Virtual shopping has hit the real estate market in Searcy during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some families recently choosing homes in the city without ever physically visiting them.

Ira and Eileen Maser made the move to Searcy from Payson, Ariz., which is a little north of Phoenix, after only a virtual visit to their new home.

“We decided to move for a few reasons,” Ira Maser said. “One had to do with the cost of living. Another one had to do with my wife’s health. And probably the more important one was that your town was touted by our pastor friend and his wife who moved back to Searcy with us. He [Pastor Terry Elliott] is retired but grew up here.”

Maser said Elliott told him about growing up in Searcy and that is was a city that was friendly and the residents were polite, “like a Mayberry-type town that we were looking for.”

Maser said Payson is a smaller than Searcy with about 16,000 residents. (Searcy’s population was an estimated 23,880 as of 2020.) He said they were in a mountain town “about 5,000 feet up.”

Once the Masers decided they wanted to make the move to Searcy, they asked their pastor who he was using as a real estate agent, and he told them he knew Liz and Charles Howell. Maser said his wife went online and started using Zillow and to look at homes.

“As we were looking one day, she said, ‘I like this home a lot,’ and I said, ‘OK,’” Maser said. “Basically what happened is that we called Liz and Charles and introduced ourselves and told them we were interested in this home and they showed us the home via FaceTime ... basically, ‘here’s this, here’s that.’ And my wife was there and said, ‘I like the home,’ and this is probably the second time we bought a home without walking into it.”

The Masers wound up moving to the west side of the city. Maser said they moved to Searcy around the first of October and he and his wife have been getting out around town.

“Obviously, we have been trying all the restaurants and shopping in town,” he said. “We haven’t really gone shopping outside of town yet. We haven’t gone to Conway or Little Rock.

“My wife loves the town. It’s friendly, she loves the politeness and people just being nice. We met a lot of people that we enjoy. The town has been great to us. We found a church and we are really very happy with it. Coming from out West, living out West as long as we have, I think if people want to come down and have a little slower pace and have nice people to live with in a small town, Searcy is the place to come. I think you guys are going to have a lot to offer in terms of that.”

Maser said he thinks Searcy has “a lot here already so it’s not necessary to change the town. You are going to find out that a lot of people will be looking. After coming from big cities and other places, this is a really nice place to be.”

Michael and Morgan Gragg, who also were living in Arizona, used FaceTime as well to buy their house in Searcy. The Graggs moved to Searcy on Dec. 11. Michael is a strength and conditioning coach at Harding University.

Gragg said he played football at Harding University from 2013-17 and he has an under graduate degree in exercise science.

“I went to a couple of other universities after that to be a grad assistant strength coach and I was an assistant strength coach in Flagstaff, Ariz., before coming here,” Gragg said. “I had heard about the opportunity and was definitely interested just because it was taking that next step in my career to head strength coach. If was a phenomenal opportunity to be back at Harding because it had such a big impact on me as a student-athlete and just as a student going through the exercise program.”

Gragg’s wife also graduated from Harding University. They are from Nashville, Tenn. Speaking of their home-buying experience, Gragg said “it was 100 percent virtual. I accepted the job [at Harding] on a Monday and on Tuesday, I called Liz and said, ‘Hey, I am going to be in the market for a house in Searcy, what can you do?’

“She got me hooked up with a bank in town and I started to send her a few places on Zillow that we had seen. One we were really interested in she showed us through FaceTime on Thursday or Friday and my wife and I were like, ‘Oh yeah, we love that house. You don’t need to do anything to it. We can tell through the video this is exactly what we need as far as yard for our dogs.’”

Gragg said they ended up getting outbid for the house “but she told us the same day, she had this other one that hadn’t been listed yet and FeceTimed us later that night and walked us through it and showed us everything. It was a pretty house. She knew exactly what we were looking for lookwise, stylewise and sizewise.”

“We didn’t decide that night to make an offer, but I think the next day she listed it and we saw updated photos and a video walk-through during the daytime instead of the nighttime .. and we both were like ‘this is the house for us,’” Gragg said. “We are in the River Oaks neighborhood by the hospital [Unity Health-White County Medical Center] so we are real close to the university.”

“My wife is 28 weeks’ pregnant. We knew that Searcy was going to be a fantastic place to raise our baby and hopefully have a bigger family in the future. too. Being in Flagstaff, Ariz., we were like over a thousand miles away from where our family is from. Before that, we have been in Fort Worth, Texas, so we have been in the big city. We have been in Nashville, which is kind of like the big city. Flagstaff was just kind of outdoorsy and a different type of lifestyle then what we were used to in the South.”

He said his wife loved the idea of moving back to Searcy “because now we are five to six hours away from home in Nashville. Her mom and dad can come see us; we can go to town to see them. Being close to them was a big piece.”

“Morgan is excited because she has some former coworkers that she worked with while in college who live in town here, which is great for her,” he said. “From a football standpoint, I knew I was going to be working around a lot of awesome men and Harding athletics has been fairly successful in a lot of different sports. Just kind of being around that Christ-driven culture from every single sports standpoint was really appealing for us.”

Morgan played soccer for Harding in 2016 and majored in sports and recreation management.

According to Redfin, a national online real estate brokerage, a survey in 2018 showed that 20 percent of home buyers made an offer on a home without visiting it, while using FaceTime and Zoom to make the decisions has been a growing trend, especially since the COVID-19 outbreak started last year.

Searcy Board of Realtors President Joel Hoggard said the virus took a toll on home sales when it first hit because the late winter and early spring is ordinarily a busy time.

“It was like a ghost town around here for a little while – few people looking at houses and few people putting their houses on the market, and then it seemed like somebody took their foot off the hose and it blew up,” Hoggard said. “We went from a period of having very little real estate activity to larger-than-normal amounts of people wanting to look and houses going on the market, and our market time was really short ... and that stayed pretty true for the rest of our busy season.”

He said some of it had “to do with people who were otherwise unable to travel due to COVID restrictions and things like that. The aid of things like FaceTime has helped. Buyers who couldn’t travel, or didn’t want to travel perhaps, reached out to agents and other folks and said, ‘Hey, I’m interested in this property. Is there a way I can see this property without physically being there?’”

“People often choose Searcy over other places because they have family here or they have ties to the university,” he said. “Searcy, like many small towns, is where you have a good chance of getting to know your neighbors if you want to, and if that is something you are after, Searcy is a great place to find that.”

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