistics look like since the May numbers will reflect how many people were buying houses in April. Idaho was under the stay-home order that entire month.

“If the trend continues that we have a strong May, then that’s great, but if we have a dip in home sales in the month of May, that means while people were quarantined during April, they weren’t out buying homes because it’s always a 30-day lag,” Johnston said.

To those people looking to sell their houses, local real estate agents say don’t let the global pandemic make you think now’s not the best time.

“A lot of people are just wondering, ‘Is it a good time to sell my house? Is it safe to sell my house? Should I wait to sell my house?’” Johnston said. “What I would say to people who are looking to sell is it is still a great time to put your house on the market. It is still safe to put your house on the market. Realtors are using better practices to make sure that we protect the sellers and the home and that we follow the safe health practices that have been outlined to us. So I wouldn’t be too concerned about people coming through the homes as long as everyone takes the proper precautions.”

Idaho State Journal reporter Scott Kraus contributed to this article.