A ‘New Normal’ for Pros in the Age of Coronavirus

Consumers are still buying and selling homes—and they’re relying on their agents more than ever for guidance during this period of extreme uncertainty.
looking at home through virtual tour on phone

© georgejmclittle - AdobeStock

Real estate professionals are increasingly becoming beacons of calm for their clients during these uncertain times. Amid widespread closures of schools, restaurants, and other businesses—all aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus—clients are asking their agents tough questions, such as whether to list, hold open houses, or tour homes in person. Fear over the extent to which the virus will affect people in the U.S. has left customers feeling unsettled.

“Our agents are trying to stay calm and informed,” says Christy Kim, managing broker and team manager at Redfin Seattle-Northgate. Some sellers in her market, which is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., have asked to put their homes on the market sooner than later in case conditions around the virus worsen.

Nationwide, 48% of REALTORS® cite that buyer interest has decreased in their markets, according to a flash survey conducted March 16-17 by the National Association of REALTORS®. Just a week prior, REALTORS® in California and Washington, two states hit hard by COVID-19, reported a 21% and 19% decrease in buyer, respectively. Despite the disconcerting figures, real estate professionals in Seattle have continued to receive multiple offers on listings, with one amassing 20 offers last week, Kim says. Agent and brokers across the country are rolling out common-sense showing procedures and remote work options for company staff.

Brokerages Are Taking Preventive Measures

After New York Mayor Bill De Blasio advised residents to work from home in an effort to encourage social distancing, Philip Lang, chief operating officer and co-founder of the real estate company Triplemint, asked all his employees and agents to work remotely. He’s also putting procedures in place for those who absolutely need to be in the office.

Lang also asked one of his agents who was exposed to a person who tested positive for COVID-19 not to see clients. He’s ordered a deep cleaning of the office and reduced in-person sales meetings. “We will be moving toward video conferences for team meetings and are continually monitoring the situation and adjusting as needed,” he adds.

Jeff Lichtenstein, founder of Echo Fine Properties in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., says he expects at least one of his agents to contract the coronavirus at some point. “The fear comes from the unknown,” he says. “But if we talk about what could happen and what we will do, then it makes you think about it in logical terms, not emotional terms.”

From a brokerage perspective, keeping agents and clients informed is paramount, he says. Lichtenstein has changed doors in his office from having knobs to push doors so that people can use their arms or body rather than their hands. He’s also set up sanitation stations and uses individually packaged food in their Foodie Friday meetings.
Redfin launched a new consumer tool for video home tours on demand, and customers can also complete every part of a contract virtually. In the states where it’s allowed, they can also close electronically.

Shelley Rossi, vice president of communications for Windermere, says the company circulated guidelines to its offices in the greater Seattle area this week. The corporate office in Seattle remains open but has temporarily stopped hosting classes at the education center and is canceling most company-hosted events in the short term. “We’re reevaluating things every week as the situation in Seattle changes almost daily,” she says. So far, she adds, the virus doesn’t appear to be slowing sales down too much. “That might change if there’s another surge in the number of cases or deaths.”

How to Roll Out New Rules and Procedures

With 720 agents at his company, Andy Alloway, president and CEO of Nebraska Realty in Omaha, Neb., sent out a memo last week, saying, “We feel that it is prudent to have a plan in place should the need arise.” If someone gets sick or needs to be quarantined at home, Alloway has set up a system that allows other agents to help cover showings or open houses. “As a company, our communications and infrastructure are well-organized, and we are confident in our ability to operate in a remote environment,” he says.

But real estate professionals must be mindful of their obligations under the Fair Housing Act to not discriminate against any particular segment of the population. Any changes to business practices—specifically, how agents interact with customers—must be applied across the board. For example, if an agent no longer feels comfortable driving clients to showings, then they must meet all clients at properties. They can’t choose to drive a select few.

While agents and brokers do have the right to ask clients if they have recently traveled to areas identified as having an increased risk of coronavirus, or if they have any signs of respiratory illness, they must ask all clients the same questions based on up-to-date information from public health experts.

To support industry professionals, groups such as the Institute of Real Estate Management and the National Apartment Association are offering a free webinar recording on how to prepare employees and properties for the continued spread of the virus. IREM also published a downloadable guide for real estate managers during the pandemic. You can find them both on IREM’s website.

NAR also has published comprehensive coronavirus guidance for its members.

With all the stress and what-ifs surrounding coronavirus, Lichtenstein believes a little humor can go a long way in reducing anxiety. “I’m perfecting the bow instead of shaking hands,” he says. “People get a kick out of it.”

Practical Safety Tips to Protect Against the Virus

  • Practice social distancing—deliberate physical spacing of at least 6 feet from other people. If a busy open house is expected, try to limit the number of people in the house at a given time.
  • Do not offer food or drinks at offices or open houses.
  • Hang signs at properties asking people to use hand sanitizer as they enter and signs in office restrooms with reminders about hand washing.
  • Create reminders for agents and customers to avoid touching their faces and cover their mouths with their elbows when coughing and sneezing.
  • Place hand sanitizers around the home and office.
  • Ask buyers to remove shoes or wear footies during showings.
  • If attending a broker’s open house or meeting clients outside the office, drive separately.
  • Keep interior doors open during open houses and increase ventilation by opening windows.
  • Provide gloves at the office.
  • Wipe down surfaces regularly in the office, such as doorknobs, tables, desks, and handrails. Clean and disinfect all surfaces before an open house.
  • Encourage people not to come into the office if they are not feeling well.