When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March started calling for social distancing and a stay-at-home approach to slow the new coronavirus’s spread, Rogers Healy closed his offices and asked all his agents and staff to work from home. Healy, broker-owner of Rogers Healy Residential in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, quickly switched his motivational approach to online platforms—using mostly the Zoom videoconferencing app, email, and social media. What came next surprised him. He found that he was engaging with his team and clients more than ever. And although most interactions between his agents and their clients were happening virtually, home sales were still happening.
The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a blow to real estate, as it did to nearly every industry, but in their effort to overcome the challenges real estate brokerages and agents displayed resilience, creativity, and drive. As people adjusted to nationwide sheltering and wondered whether their work would be deemed an “essential service,” real estate professionals persevered and found physical isolation often led to broader and deeper engagement with their clients and contacts than they’d had before the crisis.
Because of the nature of magazine publishing, this issue will be completed a full month before readers receive it. In COVID-19 time, that’s an enormous gap. So consider this a time capsule of sorts, looking at how real estate professionals kept moving forward, setting in motion new ways of working that will be hard to give up once the pandemic abates.
Online Management and Knowledge Sharing Ramp Up
In the weeks following the shelter-in-place orders, brokers, coaches, and team leaders employed every available video conference solution for coaching sessions, team meetings, and one-on-ones. “I touch base with my team several times a day, holding them accountable, but mostly just encouraging them,” Healy said in late March. “Fear and worry have crept in, but we are counteracting that by working around the clock to ensure clients that we are doing our best to keep everything afloat.”
Century 21’s Gauntt Team in the Dallas-Fort Worth area started a remote weekly mastermind group to encourage one another and brainstorm new ways to reach clients and the community.
Larger brokerages reached out to their franchisees and agents as well. Compass rolled out an online training program, Compass Academy, and made it available to all real estate agents. Keller Williams began holding companywide conversations via livestreams every day, every half hour, providing insights on how to best adapt to the coronavirus era. “We are doubling down on the heart, training, technology, and leadership needed to protect and power our agents’ business through the unexpected,” says Keller Williams spokesman Darryl Frost.
As far as the right software to use, those with Apple computers or devices shouldn’t underestimate the power of FaceTime, says Brian Copeland, CRS, GRI, broker-owner of Doorbell Real Estate in Nashville. In addition, Google Hangouts is a great free tool, as is Zoom. Use of the latter grew so fast in March, the company had to enable new security measures after incidents of “zoombombing” by hackers. For security, and to avoid Zoom’s 40-minute limit for free meetings, some brokers opted for a professional or enterprise plan.
Once you’ve found the right platforms for your company or team, you have to bring everyone along with you, helping your least tech-savvy folks feel comfortable and prepared, says Copeland, who has taken that mission beyond his own brokerage. When he needed to choose between canceling his 1,500-attendee, in-person REBarcamp or moving the annual event online, he decided to give the virtual camp a test run in mid-March by offering short online educational sessions in advance.
Copeland took to Facebook, recruiting colleagues to lead discussions relevant for agents experiencing dramatic shifts in their businesses and lives. Copeland dubbed the sessions “Social Nondistancing,” and more than 500 people logged into the first hour-long sessions. Real estate pros jumped at the chance to talk about such topics as managing listings, learning Google Suite, handling tenants who can’t pay, and relieving stress.
“The world changed after 9/11, and the world will change after this coronavirus,” says Healy. “If you’re a broker who wants to be in touch in the post–COVID-19 world, you have to learn to do this.”
Virtual Selling Becomes Reality
Virtual solutions shot into hyperdrive during the crisis as agents sought to keep sales on track, and those solutions are likely to be a bigger part of real estate sales moving forward.
Mariana Pappalardo, a sales associate with Golden Gate Sotheby’s International Realty in San Carlos, Calif., began relying heavily on Yaza, an app that enables agents to upload virtual home tours—no more storing large video files on your own device—and plot them on neighborhood maps. Clients can download the app and tour a home simply by pressing the play icon. “It was supposed to be an extra tool to service my clients, and then this crisis happened, and now it’s super essential,” she says.
Whereas video might have been an option in the past, it will become a necessity in the future, says Pappalardo. She envisions using Yaza and other tools for high-quality video as her first step in the process of marketing her listings, even before professional photography. “I’ve learned to secure the video component of my marketing first because in the event of another crisis, I’ll be able to continue using it to reach people,” Pappalardo says. Another video option some agents are adopting for the first time: virtual home tours shot indoors by drones.
Technology for 3D tours is also likely to become more important. Sebastian Badea, director of business development at Matterport, a 3D real estate technology company, says that since early March, more than 500 agents, brokers, home builders, and architects have sought to purchase their equipment. “Once these efficiencies are realized, it’s hard to believe that business will go back to where it was before the COVID-19 pandemic,” Badea says.
It’s not just showings that are going virtual. Online closings are becoming more common, too, says Pat Kinsel, co-founder of Notarize, a 2017 NAR Reach partner that enables remote online notarization. Kinsel says more than 1,000 title companies and lenders contacted Notarize in a three-day period in March—just as several states announced stay-at-home orders. “Unquestionably, the coronavirus crisis will accelerate the adoption of remote online notarization and online real estate closings,” he says.
Kinsel says more than 1,000 title companies and lenders contacted Notarize in a three-day period in March—just as several states announced stay-at-home orders.
As of mid-March, 23 states had approved the use of remote notarization, and that number was growing, Kinsel says. “In a matter of days, we’ve seen several states pass legislation or issue executive orders to pave the way for remote online notarization.” The National Association of REALTORS® supports federal legislation that would permit immediate nationwide use of RON, with minimum standards, and provide certainty for the interstate recognition of RON. “While a number of additional states are debating RON legislation,” NAR said in a March 20 letter to Congressional leaders, “borrowers in more than half the country remain unable to close on a real estate transaction without an in-person signing.”
Not every aspect of the transaction can move online. In response to the social distancing and stay-at-home orders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac moved to add temporary flexibility to the appraisal process by allowing exterior-only and desktop appraisals. But lenders didn’t necessarily adopt the new guidelines, citing investor requirements. So some appraisers (and inspectors) donned masks, gloves, and shoe covers and asked sellers to open all doors and turn on all lights before they entered a home.
Working From Home Is Routine
Brokers had already been downsizing their office space thanks to technology solutions that enabled remote work. Following COVID-19, that trend is likely to accelerate, as more agents become accustomed to the tools of the virtual trade. And agents aren’t the only ones giving up drive time:. As work-from-home becomes more routine in the corporate world, you may find buyers and sellers have greater flexibility and the ability to respond more quickly.
John P. Horning, executive vice president of -Wisconsin-based Shorewest, REALTORS®, says setting up the office to feel like a home—high-top tables, sofas, a kitchen—has helped ready his team for an extended period of remote work.
Some agents have had a nearly seamless adjustment. Jennifer Rosdail, green, with Keller Williams in San Francisco has worked from a home office regularly for 14 of her 18 years in the business. When her city issued a shelter-in-place order, she was set. ”I’ve always had a schedule not based on a place,” she says. “It’s important to have your day revolve around time rather a place.”
Working effectively from home requires creating a space that fosters productivity and access to standard equipment—a laptop computer with a webcam, a smartphone, and printer. In addition:
- Use quality headphones so you can video chat without disturbing, or being disturbed by, other members of your household.
- Use a virtual private network and make sure you have sufficient bandwidth to ensure speedy, secure communications. Internet speed is affected by the number of devices connecting, so if you’re one of several household members working from home, be sure your plan is adequate.
- Whatever your videoconferencing solution, be certain you take time to learn the features—from setting up a meeting to using features like screen sharing and recording.
- Use group texting to get your message to all parties in a transaction simultaneously and provide recipients with instant notifications.
- While you should have a proper desk setup, a change of scenery will keep your brain humming. Find an alternate spot—a window seat, the kitchen island—where you can find new inspiration. Avoid working in front of the television.
- Surround yourself with success milestones. Beth Yeary of Kemba Realty Inc. in Cincinnati keeps awards visible to remind herself of her strengths and her goals.
- Be transparent. Any stigma attached to having children and pets in the background of a business call disappeared during the COVID-19 crisis. However, to maintain professionalism on a call or video chat, let the other party know if a potential distraction is present. “We’re all going to have to be very patient with each other,” Rosdail says, “but business and life will go on.”
Creativity Builds Resilience
In a business where social contact is the staff of life, real estate pros have shown just how creative they can be at bridging distances, finding ways to stay connected and positive as they hunkered down. In doing so, they developed rituals likely to carry on long after the crisis.
In the initial days of sheltering in place, Jenna Dougherty with Lyon Real Estate in Davis, Calif., filmed video messages to past and current clients who were health care workers or first responders to thank them for fighting to save lives. “It’s important to always think of our clients as our community, not as part of transactions.” Dougherty says.
“There’s a lot of solace in the fact that we’re in this together,” says Mariah Hudler, a financial therapist with Koru Financial Therapy in Sacramento, Calif. “We can get back to bare bones, like calling [clients] just to say, ‘I’m thinking about you. How is this impacting you?’ ”
Real estate pro Ilana Minkoff started with an idea to build camaraderie among her San Francisco neighbors—and she inspired the world to sing and dance together.
“A friend who also loves music and I thought it would be fun to gather up some people in our neighborhood and have them all sing together like they were doing in Italy,” says Minkoff, an agent with Vanguard Properties.
It started with five families standing outside their front doors. On March 16, Minkoff and her friends posted videos of their singalong on Facebook. Two days later, Minkoff started a Facebook group, Quarantine Sing-Along. Each night, group members share a moment of silence; a moment of applause to thank medical workers, grocery and farm workers, and other providers of essential services; and a song. The group sings a different tune each evening—songs like “I Will Survive,” “Sweet Caroline,” and “All You Need Is Love.” At press time, the group had grown to more than 50,000 members worldwide. “There’s no reason we can’t be social and be physically distant,” Minkoff says.
Still, extroverts, and people struggling with depression or anxiety, can find the loss of daily face-to-face contact devastating, says David Cates, a clinical psychologist and behavioral health consultant to the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Biocontainment Unit. To cope when physically isolated:
- Keep to a routine. Preserve a sense of order and purpose in your life that includes regular daily activities, like work, hobbies, and learning,
- Stay connected. Social media and video tech are powerful substitutes for in-person contact.
- Manage stress by getting enough sleep, eating well-balanced meals, and exercising. Try relaxation apps, like Calm or Happify.
Even as life returns to normal, social distancing tendencies may remain for some. If people are hesitant to shake hands or to stand close, accept that, Cates says. “Everyone reacts to a stressful situation differently,” he says. “Be forgiving.”
Take Care of Your Financial Wellness
When the world around you is spinning out of control, it’s important to control what you can. Namely, your financial plan. “The antithesis to emotional decision-making is putting systems into place,” says Mariah Hudler, a financial therapist with Koru Financial Therapy in Sacramento, Calif. “There’s power in knowing your numbers, and in being critical about the decisions [you] make about [your] money.”
Closely look at monthly expenditures and profit and loss statements, she advises. What can you change? Is there an opportunity to adapt, redeploy, or get rid of expenses? What other ways could you bring in income? What opportunities does this upheaval offer?
Both Hudler and certified financial planner Mari Adam, of Mercer Advisors in Boca Raton, Fla., whose clientele includes independent contractors, say this is a time to hold on to some cash. And since the IRS and the U.S. Treasury have deferred the deadline for tax payments to July 15, she recommends keeping that money in cash, assuming it will need to be paid.
She also recommends investing what you can. If you don’t already have an investment vehicle, Adam is bullish on the solo 401(k) for independent contractors without employees. “It gives you a higher contribution limit than other plans, and it’s free to set up,” she says. The IRS even allows you to include your spouse under this plan if he or she earns income from your business.
You can opt for a traditional version of the solo plan, which is now tax-deferred, or a Roth, where once you pay taxes on income, you never again pay tax on the contributions you pull out in retirement.
Before the end of this year, you can contribute up to $19,500, or $26,000 if you’re over 50 to a solo. Plus, you can double down by contributing to the plan as your own “employer.”
As an employer, you can also put in a profit-sharing contribution equal to 25% of your compensation. Total contributions can’t exceed $57,000 for anyone under 50 and $63,500 for those over 50 for this year.
If cash is important right now, you can have a fund ready to go, and fund it when you can before Dec. 31. You can typically make the employer profit-sharing contributions all the way until your tax-filing deadline next year. Talk to your tax preparer.
“This is a great time to fund stuff,” Adam says, “because when there’s a rebound, you’ll get appreciation.” Consult a financial adviser about what’s right for you.
NAR has an entire site devoted to REALTORS®’ financial health. Visit the Center for REALTOR® Financial Wellness to access free webinars both new and archived to help you manage your business and finances during this crisis. In addition, you’ll find budgeting tools and calculators.
Adam’s other insights:
- Make sure you’re in touch with the people, like your tax preparer and financial adviser, who can guide you. “Even if you work part-time, you can deduct a lot of expenses that other workers can’t,” Adam says.
- “If you owe money, and you’re having trouble covering your bills, find legitimate ways to not pay,” she says. Refinance your home. Negotiate with your auto lender. Set a payment plan to cover a health expense.
- Stay plugged into state and local information about the financial relief that might be available to you.
Continue to visit nar.realtor/coronavirus for analysis of what the federal government is doing to provide financial relief to working Americans, including the self-employed.