How one couple navigated buying their first home during a pandemic
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, first-time homeowners D’Arcy and Mallory Furniss joined hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. who have bought homes this year despite the public health emergency and economic fallout.
With the U.S. in the throes of the COVID-19 crisis, D’Arcy and Mallory Furniss felt like they had little hope of buying their first home. Public records offices were shuttered, stay-at-home orders limited face-to-face contact, and social distancing ruled the day.
In a matter of weeks, however, everything fell into place for the western New York couple, who are expecting twins. They closed on their home March 31, just in time to prepare the twins’ nursery.
“We were really just waiting for a snag, roadblock, hiccup, or something that would knock us off course, but nothing like that happened,” D’Arcy Furniss said. “We couldn’t believe it. The whole process was amazing, and right in the middle of a pandemic.”
The couple joined the hundreds of thousands of U.S. homeowners who have managed to buy a house this year, despite the major hit sales have taken during the COVID-19 shutdown and economic crisis. At the height of the pandemic, however, existing home sales actually edged up nearly 1% year-over-year in March to an annual rate of 5.27 million, according to the National Association of Realtors.
“We were really just waiting for a snag, roadblock, hiccup, or something that would knock us off course, but nothing like that happened. We couldn’t believe it. The whole process was amazing, and right in the middle of a pandemic.” — D’Arcy Furniss
Sales continued during that time with help from buyers like the Furnisses, who braved unfamiliar and uncertain conditions. Gone were the traditional ways of homebuying — in-person open houses, walkthroughs, and meetings with lenders or realtors — replaced by phone calls, virtual tours, online chats, and other digital connections.
“From going to the office to dining out, there’s virtually no aspect of American life untouched by the coronavirus,” USA Today reported in late March. “And that now includes buying and selling a home.”
Against that backdrop, D’Arcy Furniss, 31, said the couple’s experience was streamlined and flawless, led by their mortgage officer Scot Swaino, mortgage processor Brett Smigel, and the Wells Fargo Home Lending team.
“Their professionalism, experience, integrity, and commitment was felt every step of the way,” he said in an email. “Even during a world health crisis, Scot and Brett completed the job on time, and their work here was unprecedented. Thank you all for the great experience and hard work.”
‘Heartfelt vote of confidence’
Getting such feedback is gratifying for the entire organization, said Perry Hilzendeger, head of Wells Fargo Home Lending’s Retail division. The business has ramped up to handle the increased number of requests during the COVID-19 crisis — including payment deferrals, refinance applications fueled by low interest rates, and home loan applications.
“It means so much when customers give us their heartfelt vote of confidence. It is a testament to the expertise of the team we have built, the people we have in place, and the service we provide to our customers.” — Perry Hilzendeger
“It means so much when customers give us their heartfelt vote of confidence,” Hilzendeger said. “It is a testament to the expertise of the team we have built, the people we have in place, and the service we provide to our customers.”
The timing of the couple’s purchase couldn’t have been better as they awaited the arrival of their twins. D’Arcy Furniss, a human resources legal specialist for the Canadian postal service, was working at home per the COVID-19 guidelines. He is also a professional fiddle player for a Celtic band called The Glengarry Bhoys, who are on hiatus. Now on maternity leave, Mallory Furniss, 28, works as a nurse in labor and delivery at a local children’s hospital. She’s also a recent graduate of nurse practitioner’s school.
They landed on Swaino’s radar after a referral source at a local bank in their hometown referred them to him. The local bank didn’t have the resources to handle their application because D’Arcy Furniss is a Canadian citizen who has permanent U.S. residency, but has minimal credit history in the U.S.
Wells Fargo was a perfect fit because of its experience in underwriting and mortgage lending to foreign nationals, Swaino said. The couple’s professional credentials, solid household income, strong financial support from their family, and unblemished finances also helped boost their application, he said.
Digital plays a key role
Digital resources also helped pave the way for the couple’s mortgage approval both prior to and during the coronavirus public health restrictions, according to Swaino. From Wells Fargo’s digital mortgage application and yourLoanTrackerSM tool to basic emailing and texting, the entire application process was conducted digitally, he said.
Aided by technology, much of the work would have been done remotely even in ‘normal’ times, since Swaino is based in suburban Akron, Ohio, and the Furnisses live several hours away in suburban Buffalo, New York. The underwriting analysis, income verification, fee payments, e-signatures, preapprovals, and other documents were transmitted electronically.
Some actions, however, are typically done in person, such as the appraisal inspection, filing the mortgage with the county, and creating basic records such as the deed and title. Fortunately, the appraisal work took place before the shutdown orders were in place. As for the basic records needed for closing, that proved to be more difficult, as offices were closed by then.
With the March 31 deadline approaching, Swaino and the team repeatedly worked the phones to connect with the settlement closing agents and provide updates from Erie County — where the couple lives. They obtained official statements from the county that the records would be available when the offices reopened. With that in hand, the couple closed on their home by their deadline.
“We were on the clock, so as a team, we were determined to make it happen for them,” Swaino said. “Everyone put their best effort on it, from start to finish, and we got the right result. We really enjoyed working with them.”
Smigel said the Furnisses were among the most responsive customers he has ever worked with in his career. Whenever he asked them for new paperwork or updates to existing documents, they were timely, accurate, and complete, he said.
“D’Arcy and Mallory were highly motivated,” Smigel said. “They had a completion date they were working toward, and they did their part to get there. Whenever I needed something, I would call or email D’Arcy, and he would usually get back to me within an hour or sooner.”
Bonding over the twins
“D’Arcy and Mallory have been so complimentary and appreciative. At the end of the day, it helped me realize the value of what I do and how I am really making a difference in people’s lives.” — Brett Smigel
For the Furnisses, their relationship with the Wells Fargo team went much further than the business of homebuying, D’Arcy Furniss said. He found out soon in the process that the Swaino and Smigel families both have twins — something that created a strong bond between them all.
“The personal connection with Scot and Brett was very special,” he said. “They knew what we were going through, so we were all working to secure this house so Mallory and I could be ready for our twins.”
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, that human connection was especially meaningful and helped them deal with the threat of the pandemic, Smigel said.
“D’Arcy and Mallory have been so complimentary and appreciative,” he said. “At the end of the day, it helped me realize the value of what I do and how I am really making a difference in people’s lives.”