Contract law in many states offers some sort of provision for so-called “acts of God” or other unforeseen and totally unpreventable circumstances. 

Such a law has existed on the books in California since the 1870s, and excuses someone who fails to meet a contractual obligation if prevented or delayed by “an irresistible, superhuman cause.” 

But there’s no certainty California courts would deem coronavirus a “superhuman cause,” and it would take one-to-several years to find out if someone brings such a case. Instead, real estate associations in states like California and Florida have drawn up a form to tack onto sales contracts that spells out buyer protections in light of the health crisis. 

“There might be delays, bank delays, title company delays, with everything that’s going on,” said Gov Hutchinson, assistant general counsel at the California Association of Realtors, who helped draft a coronavirus amendment now available to the trade organization’s 200,000 members. 

The extra form automatically extends the closing date by 30 days in case of a coronavirus-related delay and allows the buyer to back out without losing their deposit in case the disease upends, for example, their ability to get a mortgage. 

It’s too soon to say whether sellers will be amenable to such stipulations, and some might balk at coronavirus clauses. But it’s really in their best interest given the level of mounting uncertainty, said Billy Rose, founder and president of The Agency in Los Angeles.  

“I could actually see situations where it could also benefit the seller,” he said, for instance if they’re headed to close and then the county recorder’s office is mandated to shut down. In that case, the virus clause would simply push off the closing. “It’s something that should be used with every buyer.” 

In Massachusetts, where two contracts, first the offer and then a more detailed purchase-and-sale agreement are signed before closing, agents at Gibson Sotheby’s International Realty are writing up all initial offers with a broad coronavirus clause that states the buyer and seller will have to mutually work through any delays caused by the pandemic, said Colleen Barry, CEO of Gibson Sotheby’s.  

It says, “we both agree that we’re going through an unusual station with Covid-19,” said Ms. Barry, whose agency handles hard-hit Boston as well as coastal areas north and south of the city and Cape Cod.  

The housing market there has already gotten a reprieve on some aspects of the sale that must be conducted in person, Ms. Barry said. For instance, buyers can defer the smoke detector and carbon monoxide safety inspection until after the close since some fire departments in Massachusetts aren’t sending inspectors out. 

Back in New York City, inspections are also a concern for Leslie Hirsch, an agent with Compass, since New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned all non-essential business starting Sunday, including appraisers and inspectors from going on site visits. 

“My buyers were also planning on having a home inspection done before signing, but now we have to write an inspection contingency clause into the contract,” Ms. Hirsch said, adding that another clause also “says if the buyers contract Covid-19 within 24 days of signing, they can back out.”