KEARNEY — In February, as the coronavirus pandemic came ashore in the United States, Kearney real estate agent Rocky Geiser braced for the worst.
Fears of widespread illness, economic disruption and nationwide joblessness signaled a long cold winter for the nation, in general, and for the real estate industry, in particular, said Geiser, a housing market veteran with ReMax Executives Inc.
“I figured it was going to be pretty bad,” said Geiser, who uses data to forecast trends and analyze why they occur.
By late February, his fears seemed to be confirmed.
Kearney’s normally vibrant housing market had stalled as COVID-19 cases accumulated, local employers posted layoffs and the work-from-home trend got underway.
The downturn was short-lived.
In March, as if a magic wand had passed over the local real estate market, home sales took off. It was a perfect storm of buyers seeking the shelter and security of home ownership armed with ultra-low mortgage rates to make their dreams a reality.
For real estate agent Kelsey Janssen of Coldwell Banker Town & Country, the stretch from February through September was the most productive of her career.
“I felt the pandemic would hit us really hard, but people’s homes became their everything,” Janssen said. “The interest rate is probably the biggest driver.”
Mortgage rates were low entering the pandemic, at around 3.5%, but they dropped to 2% to 2.75%, and still are available in that range for qualified borrowers.
According to Geiser, Kearney MLS listings for single-family houses, townhomes and condos show 294 closed transactions March 1-Sept. 30. That means about 45 properties per month were changing hands during the early and midpoints of the pandemic.
Currently, there are 44 active listings in Kearney. That would be less than five weeks worth of inventory, given the recent pace of housing sales, and it places Kearney among some of the nation’s hottest housing markets, according to a study by Insurify, a home insurance comparison website.
The Insurify study ranked Nebraska’s housing market the No. 2 most competitive nationally. The study used factors such as months of property supply, time to sale and the share of homes sold above list price.
At No. 2, Nebraska’s real estate market has been 35% more competitive than the national average between March and September. Kearney real estate agents interviewed about the study said housing markets in the Omaha and Lincoln areas probably contributed most to Nebraska’s No. 2 ranking, but that doesn’t diminish the competitiveness in Kearney.
The top five states, according to Insurify, are:
No. 1 — Washington
No. 2 — Nebraska
No. 3 — Kansas
No. 4 — Oregon
No. 5 — Utah
Neighboring Colorado ranked No. 9, but the high cost of property in that overheated market may have influenced its ranking in the Insurify study.
Kearney real estate agents said they actually sold houses to Coloradans moving to the Kearney area. The Coloradans were motivated by employment and quality of life issues, and some believed Nebraska provided higher value for their real estate investment.
Nicole Straka of Kearney Realty said she warned clients about the competition when they were preparing offers. Straka said frequently during the pandemic frenzy competing buyers offered more than the asking price. “If we had a $400,000 house, you’d say, ‘OK, is it worth an extra $5,000?’”
Another Realtor, Tom McCarty of Coldwell Banker, said if buyers offered more than the asking price, it would be around $1,000 to $3,000 extra. He didn’t experience wild bidding wars, and there generally were no hang-ups selling fairly priced property.
“There were plenty of sales,” McCarty said, “and 40% of them were under 10 days and a lot of them were only one or two days.”
He said the fastest-selling properties were priced $135,000 to $250,000, many of which sold in only 10 days. Janssen, also an agent with Coldwell Banker, was involved in the sale of a $450,000 property. It was on and off the market in just seven days.
Asking prices gradually inched upward to reflect the high demand, Geiser said. “When you keep selling for full price and there are three buyers, you’re going to list them for a little more.”
According to Geiser, of the 294 closed transactions reported on Kearney MLS listings, properties averaged 54 days on the market. The median (middle) was 22 days on the market.
He said the average asking price was $227,900, and the average selling price was $224,500. The median asking price was $215,000 and the median selling price was $210,000.
During one of the pandemic’s most competitive periods — June 1-Sept. 30 — there were 191 transactions. Average days on the market was 45 and median days on the market was 16.
“They were selling at 99% of the asking price,” Geiser said.
The February-September frenzy also was intense and productive for Janssen, but during the rush there were many experiences that reminded her why she is a real estate agent.
“This has been the best year I’ve ever had, and it’s been extremely rewarding to see people buying their first homes,” Janssen said.
Straka said the pandemic constitutes one of the busiest, most productive times in her 24-year career. She said she continues to analyze the experience and to glean lessons from it.
“One of the things I asked was, ‘Where are all of these people coming from?’” Straka said. “The work came in spurts, but at times there were not enough hours in the day. For a pandemic, it was unbelievable.”
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