WESTFIELD, NJ — Despite the downturn of many businesses over the last few months as a result of COVID-19, the real estate market in Westfield and surrounding towns has been heating up. Except for a few slow weeks when stay-at-home orders went into effect in mid-March, local realtors are reporting sizable increases in sales.

Local realtors are saying that the majority of their buyers are coming from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Hoboken and Jersey City. This is unchanged from before the pandemic, but decisions are being made more quickly now, and home sales are up, along with those seeking short-term rentals.

“I’m taking similar calls every day,” said Kristen Lichtenthal, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Realty East in Westfield. “They say, ‘We weren’t really going to move until next year, but COVID has accelerated our search.’  All the things they love about the city, like restaurants and museums, just aren’t available anymore.”

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Lichtenthal has been discussing the increased migration of city-dwellers to the suburbs in bi-weekly panels on Talk Real Estate LIVE via Facebook, with the next session held on June 11. Along with a lifestyle expert and realtors from Long Island and Manhattan, they answer questions about inventory, bidding wars and other recent real estate issues.

In addition to lifestyle, space is also a consideration.

“Some of the people in urban areas are now rethinking about what they want their home life to be,” said Susan Massa of Keller Williams Premier Properties on Elm Street. “Their setup may not be as desirable as it once was. The confinement due to COVID has initiated the look for homes with outside space, and it’s going to propel them forward.”

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“I have clients that I’ve been in touch with for a few years who are now ready to make a move,” said Erin Ben-Hayon with David Realty Group in Westfield. “Some families live in small apartments and have been going outside with their children just once a week.”

Because many have been working from home over the last few months, their real estate priorities have also shifted.

“The feeling is that things may be a little different going forward,” said Mary Ellen O’Boyle, broker associate with Prominent Properties/Sotheby’s International Realty on North Avenue. “Buyers know they may be working from home, and they are looking for a dedicated office. They want more space and a backyard where they can go with the kids.”

O’Boyle also believes that commute time may be less of a consideration than it had been in the past, as many expect to continue working from home at least some of the time.

The realtors agree that buyers seem more willing to make concessions now.

“People are making decisions quickly,” said Massa. “They are willing to overlook certain flaws in order to get into the house or location they want.”

The selling and buying process also looks a little different now due to the pandemic. Potential buyers are required to wear masks, gloves and booties to cover shoes when entering a home for sale.  

“We are doing ‘no-touch’ showings, which means that sellers leave interior doors open and lights on, buyers are discouraged from bringing children along and only one or two people enter the home at a time,” said O’Boyle. Despite these precautions, buyers and sellers also sign a “Hold Harmless Release Regarding COVID-19,” which keeps both parties free of blame in the unlikely case either contracts COVID-19 during the process.

Realtors have also become creative in how to change their business practices and show the homes that are on the market. Buyers can take a preliminary virtual look through a home before committing to an in-person visit.

Massa has been walking potential buyers through homes while on video calls. Lichtenthal has invited her clients to Westfield, where she takes them on a “socially-distanced” tour through town; she stays in her car, and they follow behind in theirs, connected by phone the entire time.

Most expect the real estate market to continue its upward pattern and lead the economic recovery. Ben-Hayon recommends that those who are ready to sell consider putting their home on the market sooner rather than later.

“Things have changed very quickly, and now is the time,” said Ben-Hayon. “Inventory is low, so many homes that in the past would have been on the market for six months are selling in a month.”

With outdoor dining and phased opening of retail coming in the next few weeks, Westfield’s downtown will appeal to urban transplants, as they see more people connecting in the community.

Correction: A caption on this story has been corrected to reflect that the photo was taken in Scotch Plains and not Westfield, as was previously stated.

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