Updated March 30, 2020
Just about everyone has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic—and the crisis, according to most experts, is only beginning to play out in many parts of the U.S. America now has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world. And beyond the devastating human toll, an economic one is looming. The unemployment numbers are staggering, and the economy appears to be headed for a recession, if it’s not already in one.
That’s bound to affect just about every housing market in the country, some worse than others. But which are the most vulnerable? The realtor.com® data team found the counties that could be most at risk in the worsening financial crisis.
Tourism and vacation-home hot spots could be affected more than others, at least initially. These places that depend on visitors to frequent local hotels, restaurants, and attractions to keep their local economies afloat are starting to see big job losses. And when local economies suffer and people aren’t working, housing markets hurt.
“The biggest initial coronavirus hit will be felt in the tourism and hospitality industries,” says realtor.com Chief Economist Danielle Hale. These are the same places where folks tend to buy vacation homes.
“Second-home markets tend to be hit a bit harder in a recession. … When people are cutting back, that’s where they’ll cut back,” says Hale.
The luxury home market is also expected to feel the pain.
“Luxury buyers [typically] have a lot of their money in the stock market, and the stock market has taken a huge hit,” says Ali Wolf, chief economist at Meyers Research, a national real estate consultancy. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s wait. Let’s ride this thing out.’ Buying a luxury, new home right now is something that can wait.”
Popular retiree destinations may also experience a slowdown. Older Americans, who are more vulnerable to the virus, are increasingly reluctant (or unable) to visit potential forever homes in warmer-weather states. Many of these retirees and soon-to-be retirees hail from the Northeast, the epicenter of the crisis, and the Midwest. And most already have homes, so moving to a retirement community or a sunny, new locale isn’t urgent—it can be put off until the crisis has passed.
But real estate professionals are optimistic that these near-term vulnerable markets, like the rest of the nation, will likely bounce back once the virus is contained.
“Most housing markets in the country will take a significant short-term hit due to COVID-19,” says Wolf. “[But] ultimately the housing market is going to come back.”
To come up with our list, we looked at the counties with the highest percentage of workers in the industries that are most likely to be affected by this coronavirus-fueled crisis. These included a wide range of tourism, hospitality, retail, and other face-to-face fields, ranging from personal fitness, restaurant, and performing arts workers to those employed at car dealerships, casinos, and cruise lines. The data came from the 2017 County Business Patterns data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The manufacturing industry was not included in our analysis. We counted only the counties with at least 100,000 workers and included one county per state to add some geographic diversity to our list.
The most vulnerable county was Horry County, SC, home to Myrtle Beach, with a median county home list price of $239,050 as of February, according to the most recent realtor.com data. It was followed by Clark County, NV, where Las Vegas is located, with a median county list price of $329,050; Atlantic County, NJ (Atlantic City), at $250,050; Orange County, FL (Orlando), at $359,950; and Orleans Parish, LA (New Orleans), at $349,050.
Rounding out the top 10 were Honolulu County, HI, at $636,050; New London County, CT (Mystic), at $287,550; Monterey County, CA (Carmel-by-the-Sea), at $1,173,050; Chatham County, GA (Savannah), at $325,050; and Prince William County, VA (Washington, DC, suburbs), at $480,050.
We broke out the different trends affecting these markets, and took a deeper dive into each. All of the places on our list fall into more than one of these buckets; a few of them fall into each of them.
1. Popular second-home destinations are beginning to slow
All of the counties on our list, most of them on the water, are popular with tourists and vacation home buyers for a reason. They tend to offer lots of natural beauty, plenty of local, unique attractions, and a plethora of places to grab a bite and a drink. And those are the same things that make them more vulnerable to a downturn.
After the housing bust that triggered the Great Recession, home values in resort areas plunged about 25% to 50% depending on where they were located, Jack McCabe of McCabe Research & Consulting, previously told realtor.com. Meanwhile, nationally home prices fell only 17.5% from 2006 to 2011, according to McCabe’s analysis.
Myrtle Beach, in the most vulnerable county of our analysis, could take a double hit since it’s both a popular vacation home market as well as a major lure for retirees. (Median home prices in Horry County, at $239,050, are the lowest of our list.) About two-thirds of sales in the area are vacation and investment homes. And those sales slowed in mid-March after President Donald Trump first addressed the nation on the pandemic, says Laura Crowther, CEO of the Coastal Carolinas Association of Realtors®, based in Myrtle Beach.
The crisis is also likely to hurt the short-term rentals market, like Airbnb. Investors may hold off on buying properties in tourist areas until the crisis passes.
After the housing crash, prices for Honolulu’s short-term rentals, mostly condos rented out to visitors, fell by more than 50% in some cases, says local real estate broker George Krischke of Hawaii Living. This could happen again as most Americans are hunkering down instead of jetting off to the tropics during a global pandemic.
In Atlantic County, home to Atlantic City, NJ (No.3 on our list), folks struggling to pay their bills may sell their vacation homes to help alleviate some of their expenses.
“Some people rent [out] during the summer season to help alleviate some of the expenses,” says David Fiorenza, an economics professor at Villanova University in the Philadelphia suburbs. “It’s going to be harder for people if they have two mortgages, one at their primary residence and one at their secondary residence.”
And while this is likely more of a short-term crisis, it could have some serious long-term effects.
Once the virus is under control, vacation home buyers and retirees may want to buy property closer to their primary homes and family, says Sudesh Mujumdar, dean of the College of Business Administration at Savannah State University in Georgia.
They may fear another pandemic or crisis. And that could hurt markets like Savannah, which has a growing retiree and second-home market.
“This might have a longer-term impact on our social fabric,” says Mujumdar.
2. Retirees may put home purchases—and relocations—on hold
Retirees tend to be attracted to many of the warmer-weather, tourist, and vacation home areas on our list. But those hailing from the particularly hard-hit Northeast as well as the Midwest aren’t likely forgoing social distancing to head to South Carolina, Florida, and Hawaii to tour homes. Older individuals are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, with some of the highest mortality rates.
So many of them are holding off on their home searches.
“Right now people are adopting a wait-and-see attitude,” says Brad O’Connor, chief economist of Florida Realtors®, the state’s Orlando-based trade group. “Everyone’s going to put some stuff on pause right now temporarily while we get a handle on things.”
3. Luxury markets could see slumps
Luxury markets won’t be exempt from the distress. With the stock market in turmoil and the economy in a downturn, many buyers are more likely to hold off on big-ticket purchases. A pair of such markets likely to be affected are ultrapricey Honolulu County (No. 6) and Monterey County (No. 8).
After the housing bust and the Great Recession, home prices in Honolulu County fell about 10%, says Honolulu broker Krischke. He believes the price declines this time around will be much milder.
“We will always be paradise, but right now we’re having tough times just like everybody else,” says Krischke.
The market in Monterey, CA, an affluent, seaside county just south of Silicon Valley, is already beginning to stall. The market is split between primary and vacation homes.
There has been only 12 closings for Monterey County homes costing $1.5 million and more as of March 18—typically, that number would have been closer to 30, says real estate broker Andrew Oldham of Compass, who’s based in Carmel-by-the-Sea. But now he’s seeing extensions, cancellations, and mortgages that are taking longer to process. Some sellers are pulling their properties off the market or even dropping prices. Few new listings are appearing.
However, his team is still seeing multiple offers on less expensive fixer-uppers that are priced right.
They’re also seeing buyers make offers on homes they’ve viewed online with contingencies that would allow them to back out of the deal—just in case problems with the properties crop up once they’re finally able to see the homes in person.
Prices plunged 33% to 40% during and after the Great Recession, but he doesn’t expect anything that drastic this time around. He anticipates there could be a 5% to 10% dip.
“So far we’re not seeing too much of a correction right now,” says Oldham. “If you go in thinking you’re going to get a good deal, you’re probably not.”
4. Gambling meccas will likely be hard-hit
Two of the counties on our list, Clark County’s Las Vegas (No. 2) and Atlantic County’s Atlantic City, were clobbered by the financial meltdown in the mid-aughts. Both had struggled to recover and were finally on the upswing—that is until the spread of COVID-19 forced the casinos, hardly centers for social distancing, to close tight.
Just last month, median home prices in the greater Las Vegas area surpassed their height-of-market highs, just before the crash, according to Las Vegas Realtors®, the local trade group. (This was for single-family, existing homes.) Home prices in Southern Nevada reached $316,000 in February compared with $315,000 in June 2006.
“That’s kind of ironic,” says longtime real estate agent Bryan Kyle of First Serve Realty. “It had been a long time coming.”
The recovery had taken much longer because the city’s real estate market had fallen much further than in other parts of the country. So it had more lost ground to make up.
But unlike last time, Las Vegas is better positioned to weather this storm as there hasn’t been rampant overbuilding, says Stephen Miller, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. There is no longer a vast supply of empty homes.
The problem is the city hasn’t diversified its industries to protect it from a downturn. About 29% of Clark County’s employment is in leisure and hospitality, says Miller. And 1 in 7 visitors is coming to the city for a convention, most of which have been postponed or cancelled.
“We’re so heavily reliant on leisure and hospitality,” says Miller. “The problem is we don’t know how long this is going to last.”
And if it doesn’t end soon, that could spell trouble. In Atlantic City, May through September are the make-or-break months.
“If we’re not able to get the casinos running by May, we’re not going to see any good economic impact this summer at the Jersey Shore,” says Villanova University’s Fiorenza.
Updated March 20
Kids furloughed from school, bars and restaurants closed, and people told to stay at home except for essential errands—the coronavirus pandemic has already upended life as most Americans know it. Now it’s expected to turn the typically busy spring home-buying season on its head as well.
Despite the extremely low mortgage interest rates, the nation could be in for a rocky home-buying season. A recession triggered by COVID-19 appears to be on the way, and the stock market has plummeted, giving many buyers pause. There are also likely to be fewer homes on the market, longer closing times, and plenty of unanticipated delays in the coming weeks, say experts.
“I don’t think we’re going to have the spring boom that we have every year,” says national real estate appraiser Jonathan Miller. “It’s reasonable to assume that people will shift from the drive to save money with lower rates … [to protecting their] personal safety.”
It’s also not yet clear if the recent actions by President Donald Trump, Congress, and the Federal Reserve will stimulate the economy enough to stave off a prolonged downturn. The Federal Reserve slashed its short-term interest rates to between 0% and 0.25% and promised to buy billions of dollars of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities in a bid to buoy the economy.
The president and lawmakers are also weighing a variety of plans to help the economy. Still, they might not be enough to turn the spring market around.“This was shaping up to be a fairly competitive home-buying season, and that may not be the case” now, says realtor.com’s chief econnomist, Danielle Hale. “It doesn’t mean that we won’t still see sales. But I would expect fewer crowds at open houses. I would expect more shopping online.”
Hale doesn’t believe home prices will nosedive, as they did about a decade ago. That’s because during the previous financial crisis, there were more homes available than there were buyers. Today, there is a severe housing shortage, and even now there are many more eager buyers than reasonably priced properties for sale.
Some real estate markets will be harder-hit than others
The problem is that just about everything is uncertain, with the news changing by the minute. California has several of the hottest markets in the country, but with the entire state under order to shelter in place as of March 19, home sales are certain to slow.
Going to a home showing is probably not considered an “essential outing” under the order. Sellers could pull homes off the market, closings could be delayed. And more big cities and smaller communities could find themselves in similar situations.
“It’s probably going to be very different in every market,” says Hale. “I would expect bigger impacts in areas that have seen the greatest numbers of the virus. People are more likely to stay home in those areas.”
In badly affected areas, sellers are beginning to pull their properties off the market. Others likely won’t list their homes until the crisis wanes. At least one multiple listing service, based in the Seattle area, is no longer advertising open houses. And many buyers are canceling showings.
“Do you want 20 people walking through your open house?” asks appraiser Miller. “Do you want to go into a stranger’s house?”
Some buyers are worried about contracting the COV-19 virus. Others are hesitant to deplete their life savings and lock themselves into a 30-year loan with a potential recession on the horizon. And many are concerned about both.
Coldwell Banker agent Danielle Schlesier says she is virtually showing homes around the Boston suburb of Brookline, MA, to eliminate person-to-person contact. She’ll do FaceTime tours with her clients while inside a home for sale, and shoot videos.
The upside is that there isn’t expected to be as much competition from home shoppers.
“They can negotiate for better prices,” says Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors®. “And of course, mortgage rates are exceptionally low.”
Closings could take longer this spring
Low mortgage interest rates have also spurred a refinancing boom from homeowners seeking to lower their monthly payments. Lenders are inundated. And that could slow down the mortgage approval process for first-time and other home buyers.
With all of that business, lenders might issue loans to only the most qualified among them, says Elysia Stobbe, author of “How to Get Approved for the Best Mortgage Without Sticking a Fork in Your Eye.”
She expects loan officers to look for applicants with higher credit scores, more stable income, lower debt, and more savings.
“It’s crazy,” she says. “Everything is slowing down” when it comes to loan processing times.
Other in-person services, such as home inspections and appraisals, could also cause delays in home buying. Some worried sellers, inspectors, and appraisers have canceled or delayed these services.
Still, buyers’ interest won’t be going away.
“The uncertainty doesn’t change people’s long-term desire to own a home,” says Hale. “They may not be brave enough to jump in and submit an offer now, given all the uncertainty. But they’ll still be looking.”
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