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When Kassi Horton's husband, Army Staff Sgt. Shaun Horton, received a cross-country change in assignment in the midst of a pandemic, she knew their homebuying process would be atypical.

Kassi Horton, 27, and her husband, 28, had been living in a rental in upstate New York and felt it was time to purchase their first home in their new location, Colorado Springs. But they didn't want to deal with the health risks and quarantine rules involved with flying back and forth to look at properties. And they didn't have the luxury of travel time anyway: The housing market in Colorado Springs, like many cities across America, is white-hot, with homes selling hours after hitting the market, often at 20% above the asking price.

So they jumped on an increasingly popular bandwagon for first-time buyers and made an offer on a home they had never seen in person. Eight more offers followed. For the Hortons, the ninth time was the charm, and in late January they moved into a new three-bedroom, two-bath home that they purchased entirely online.

Low mortgage rates and a drastically low housing inventory, created by societal shifts from the coronavirus pandemic, have raised the stakes on the housing market in many places. But even if competition is fierce and the process often confusing, first-time buyers seem determined to enter the market, often accelerating plans for homeownership.

The share of first-time buyers in the housing market reached 36% in April 2020, according to the National Association of Realtors, up from 31% in 2018 and 2019. And those buyers were older — the median age of a first-time buyer in 1981 was 31. Today it's 34.

Millennials — generally defined as those born between 1981 and 1996 — represent the largest contingent of homebuyers in the United States, despite the fact that millennials are much more likely to have lost work or have entered the gig economy because of the pandemic, factors that make it harder to qualify for a home loan.

They're also entering one of the most competitive housing markets in decades. The median sales price of single-family homes rose more than 10% percent in 88% of U.S. metro areas, pushing the monthly mortgage payment for a typical single-family home up to $1,040 in February, according to the National Association of Realtors. With mortgage rates remaining near historic lows despite recent increases, mortgage applications for home purchases and refinancing are way up.

At the same time, the stock of active listings is 40% lower than it was one year ago. And in September 2020, more than 22% of all U.S. homes were sold above list price, compared with 15% in September 2018 and 2019.

But millennials have one extra tool in their shopping arsenal, and that's their tech-savviness. According to an October survey from realtor.com, nearly half of millennial home shoppers were planning to buy a home sooner than expected because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The increased pressure on the market has been coupled with widespread adoption of tech tools that allow buyers to not just browse real estate but also apply for loans, finalize deals and even have documents notarized, all while social distancing from their sofas.

Sixty-three percent of buyers who used Redfin in November and December went on to make an offer on a home they hadn't seen in person, and monthly views of 3D walk-throughs on the site are up more than 500% since February 2020.

"In this market, because the homes are gone so quickly, if I had contacted the agent and set up a showing, by then they could have had five other offers," Kassi Horton said.

The couple, whose budget was capped at $350,000, did use a broker in Colorado Springs. But rather than follow the traditional route of letting her choose homes for them to see, they went on virtual tours on sites like zillow.com and realtor.com and then sent the broker out to film video on their behalf. To vet the surrounding streets of an unfamiliar neighborhood, they checked local crime rates online, used Google Maps and looked up rankings of local school districts (the couple do not have children but hope to).

After repeatedly finding themselves outbid, they made an offer that was accepted and signed all of their paperwork, with the exception of their closing documents, using DocuSign. (A number of states passed emergency measures during COVID-19 that allow for remote notarization, and 29 states have remote online notary laws on the books.)

Some first-time buyers have resorted to online shopping after trying, and growing exasperated with, traditional methods of house hunting.

Ashlee and Ken Aiello, who are closing on their new home in Gaithersburg, Md., this month, are among them.

"We didn't plan on shopping from the computer," Ashlee Aiello, 30, an assistant chemistry professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, said. Ken Aiello, 39, works from home as a postdoctoral research scholar with Arizona State University.

Ashlee Aiello was recently awarded a postdoctoral research fellowship in Gaithersburg, which is about an hour away from their current rental. The couple decided to buy their first home in Gaithersburg rather than commute from Annapolis.

"We were planning on doing it the traditional way, and we would drive down and look at a house every time we liked it. But the drive was wearing on us, and also the market is so hot that we knew that every time we saw a house we liked, we would have to drive down that same day if we even wanted to have a chance of getting a home," she said.

They hired a Gaithersburg broker to visit properties in person for them, with a budget between $475,000 and $500,000. Their broker set up three-way Zoom meetings on her smartphone at each property, walking through with Ashlee Aiello watching from her office at work and Ken Aiello watching from home.

After making offers on four houses, and being rejected, their fifth offer — at $500,000 — was accepted. When they saw the property in person, Ashlee Aiello said it was better than she could have imagined.

"It lived up to all the hype in my head," she said. "I was pleasantly surprised."

Shira Anderson, her husband, Yochai Ben-Haim, and their daughter, Alma, in Los Altos, Calif.
Shira Anderson, her husband, Yochai Ben-Haim, and their daughter, Alma, in Los Altos, Calif.

JIM WILSON, New York Times

Others whose lives have been upended by the pandemic are shopping online in a bid to regain some serenity.

Shira Anderson, 34, and her husband, Yochai Ben-Haim, 39, were living in Washington, D.C., with a new baby when the pandemic hit. Anderson is a lawyer and her husband works in the energy sector; both soon found themselves working from home full time with an infant in tow. Eager for more space and more consistent child care, they packed up and flew to Los Altos, Calif., where Anderson's parents live.

Aa year later, they are still there.

"I feel really ready to have something more permanent," Anderson said. "And the idea of going back to D.C. is a little bit daunting. We don't have family there, and with the pandemic there's a lot to feel anxious about."

The couple were shopping for a house before they packed up for California, and have decided to now try to complete the buying process remotely so they will have a house to return to. They look at listings on Zillow and Redfin constantly. And when they see homes they like, they have a broker in D.C. take pictures or video. Friends sometimes check out houses for them, too.

Their budget is in the $1 million range, with an added cushion built in for construction costs. They plan to complete the entire buying process from California, and they aren't even sure if they would fly out for a final inspection.

Brokers, who saw most of their open houses shut down during the pandemic, have been quick to adapt to technology as well, with many offering virtual tours and embracing tools like TikTok and Instagram to help market their homes.

But other brokers recommend a large dose of caution before jumping into the online market.

"The first time, it's all so overwhelming and tough to grasp how the process even works. And now you're being asked to compete at a very high level," said Michelle Kolker, a San Diego broker with Kolker Real Estate Group. She added that first-time buyers, especially those who are shopping online, might not have been made aware of, for instance, the need for inspection contingencies or the benefit of establishing a timeline in which the seller will make agreed-upon repairs.

Zillow, which reports that traffic to its for-sale listings jumped 41% in 2020, found in a July 2020 survey that 36% of Americans would be more likely to buy a home entirely online. Zillow President Jeremy Wacksman said the company plans to update that survey next month. In the meantime, traffic to Zillow's suite of online tools, which include the ability to create 3D home tours on a smartphone as well as technology that allows remote signing and notarization, points to those numbers holding steady.

"We've seen an explosion," he said, adding that in the early months of the pandemic, creation of 3D home tours on zillow.com increased 750%. DotLoop, a remote signing and notary service that Zillow acquired in 2015, has been one of the biggest pandemic sleepers.

"That was technology that was available but was barely used because the existing process was working, but now all of a sudden if you could avoid getting together, you figured out a way to remote-sign," he said.

Not all first-time home shoppers are enamored of the idea of buying sight-unseen. But even for those who prefer to see before they buy, new technologies are making the mortgage process much more streamlined.

Companies such as Rocket Mortgage, QuickenLoans and loanDepot are all seeing huge gains in traffic as consumers look for digital alternatives to traditional mortgages and loan applications. Rocket Mortgage reported that its online closings in the first nine months of 2020 were double those of 2019; Better Mortgage, a fully digital lender that charges no fees and no commission, reported a 200% increase in applications since the start of the pandemic.

Didier Morais in West New York, N.J. He used Better Mortgage, a fully digital lender, to get a mortgage when he decided to move from Manhattan.
Didier Morais in West New York, N.J. He used Better Mortgage, a fully digital lender, to get a mortgage when he decided to move from Manhattan.

JIM WILSON, New York Times

They've also seen a 102% increase in the number of first-time buyers using their service over the last year. The company, which funds $4 billion in home loans, counts Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac among its network of investors.

"Millennials are a more digitally savvy generation," said Sarah Pierce, Better Mortgage's head of operations. "When they come to us, they've looked on Zillow for a home, they've Googled mortgage rates. They're not going down to their local mom-and-pop shop for a loan on Main Street."

Didier Morais, 32, an entertainment publicist, used Better Mortgage when he decided last year to move from his apartment in Manhattan, and set his budget between $270,000 and $300,000 toward a condo in West New York, New Jersey. He also decided to forgo hiring a buyer's broker, choosing instead to work with the listing agent on the property he first saw online and ultimately decided to buy.

"People are going to go a more independent route when it comes to homebuying," he said. "And the world is heading in a more digital direction. When you can cut out a middleman and have more control of the process, why would you pay someone if you can handle it yourself?"