Sonoma County home sales tumble during coronavirus restrictions

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Elissa and Kevin DeWolfe's Oakmont home was ready to sell since before the month of April. The interior and exterior painting on the 3-bed, 2-bath Juniper model home was all finished, and the house, built by Elissa DeWolfe's parents in 1976, had a brand new roof back in December.

Only one problem: if you wanted to buy the house you couldn't get in to see it, the result of coronavirus restrictions that prohibited sellers from showing homes in Sonoma County unless they were vacant. The DeWolfes still lived there.

So like many other sellers, the couple kept their house on Meadow Creek Lane off the market throughout the month of April.

Their decision, and others like it, contributed to a 33% decline in the number of homes sold in April, compared with last year. It marks the largest decline in home sales in more than a decade during the month of April, a month that usually sees the housing market rebound from the slow winter months.

Both the stay-home order and the immediate uncertainty surrounding the local and global response to the COVID-19 pandemic caused many buyers and sellers to simply hit the snooze button on real estate transactions.

"We were ready to go and ready to sell but there was a lot of anxiety about it," said Kevin DeWolfe. "We didn't think there was any hope of having anyone come near us."

Only 244 single-family homes were sold in Sonoma County in April, down from 300 in March and 363 in April a year ago, according to The Press Democrat's monthly housing report compiled by Rick Laws of Compass real estate brokerage in Santa Rosa.

The median price for single-family homes rose to $659,975 in April, an increase of a little more than 3% from a year ago. Inventory declined by more than 15%.

"It was like someone put the brakes on and slowed things down," said Christen Hamilton, a Realtor with Vanguard Properties in Santa Rosa.

Hamilton, who handles home sales all over Sonoma County, said coronavirus restrictions essentially delayed the start of the spring housing market season.

Under the previous restrictions, in-person tours of homes were permitted only if virtual ones were not possible and if the house was vacant. Two weeks ago, Sonoma County health officials lifted the prohibition on showing occupied homes.

The move was part of a larger effort to begin easing coronavirus restrictions that have halted the spread of the virus in the community but crippled economic activity. Hamilton and other real estate professionals say they're starting to see more requests for home showings.

"Especially with being able to show owner-occupied housing, that's been really fantastic," Hamilton said.

There are still a number of restrictions, many of them related to sanitation, protective gear and social distancing. In-person residential viewings are by appointment only and limited to three visitors — the person showing the home and no more than two visitors from the same household or living unit. Visitors must wear facial coverings, gloves and shoe coverings to enter an occupied home.

"It's a cumbersome process right now to show a home," said Ross Liscum, a Santa Rosa real estate broker affiliated with Century 21 NorthBay Alliance.

Liscum said he was actually surprised there was wasn't less activity in the housing market, given the "total shutdown" in the community in April that closed businesses, schools and some government functions. Even as sellers begin to list more homes, Liscum said he expects buyers to be more reserved than they were three months ago.

"I think the pendulum is going to swing. It's going to be a buyer's market now," he said. "There are a limited number of buyers out there actively looking. If a buyer has interest and makes an offer, sellers are going to be looking at them more diligently just because they may not see another buyer for a while."

The lifting of local real estate restrictions was the sound of a starting gun for the DeWolfes, who are eager to sell their home and begin to travel.

"We took a real sigh of relief when that happened," said Kevin DeWolfe, referring to ability to show occupied homes. "We sprang into action."

The couple, who have been living in the home for 10 years, had planned to spend the rest of their lives there. But the cost of living in Sonoma County has made it increasingly difficult to retire comfortably and travel as much as they want.

The couple have listed their home for $925,000, with both Karen Moyers and Katie Kelly of Compass Real Estate as the listing agents.

Moyers said the Oakmont house, a single-story remodeled home, is "move-in-ready" and what a lot of people are looking for in the east Santa Rosa community.

"So we hope it will sell quickly," Moyers said. "We've definitely seen a big surge in activity from both buyers and sellers since they've loosened the restrictions."

The decline in home sales in Sonoma County was similar to the drop in activity across the state, said Jordan Levine, deputy chief economist at the California Association of Realtors. Although the association's statewide housing report for April is not yet complete, Levine said he expects a "double digit" sales decline.

"Pending sales started to drop off almost as soon as shelter-in-place went into effect," he said.

Housing markets in state saw a decline of between 25% to 40%, depending on the region, he said. A good share of that decline, he said, was due to buyers pulling out of transactions and sellers pulling their home off the market. But there are signs of improvement and more activity.

"We've already seen over course of the past week more pending sales and new listings added to MLS," he said. "Both are showing some modest signs of increase. They have improved from where they were three to four weeks ago."

New listings are ramping up. There were 154 single-family homes listed for sale from May 1 to 8, double the number listed two weeks earlier, said Erika Rendino, co-owner of Remax Marketplace in Cotati.

Laws said that's likely to lead to more showings and more sales as coronavirus restrictions continue to loosen and more people come out of "COVID shock."

"Prices are holding and demand is strong," he said.

Laws expects the local housing market will continue to improve, despite the economic blow felt by many Sonoma County residents. Many who have lost their jobs because of the shutdown were likely not in the position to purchase homes in the first place, he said.

"There's still a lot of money out there," he said. "There's a significant number of people who kept their jobs and are not living paycheck to paycheck. They have equity, they have resources."

The DeWolfes have resources, they have a home to sell. But they're also weighing their options.

"We need to decide if California is worth the California premium," said Kevin DeWolfe. "Sonoma County in general is just too expensive."

Tribune Content Agency