In the past few weeks, we have received questions about COVID-19 and how the coronavirus pandemic has affected local real estate markets. Many buyers and sellers are worried about making a move right now, which makes us think real estate has already come to a near-complete halt.


We don't have anything but anecdotal evidence to support this at the moment, but in a few weeks, the real estate response will become clear through monthly data and surveys that will be published by the major players, including the National Association of Realtors, Zillow, Redfin and others. We'll continue to report what we see and make suggestions on how you might want to move forward.


Q: The whole COVID-19 pandemic has made me very nervous about the real estate market and our neighborhood in particular.


What are your thoughts for first-time home buyers purchasing a home right now? Do you feel that it is a good time since interest rates are low? Or do you feel the housing market will crash and buyers should wait?


A: That's a loaded set of questions. Given what we don't know about the coronavirus/COVID-19, where you live, and how long the country (and world) will be locked down, we can't provide a definitive answer.


Let's start with the basics. If you want to move, and you find a home that seems right for you, you have job stability and can get financing at historically low rates, buying a home might be a wise choice and the right thing to do even now.


The same story is true for someone who wants to buy investment property. Ten years ago, the housing crisis gave investors a unique opportunity to scoop up properties at extremely low prices and finance them with also historically low interest rates. While we don't know if property prices will go that low again, and the government is using the CARES Act to try to support Americans by providing cash, deferring mortgage and other debt payments, and keeping businesses from laying off people, many Americans simply won't have enough money and will likely walk away from their properties.


It's difficult to time the real estate market. For decades, it was understood that you could safely put your money into a home, sit back, and watch your home's value go up. In our lifetimes, the real estate market has now suffered at least two major shocks. The first one was the shock of the Great Recession back in 2008 and the second one is the one just beginning with the COVID-19 pandemic.


While most people are focused on the immediate impact of the virus — the lives lost, the health issues, and the immediate financial costs — the longer-term prospects look bleak for the real estate market. As unemployment goes up, the number of people that can afford to buy homes or, at the very least, are willing to buy a home is reduced. Unemployment and job insecurity will contribute to a huge drop in the people looking for real estate.


Without a job, people will have trouble paying rents and mortgages. The current government aid programs are working to get immediate cash to people affected by the current crisis. We won't know whether help will come soon enough, whether help will come to the people that need it most, or whether the cash will simply be enough to help them get by.


During the Great Recession, homeowners didn't get the benefit of most government programs, and the programs that were created took too much time to get up and running and were difficult to apply for and navigate. As a result, millions of homeowners lost their homes through foreclosure. Only time will tell whether the current programs work to help homeowners and renters. We mention renters because as renters stop making their rent payments, those rental unit owners (the investors) will suffer.


We usually think of rental property owners as being large companies or entities, but there are millions of rental units owned by individuals. If those individuals have no income from their tenants, those owners will likely default on their mortgage payments or they might try to sell their units. And, when we say units, those units may be single-family homes, townhouse units or condominium units.


We wish we had a crystal ball to tell so we could give you a long-term forecast. The best advice we can give you is to stick to basics:


1. Determine how long you plan to stay in your new home. If it's less than five years, look for a property in which you can build value.


2. Understand how much you can really spend. This isn't a time to spend beyond your means and hope for the best. It is likely that prices will decline in the short run, so don't overspend.


3. Find a place that meets your needs. Unless you're getting a dream price, you may want to spend for the neighborhood and improve the home over time. (See No. 1 about building in value.)


4. Find the right neighborhood for you. This means that the home must be in the right neighborhood and on the right block. Look for a good school district, as homes in those neighborhoods tend to hold their value better in a declining market and rise faster when the local market is strong.


5. Make sure the financing you obtain is on terms that work for you now.


Ilyce's book, "100 Questions Every First-Time Homebuyer Should Ask," goes through the basics. You'll need a place to live whether you rent or buy, unless you are living with your parents or have other living arrangements. So, the question is whether the funds you pay on a monthly basis go to a landlord or a lender.


As you make that decision, you have to take a long view of the market. Your plan should be to live in your first home for at least five years. Over that time, you'll have the enjoyment of a home and in five years, the market outlook should be quite different from where we are today.


Contact Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin through her website, ThinkGlink.com. (c) 2020 Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin