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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Remote Work: Adjusting to (and Thriving in) the New Normal

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much in full swing, many states are navigating the process of reopening. That means many American workers who were formerly claiming unemployment benefits will start needing to look for work again; while those wages never reached the same level as temporary disability payments in California (which can be up to $5,077 per month), the inflated weekly benefit from the pandemic was able to keep many laid-off staff members afloat until now.

Of course, not everyone has been furloughed over the past few months. While stenographers and court reporters -- who can make up to $70,000 during their first year in the field -- were largely unable to work due to court closures, many businesses have been able to shift to a completely remote workforce over the past few months. Even professionals who typically rely on physical interactions with clients have had to make changes. If you're a real estate agent (which is typically a lucrative endeavor, as real estate has outperformed the stock market two-to-one since 2000), you might have to get creative in order to show off available properties or virtually meet with prospective buyers and sellers.

But with many areas entering the final stages of reopening, many employees and business owners hope that they'll be back to work as usual before too long. However, the danger of the coronavirus is far from over -- and without a vaccine, our best defenses continue to be frequent hand-washing, mask-wearing, and social distancing. As you might have already guessed, none of these measures is especially conducive to the traditional office environment or any occupation that requires you to work in close quarters with others.

So what's the solution? It might be to make a permanent shift to working from home. Roughly 72 percent of people surveyed by said they'd be hesitant to return to an office even when they were allowed to do so and 60% said they have no desire to return to in-person meetings. Instead, 45.5 percent of new job seekers will adjust to working remotely, with 42 percent specifically seeking out remote positions. Many big-name employers are making adjustments in order to stay fully staffed in this new normal, with tech leaders including Google, Twitter, and Facebook allowing employees to either extend work-from-home arrangements or continue remote work indefinitely.

Of course, remote work isn't a possibility for every business. But the pandemic did force many organizations to take a closer look at the jobs they used to insist could be performed only on-site. Much to their surprise, some found that their employees were perfectly capable of doing their jobs without ever coming into the office. And as a result, even smaller companies are allowing their employees to continue operations from the comfort of their homes for the time being whenever possible.

That said, there are some definite challenges to remote work. Cybersecurity is an ongoing issue for many businesses, as employees may be inclined to use their personal devices and unsecured connections when working from home. In fact, a recent survey showed that 52 percent of employees felt they could get away with riskier behaviors pertaining to cybersecurity when they worked outside of the office setting. Whether you're an independent contractor or you're managing a team of staff, it's important to invest in cybersecurity measures (like VPNs, password lockers, and other types of encryption) to ensure both professional and personal data stays safe during this time.

Another challenge is productivity. Although older data suggests that employees may be more productive when they're able to embrace more flexible work arrangements, the pandemic has forced many family members to stay home at one time. An employee who's trying to balance Zoom work meetings, homeschooling, and other obligations likely won't be able to give their all in every situation -- no matter how much they care. Still, the upside is that remote work has forced many businesses to streamline and embrace leaner operations; with fewer distractions and unnecessary meetings, it's easier to see what's really essential to get the job done. Many major businesses are reporting that productivity has gone up during the pandemic, as well, which just goes to show that some are actually thriving right now. But regardless, individual employees will need to work out logistics with other members of the household and discuss how goals will be set and met with their managers if they want to stay productive. And if you don't already have a designated room for work with a bit of privacy and quiet, you'll want to establish one if you want to keep working from home.

Remote work certainly isn't the ideal scenario for everyone. Many employees thrive off of social interaction, meaning that they may not do as well in isolation. Working from home can make it more difficult to concentrate for some -- and if there isn't enough oversight, it can be hard for some employees to really care enough to perform as well as they used to while in the office. But for others, working remotely is the ideal scenario that provides more solitude, more control, and more flexibility. If your office plans to continue with remote work, you'll want to conduct a thorough self-assessment to determine your own feelings about it, the challenges you face, and the actions you'll need to take in order to be successful. As many are finding out, remote work may be crucial to our economic success in the future... but it may require some major adjustments along the way.

Houzz & Home Study Reveals Latest Remodeling Trends

Every year, the U.S. Houzz & Home study evaluates the latest trends in home renovations, revealing what Americans value the most in their living space. This survey is the largest publicly available survey on residential remodeling, decorating, and building activity in the United States. The latest iteration of the survey gathered information from over 87,000 respondents and revealed some interesting insights, primarily regarding generational differences and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impact the home renovation market in the first half of 2020.

According to the 2020 U.S. Houzz & Home study, the national median spending amount on a home renovation project in 2019 was $13,000. This is down a bit from $15,000 the year before. Despite this decrease, however, homeowners still spent more than what they had planned to spend in 2019, the median of which was just $10,000.

One of the most significant findings of the survey was that older generations are leading the residential remodeling market. In 2019, Baby Boomers made up 55% of renovating homeowners on Houzz, up from 52 percent the year before. Gen Xers, which the survey categorizes as people between ages 40 and 54, account for 30 percent of renovating homeowners. Millennials, who are between ages 25 and 39, represented just 12 percent of renovating homeowners, down from 14 percent in 2018.

According to the survey, 58% of Baby Boomers renovated because they had been wanting to for some time while 43% of Millennials wanted to renovate because they recently purchased a home. As the Baby Boomer generation now represents people between ages 55 and 74, this division between the generations could be contributed to the Baby Boomers' desire to create a home in which they can stay for the rest of their lives.

"Baby Boomers, particularly those who have been in their homes for more than six years, are continuing to drive renovation activity and spend, bringing consistency to the market as they pursue projects that will allow them to age in place for the next decade or more," said Marine Sargsyan, senior economist at Houzz.

As to what the various generations were renovating, kitchens and bathrooms continued to take the lead. In general, homeowners remodel over 10.2 million kitchens and 14.2 million bathrooms every year. In 2019, 26 percent of renovating homeowners remodeled their kitchen, 20 percent focused on their master bathroom, and 24 percent renovated another bathroom in the home. The home office was the least popular space to renovate in 2019, with just nine percent of renovating homeowners focusing on that room. Millennials and Gen Xers were more likely to pursue a home office project than Baby Boomers.

Another trend during renovations in 2019 was the purchase of smart technology. Almost one-quarter of renovating homeowners made tech-related purchases and out of these, almost 70% of them were smart devices, which allow homeowners to monitor or control the device's function from a smartphone or computer. With 2.5 million burglaries occurring every year, 12% of smart tech purchases were alarms or detectors for home security systems. Purchases of outdoor technology were also driven by a focus on security, with security cameras accounting for 17% of those purchases and two in five of those cameras providing smart technology. Other popular smart tech purchases included smart lights, thermostats, and home assistants.

Despite the multitude of changes the COVID-19 pandemic caused across all industries, it didn't bring home renovations to a total halt. The Houzz & Home survey was fielded between Jan 2 and March 5, 2020, just before the virus started to spread significantly across the U.S. and it was declared a global pandemic. At that time, about 51% of homeowners planned to continue or start renovations this year and 36% of homeowners planned to make repairs.

In subsequent surveys after quarantines and lockdowns went into place across the country, over half of homeowners who were in the middle of a project were able to continue with their renovations. Depending on the project, many homeowners have had to delay their renovations to maintain social distancing measures. According to David Merrick, chairman of the government affairs committee for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), contractors are more likely to take on outside projects over inside projects. This means that renovation projects like replacing a roof or revamping the landscaping have been the more popular projects.

While the 2021 Houzz & Home survey may look quite different from the 2020 survey because of the pandemic, there are certainly still plenty of homeowners who will be making improvements to their homes. Whether they're using some of the 80 million tons of steel that is recycled in North America every year to create eye-catching additions or they're re-painting their entire first floor, people will be looking to make their homes more comfortable and aesthetically-enjoyable after being cooped up in them for so long. And if COVID-19 cases start to rise again in the fall and winter as some experts are predicting, homeowners are likely going to take whatever steps they can to make their next quarantine more comfortable than their last.

What to Know to Buy or Sell a Home During COVID-19

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, families have been changing their schedules and adjusting their plans so that they can safely live in a society in which a handshake can mean passing on a dangerous virus. While many people have had to cancel vacations and delay graduation celebrations, some major events can't be skipped. Moving into a new home is one of those events. Whether you're moving to start a new job or you need to downsize for financial reasons, you may be wondering how anyone is navigating the world of real estate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although buying and selling real estate may not look like it did pre-coronavirus, it is still happening. As states start to reopen, new listings and open houses are picking up again. Let's take a look at what you need to know about buying or selling a home during the age of coronavirus so that you can have a successful move.

Lending Standards are Stricter

One of the most notable changes in the real estate world is that lenders are setting stricter criteria for mortgages during the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that lenders are raising minimum borrower requirements, such as credit scores, down payments, and employment history. These tighter standards are shrinking the pool of eligible applicants for mortgage lending, so both buyers and sellers may need to look at more flexible alternatives.

For buyers who have a credit score around 660 or lower, you may need to search for a lender who will underwrite your mortgage. If you find one who will do that, just be aware that you will probably have to pay a higher interest rate. Buyers in expensive areas could look into an 80/10/10 loan, which allows you to take out a first and second mortgage simultaneously. This takes care of 90% of the home's price, so you would only be responsible for a 10% down payment.

For sellers, you could deepen your buyer pool by offering owner financing. This means that the buyer will pay you, the homeowner, in regular payments until the house is paid off. Often, the seller will keep the property's title in their name until the buyer pays it in full. Typically, the homeowner will add interest and require a down payment, just as a traditional lender does. Unlike a traditional lender, however, you won't be denying a potential buyer just because they have a credit score that's too low. The buyer will sign a promissory note that outlines the conditions of the deal and if they don't uphold the contract, they can default and end up among the 143,105 foreclosure filings that occur in the U.S. in a single quarter. The buyer will then lose all of the money they put into the house, giving buyers an extra incentive to make all of their payments on time and in full.

Buyers Will Rely on Photos and Videos

As open houses are not allowed in many locations and they have certain restrictions in others, buyers are now relying on live video tours and looking through online photo albums to view homes. This makes it important for sellers to ensure that their home looks its absolute best through videos and photos. To do this, they need to know what buyers look for most. For instance, about 90% of Americans prefer to live in homes that are surrounded by grass lawns. Before you post photos and videos of your home, make sure that your landscaping looks lush and well-maintained to entice all of those lawn-loving buyers. You can do more research to discover what buyers in your area prioritize the most and then build your home's online profile in a way that highlights those features.

In place of traditional in-person home showings, real estate agents are now using video conferencing technology such as Zoom and FaceTime. Some are also live streaming showings on platforms like Facebook and Instagram to show a home to groups of interested buyers, much like an open house. If you're among the 11% of sellers who sell their property FSBO (for sale by owner), you can also utilize this technology as long as you have a smartphone or tablet with internet access. As the homeowner, you may even do a better job showing your home virtually than a real estate agent because you know the space and can provide buyers a more in-depth look.

Inspectors Go on Their Own

In a pre-coronavirus world, buyers and real estate agents would be there for the home inspection. This allowed them to see exactly what the home inspector sees and ask any questions they have on the spot. However, in locations where inspectors are still allowed to work, they now have to go through the home on their own and share photos, videos, and reports with buyers.

With this change, buyers need to make sure that they understand every aspect of the inspection. If you're buying a home right now, you likely haven't seen the home in-person either, so you have to rely on the inspector to catch any issues with the home. Be sure to review the materials carefully and to ask the inspector any questions you may have. If you're selling a home and still living in it, talk with the inspector about what precautions they're taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The American Society of Home Inspectors has released a list of recommended precautions their members should take, so it can be helpful for you to have that list on hand when you're having this conversation with the inspector.

While buying or selling a home during the COVID-19 pandemic certainly isn't easy, it is possible. Remember to make the necessary adjustments to adhere to social distancing measures and to be a bit more flexible with things like financing. With the right precautions, you'll be able to successfully navigate the COVID-19 real estate market.