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Jose Urquilla, an Echols County deputy, and his wife, Rebeca Urquilla, are new homeowners. They recently purchased their Valdosta house through Southern Classic Realtors during an ongoing pandemic.

                                             

VALDOSTA – As first-time buyers, the Urquillas became discouraged while shopping for their dream home in the middle of a pandemic. They almost gave up.

Jose Urquilla, a deputy with the Echols County Sheriff's Office, spent last year searching for a house with his wife, Rebeca, and their two children. Rebeca is a nurse.

The couple no longer wanted to rent but they discovered bumps along the road to becoming new homeowners.

They faced complications – challenges with viewing homes because of the pandemic and gathering an acceptable form of a down payment, Urquilla said.

The Valdosta resident said after a long period of saving, he and his wife learned a down payment could not be made in cash.

"It was difficult to find a way to fix that mistake that we made on our part, so that right there was one of the more difficult moments for us where we kind of felt like maybe we should back out and I'm glad we didn't," Urquilla said.

"I'm glad we didn't back out because I'm happy and proud to be a homeowner. I've always dreamed of owning my own home, and where I live now is a beautiful place; love the neighborhood and I feel like we can give a place for my kids to grow up and be happy."

Experts say the cost of buying a home has skyrocketed in recent months.

Rentals are becoming scarce as residents are nervous to move and are renewing their leases, according to property managers. Similar to rentals, brokers said supply is not meeting the demand for homes for sale.  

The Valdosta Daily Times researched the housing market in Lowndes County and surrounding areas. Results show there are minimal evictions and higher-priced homes in the past year. 

herndon

Amanda M. Usher | The Valdosta Daily Times

James Lee Herndon is the broker/owner of The Herndon Company, and Marissa Brooks is the property manager at Herndon. Both agree the pandemic has created a seller's market in Lowndes County and surrounding areas.

'The Perfect Storm'

James Lee Herndon, owner of The Herndon Company, has been a licensed agent since 1969 and became a broker around 1982. He said in his 52 years of experience, he's never seen a market such as the one the pandemic delivered. 

"Normally when home-selling is at the excellent level, we start having vacancies in property management because a lot of the tenants are new homebuyers," he said. 

"This is the one market that we can remember when property management is running at a high level at the same time home sales are. They normally run in opposite of each other."

Usually, high-interest rates cause the amount of renters to increase and the amount of buyers to decrease, Herndon said. Low-interest rates trigger a reverse reaction.  

Low demand and a higher supply of homes forces low prices and vice-versa.

Unforeseen and unexpectedly, the scales are now equal, not tipping one way or the other, Herndon said. 

Not only affected by the pandemic and current low-interest rates, the market has been impacted by the transition of presidential leadership and approach, he said. 

Buyers and sellers are battling high-priced costs due to lack of building materials as manufacturers are hit by the pandemic. Herndon said a person could wait two months to have access to a refrigerator. 

Toward the end of March, the price of lumber had increased by 150%, Herndon said. 

"We were going into a very healthy market, and then, the pandemic slowed the pipeline down," he said. " ... The price of lumber has increased the price of building that three-bedroom, two-bath average home in America by $16,000." 

These factors have created a "fear of loss," he said. 

"Let's just call this the perfect storm because that's what it is," Herndon said. "If the pandemic had waited a year or two and we got through this good economic cycle, it probably wouldn't have hurt us quite as bad as it does now. We were going into a very healthy economic cycle."

Tony Barker is the broker/owner of both RE/MAX of Valdosta and Anchor Realty of South Georgia. He has invested 24 years into the industry and said – like Herndon – the current housing climate is new to him.

He said "nothing compares to what it is now" with buyers going above asking price. Barker said the last 12 properties that he's listed have entered contracts at or above asking price within the first week.

"Right now, properties in Lowndes County, for the most part, are worth more than they've ever been," he said. "The price of new construction is up because material costs and labor prices are both up; so, that's significantly increased the cost per square-foot of new construction. And then, new construction prices, they increase because they pull existing homes up, as well."

Pamela Miller, property manager at Anchor, said she's been told it's more cost-efficient to use metal roofing opposed to shingles due to the rising price of shingles.

Michelle Pitchford, realtor for Southern Classic Realtors, has been in real estate since 2009. She is also a certified Homes for Heroes realtor.

She said though the real estate market slowed at the onset of the pandemic, it gained momentum by summertime. In March and April, Pitchford had no clients but acquired several starting in May last year, she said.

The last leg of the year was bustling, she said. 

January through March is normally considered a slow period for Southern Classic Realtors, having a shortage of houses and buyers, whereas Pitchford said work only got busier.

"I have never seen a market this busy," she said. 

michelle pitchford

Amanda M. Usher | The Valdosta Daily Times

Michelle Pitchford, realtor for Southern Classic Realtors, said it's difficult to find houses in the South Georgia region to sell due to the pandemic.

Supply and Demand

Renters and buyers are not solely local as real-estate professionals said people are coming from other parts of the country. They believe the constant relocations may possibly be due to current relaxed COVID-19 restrictions in Georgia. 

Pitchford surmised movement is due to riots being held in other cities. She said with people working from home, they're able to do their jobs from anywhere. 

Miller believes the increased cost of living in other states is causing people to come to the South Georgia region.

These newcomers are wanting to rent and buy, joining the pool of residents looking to move during the pandemic.

In early March, residential inventory dropped nationally to 46% in 2020, Herndon said. His company came close to that percentage, he said.

Marissa Brooks, licensed property manager at The Herndon Company, said the business' rental properties were 98% occupied in early March. This means out of 700 properties, few were vacant and available for renting. Rentals were 92% occupied in 2019 and were 95% occupied in 2020.

"The economy kind of stopped everything," she said. "It shocked everybody. We did see a lot of non-movement in properties." 

She said tenants did not want to leave their homes for fear of not finding somewhere else to live.

"The market is extremely demanding, so we didn't see a whole lot of movement for a couple of months but people still also needed homes," Brooks said. "So, we still were able to help those applicants that were applying for properties that needed to move, which it wasn't a whole lot right when it hit – I guess, the beginning of it last year." 

She said The Herndon Company typically has more rentals available.

Herndon and Pitchford said homes for sale are being bid on as soon as they hit the market. Right when houses are listed, offers are being made. 

Homes for sale are receiving multiple offers, affording sellers the ability to choose who they want to purchase their house, Pitchford said. 

Pitchford quoted the Georgia Realtors saying houses costing between $150,000 and $250,000 remained on the market for an average 40 days in past months. Locally, she said the average amount is lower than 40 days. 

Houses being financed by Veterans Affairs loans aren't "staying on the market a week," Pitchford said.

She said houses are being bought quicker than she's ever seen causing low inventory. Move-in ready homes can have offers from seven or more people, she said.

In her earlier years, she said there were 1,200 availabilities ready for sale.

As of early March, there were 395 houses, commercial properties and land properties available for sale in Valdosta, Lakeland, Adel, Nashville and Brooks County, Pitchford said. In the region, there were 804.

At The Herndon Company, in early March, 260 properties were available to sell. Normally, Herndon said inventory could get as high as 700-800 houses.

Barker said the Valdosta Board of Realtors – which covers Lowndes, Brooks, Cook, Lanier, Berrien and Echols counties – has reached its peak at about 280 realtors. The list of active residential listing is less than 200. 

"So, we have less than one per agent," he said. 

Barker said while RE/MAX's sales are operating at high volume, the company's listing inventory is low; meaning several people are wanting to buy homes but not many homes are being listed.

Correctly priced properties in good settings are moving within 48 hours thanks to multiple offers, he said. 

Anchor manages about 750 units with four being vacant in early April, Barker said. He said mortgages are currently lower than rental amounts.

"If people can buy, they're choosing to buy because their payments would be lower purchasing it than it would be on a rental," he said. "The people that can buy with rates where they are, are choosing to buy. Sometimes, they can't find what they want to and they're choosing rentals but rentals are actually harder to come by right now than sales."

Miller calls the situation a daily battle.

"As fast as we can get one ready, it's rented," she said. 

Barker and Miller agree it's a race with people quickly approaching them with money in hand ready to apply for a property.

From January 2019 through March 2019, Miller said there were 19 new leases.

"I had less inventory available and in stock then than I did in 2020," she said. "But from Jan. 1, 2020 through March 1, 2020 – and we went into lockdown 10 days later – I did 35 leases," she said. "So, it hasn't slowed us down at all."

anchor realty

Amanda M. Usher | The Valdosta Daily Times

Pamela Miller, property manager at Anchor Realty of South Georgia, and Tony Barker, broker/owner of RE/MAX of Valdosta and Anchor, said it's difficult to keep both rentals and homes for sale on the market. Anchor manages Carriage Crossing, which had at least one vacancy as of early April.

Money, Money, Money

Though the health crisis caused an economic crisis nationwide, experts said people can afford new houses because of loans and low-interest rates.

Barker said people are qualifying for houses and others are refinancing. 

On April 8, Wells Fargo reported on its website a 3.125% interest rate for a 30-year fixed rate for a conforming loan in the amount of $200,000. The annual percentage rate was 3.238%. 

A 20-year fixed rate for a conforming loan in the same amount showed 2.875% interest and a 3.019% APR; a 15-year fixed rate had 2.375% interest and 2.595% APR at Wells Fargo.

Mortgage rates at Bank of America were similar, according to April 8 data on its website.

Interest was 3% with a 3.177% APR for a 30-year fixed rate at BofA. A 20-year fixed rate had 3% interest and a 3.257% APR. A 15-year fixed rate had 2.250% interest and a 2.557% APR.

"It's kind of a double-edged sword. Right now, you're going to pay more for a home than you would have two years ago but your interest rate's so much lower that it, for the most part, offsets," Barker said. 

"If you look at it over the long-haul, you're still paying the same even though you're paying more at a low interest rate. Your payments are relatively unchanged than what they would've been."

Though low-interest rates worked in favor of buyers, stricter guidelines did not. Pitchford said it's now more difficult to purchase a house than it was pre-pandemic.

She gave the example of a Federal Housing Administration loan backed by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Prior to the pandemic, she said a FHA loan could be processed for a person with a credit score of 570 or 580. 

"When COVID-19 hit, you had to have at least a 640," she said. 

On a Veterans Affairs loan, Pitchford said mortgage companies are calling up until the day before closing day to verify a person's employment. 

She recalls a male client who was relocating to Valdosta from Japan. With an Air Force base in Valdosta, she said she did not hesitate to believe he would remain active-duty. 

A week before closing, she received a call from the mortgage company stating the man would be unemployed once he moved to Valdosta. He applied for a job but had not been offered one. 

"We had to wait to make sure he had the job and they had to write a letter," Pitchford said, "and then we had to wait for his first paycheck."

The criteria for rentals at Herndon is the same as it was before the pandemic, Brooks said. Renters must endure employment verification, have their rental history checked, go through credit and background checks and make three times the amount of monthly rent. 

Landlords represented by Herndon were willing to work with their tenants, allowing them to make payments on separate dates until the full balance was paid, staff said. 

Both Herndon and Brooks agreed that Valdosta did not suffer a significant impact due to job loss. Herndon surmises the paycheck protection program helped working people pay their rent or mortgage. 

"We, in Valdosta, were very fortunate," he said.

Herndon said a major criterion mandated by the government is a person must have income to either rent or buy property. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended an eviction moratorium through June 30, which states a person cannot be evicted solely for nonpayment of rent or "on the sole basis that they are alleged to have committed the crime of trespass (or similar state law offense) where the underlying activity is a covered person remaining in a residential property despite nonpayment of rent," it states. 

The new 17-page order took effect April 1 and can be viewed in its entirety at https://bit.ly/2PMD0Zj.

In the past year, Anchor has had four tenants who said they could not pay rent due to the pandemic. Two are active and have been resolved; the other two were under the moratorium as of early April, Miller said.

Finding a Dream Home

Jose Urquilla was able to find his new Valdosta home in the pandemic through Pitchford and the Homes for Heroes program. 

According to its website, Homes for Heroes was established after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks "to give back" to first-responders and teachers and health care professionals. The program helps them save money when buying or selling a home.

"That process was probably the easiest I've ever encountered," he said. "She was extremely helpful. She knew it was our first time buying a home, so she guided us and used her knowledge and her experience to help us succeed and not undetermined or feel like we couldn't do what we set out to do, so I applaud that service and what it stands for."

Touring was a hurdle Urquilla said he and his wife had to overcome when searching for their house. 

For a certain period, some companies prohibited people from entering homes to view before purchasing. They instead relied on video tours and photos. 

At Herndon, Brooks said people had to submit an application for a rental property before being able to check out the key to see the property.

Urquilla said virtual tours and photos do not compare to physical walkthroughs. 

When touring, the deputy said he and his wife were basically alone while conducting an in-person walkthrough.  

"There was no real conversation with anyone," he said. 

Fortunately for the Urquillas, they walked through the house they eventually chose to purchase. It is a four-bedroom, two-bathroom structure.

"When I walked into this home, it felt like it was the right home for us, and we felt comfortable," he said. "We loved the neighborhood, and we thought that this was going to be our best decision to buy and we went for it."

He does not regret the selection, he said. 

Having spoken to friends who previously went through the home-buying process, Urquilla said he was told procedures were less strict than before the pandemic. However, he thought the process to be extremely thorough.

"When I went through it, I felt like we were always under the glass so to speak, constantly viewing things, wanting more and it was a stressful time – with it being my first home and purchasing – experiencing anything like that," he said, "so it was challenging, but I'm glad that we took the leap and went for it."

Urquilla advises anyone wanting to buy a home to immediately start saving money in a savings account and to monitor the debt to income ratio. He also suggests credit monitoring.

As for buying a home in a pandemic, he said there are pros and cons. 

"The houses, they're not plentiful," he said, "but the ones you find are beautiful." 

Resources

Rental Assistance: georgiarentalassistance.ga.gov/

Mortgage Assistance: hud.gov/states/georgia/homeownership/buyingprgms
Avoiding Foreclosure: hud.gov/states/georgia/homeownership/foreclosure

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