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Metro Des Moines’ real estate market is showing coronavirus symptoms.

Last year, the Iowa Association of Realtors reported an overall increase in homes sold compared with 2018. Combined with Iowa’s high marks in housing affordability (ranked No. 1 nationally by the U.S. News and World Report), many expected 2020 to be even stronger.

But three months in, the numbers tell a different story. Instead of the usual spring burst of activity, the real estate market appears to be slowing down.

Through March 10, local showings were up 75 percent from the first of the year, according to numbers provided by the Des Moines Area Association of Realtors — a much faster pace than the same period in 2019. But from March 10 to March 24, as the number of Iowa COVID-19 cases went from a handful to hundreds and business closures proliferated, the total number of showings dropped back to where it was at the start of 2020.

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According to Les Sulgrove, the vice president at VIA Group, Realtors in West Des Moines, the metro averaged about 789 open houses per week between Jan. 8 and March 17. But from March 18-24, that number dropped to 334. Last week, there were just 303.

"People are saying, 'We don’t want anybody or as many people in our house,'" said Sulgrove, a licensed Realtor since 1990, who compiles market data he provides to buyers and sellers throughout central Iowa. "And Realtors are saying, 'We’re not going to allow for open houses because of what we have going on.'"

Throughout the year, total weekly pending sales were either equal to or greater than they were a year ago, Sulgrove’s research found. But last week marked the first time there were fewer pending sales than there were at the same time last year.

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“If that number goes down even more next week,” Sulgrove said, “it’ll be another indication that the market is generally slowing down.”

Gina Swanson, a Century 21 Signature Real Estate agent in Urbandale, has taken all the extra precautions when it comes to showing and selling homes.

She places hand sanitizer at homes' front doors. She’s asked potential buyers to either cover their shoes or take them off, to not touch any door handles or surfaces, and to stay home if they’re sick. No more open houses, either. And, of course, the traditional handshakes to seal deals are on hold.

“We’re having to get creative with how we’re serving our clients,” said Swanson, who’s worked in real estate since 2013. “Like everybody in every industry, we’re taking it day by day.”

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Obstacles have already emerged for her and other Realtors around the metro over the past month. She had one potential buyer who postponed. She’s advised some sellers to hold off because of their age and health.

She’s even prepared to go fully digital if the pandemic continues to the point that a stay-at-home order comes down in Iowa.

“It wouldn’t be ideal, but I’ve helped people buy houses that they’ve never even walked through because they had to,” Swanson said. “It does happen. If (a stay-at-home order) was put into place, it would slow things down tremendously.

“This is uncharted territory. This is really day to day. Whatever the governor and officials tell us to do, we’re going to listen. It could change hour to hour.”

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Real estate agents nationwide have felt the effects of the coronavirus on their markets. The National Association of Realtors conducted a series of flash surveys earlier this month that provide a snapshot.

On March 9, 78% of the residential agents it surveyed across the United States said they believed COVID-19 was having no effect on buyer interest in their market, while 13% said there had been a decrease in interest. By March 16, 48% said there was a decrease in buyer interest becuase of COVID-19.

But Realtors aren't packing up their "For Sale" signs just yet.

“This isn’t totally unexpected,” Sulgrove said. “I think, long-term, we’re going to be just fine. I don’t expect market values to take a huge hit. It’s more of a pause.

“There are going to be markets that are hit harder,” he added, “but Iowa’s never been one of those markets that has huge swings one way or the other.”

Some Realtors say that, here in metro Des Moines, COVID-19 has not deterred the more serious homebuyers, who are hoping to take advantage of low interest rates.

The current average rate in Iowa, according to Bankrate, is 3.68% for a 30-year fixed mortgage, less than half a percentage point above a historic low in March.

“The people in the market right now are serious buyers who had it on their radars and clearly feel good about their job prospects in the future,” said Rob Doheny of Next Generation Realty. “The last two weeks, we’ve actually sold many more houses than we expected.

“When it first hit, the first worry that popped into our minds was that nobody was going to look at a house for fear of the virus. But that just did not materialize.”

The biggest worry, Doheny said, is that the number of listings won't keep up with demand. From March 3-10, 426 homes went on the market, according to numbers compiled by Sulgrove. That number has steadily dropped throughout March, to just 254 over the past week.

“I’ve got a file cabinet full of information on people who intended to list this month and get started,” Doheny said. “The people who haven’t gotten started have been reluctant to get on the market.

“We were all ready for a body blow that just didn’t come. Now, if people don’t list their homes, there’s going to be fallout from that. The coming four weeks will be the window where we see what’s really going to happen.”

Cody Goodwin normally covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register, but is pitching in with COVID-19 coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

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