In 2020, the Cohen family of Brooklyn developed a routine. Every weekend, Jonathan Cohen, his wife and their three sons, ages 4, 5 and 6, piled into the car and drove to multiple open houses across the tristate area. They were desperate for more space than their small apartment provided, and so tolerated the frustrations of house hunting with their brood in tow.
At most homes, one parent would sit in the car or the backyard with the children, while the other parent explored the property. Then they’d switch. But often, the children got loose, running through homes and angering the brokers.
At around their 50th open house, the couple discovered their 6-year-old standing in a top-floor bathroom as water poured from the toilet. He’d broken it, flushing repeatedly out of boredom.
It was like a metaphor for the real estate market: Showings, once a more orderly affair, began to overflow with children — leaving parents and brokers to scramble in their wake.
“At open houses pre-Covid, families at best were scattered throughout a few hours,” said Laura Gregory, a Westchester-based real estate agent with Park Sterling Realty. But early in the pandemic, parents and young children queued up like they were waiting to enter a Blippi concert. “There were lines to get in outside,” she said. “It was unlike anything any of us have seen in the profession.”
Around 40 percent of buyers have children under 18, according to Zillow’s 2022 Consumer Housing Trends report. But the pandemic shifted how they shop. Before, parents might pay for a sitter, drop the kids at an activity or leave them with friends, while they looked at a handful of homes. Early in the pandemic, that support often wasn’t available. When the housing market returned at a frenzied pace, offloading the children was impractical.
The number of private showings per listing in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut nearly doubled between 2020 and 2022, according to data from the real estate data firm ShowingTime. This remained true even after social distancing rules relaxed, suggesting that buyers had to pursue many more homes in the hopes of successfully purchasing one, so it didn’t make financial or practical sense for families to turn their children over to sitters, every single weekend, for hours on end.
So the children came along. Zillow’s 2021 Consumer Housing Trends Report found that nationwide, buyers with children in their households attended more open houses and made more offers than buyers without them. Now that shift appears to be continuing, even as the market has cooled. Housing stock remains low. As interest rates rise, there’s increasing competition for rentals, and in some cities, buyers and renters alike still need to make quick decisions about their family’s most significant financial investment.
For parents, this requires multitasking on overdrive: assessing the pros and cons of a property while keeping antsy kids off the furniture.
Ms. Gregory recalled clients whose young son was especially challenging. On one occasion, he stripped naked at an open house. Another time, he proclaimed his love for a home and threw a tantrum when it was time to leave. A third time, he disobeyed his mother and opened a door he was instructed not to touch, with near-disastrous results.
“The door had a sign which read, ‘do not open, attack Siamese cats,’” Ms. Gregory said. “Within seconds, the cat was lunging from its tower right at this kid’s face.” Ms. Gregory caught the cat in midair and prevented a mauling.
As a broker, “you get worried,” she said. “Are they going to hurt themselves? Will they break something? There’s liability.” There are also the runny noses. Especially during the early days of Covid-19 when people didn’t have child care, sellers were afraid to have children in their homes. “There was a stigma about that,” she said, “but you do what you have to do as a parent.”
Parents say they feel a lot of guilt — not just for their children’s misbehavior, but for dragging their kids around every single Sunday instead of giving them a real weekend. “I wish we were teaching our kids how to ride a bike instead of sitting in a car looking at houses,” said Pauline Shapiro, a Brooklyn mother of two “We lost a lot of quality time.”
In 2021, Ms. Shapiro and her husband, Rusty Singletary, saw at least 60 homes in New Jersey — sometimes six in a weekend — all with their boys, ages 4 and 6. “We’d plop our kids down in the living room with an iPad, but inevitably they’d start screaming and want to follow us around,” Ms. Shapiro said. “I’d realize later there are no closets” in the home we saw, she said. “Something I totally missed because I had to watch the kids, too.”
Some agents try to make the experience easier for parents. Libby Earthman, a broker with LoKation Real Estate in Longmont, Colo., sets up a “kid station” at her open houses with coloring books, watercolors and Play-Doh to keep children occupied. Jonna Weber, a broker with eXp Realty in Boise, Idaho, stocks her car with snacks and often gives children their own mini-tour of the home, asking them to select their favorite bedroom.
But these tactics can invite further chaos. Seon John, an Atlanta-based developer, once discovered that a buyer’s children had colored all over the living room walls while their parents toured the house.
“At least it was just chalk,” he said. And Ms. Weber admits that she sometimes ends up feeling like a babysitter, which technically isn’t part of the job description. “But we’re doing what it takes to allow the parents to experience and enjoy the home,” she said. Her advice to families: “It would be worth every penny to bring a mother’s helper.”
Yet even well-behaved children can pose an obstacle, especially for renters and low-income families, who have less recourse against discriminatory landlords. “I know a lot of landlords are concerned about having kids,” said Lanette Cook, 45, a home-schooling mother in Paducah, Ky., who manages properties on the side. “They ask questions just like employers do: ‘How many kids do you have?’”
Landlords are not generally allowed to ask a question like that, said Bryan Greene, vice president of policy advocacy at the National Association of Realtors. That’s because the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against families with children. There are a few exceptions, however. If a landlord owns a building with four or fewer units, and the landlord occupies one of those units, they can intentionally exclude families with children. Even so, they can’t explicitly advertise “no kids” in their listings or verbally tell renters that children are unwelcome. On the flip side, Mr. Greene said, “statements welcoming families with children are in the spirit of the law.”
Despite those protections, the reality is harsh: Many landlords do discriminate against families, and there’s little parents can do about it. “If you’re a mom and you’re desperate to get into a place, you’re not going to report someone,” Ms. Cook said. She sympathizes with parents and actually prefers renting to families, because she said they make for long-term tenants. “They tend to be planners,” she said.