How life has changed for realtors since COVID-19

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When February’s sales stats started trickling in at the beginning of March, COVID-19 had yet to truly announce itself in Canada. The only factors limiting sales in a number of markets were a shortage of available properties and prices that started their spring surge months ahead of schedule.

Now, not even three full months into 2020, the world is confronting a black swan event that has wrapped its wings around the entire planet, stifling the global economy.

Real estate, as reliant as it is on human interaction, has been hit hard by COVID-19. Rather than simply speculate on how prices and sales will respond to the lack of activity, REP instead reached out to some of our most trusted realtor friends to get a sense of what has happened to homebuying in Canada in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

Whatever the details, the message is simple: Stay. Home. And if you absolutely have to be in public, keep your distance.

How has COVID19 affected your market in the past two weeks?
Vanessa Roman, Pemberton Homes (Victoria, BC): We have seen a substantial shift in buyer and seller activity over the last couple of weeks. We've moved from the fast-paced spring market conditions to an almost complete halt in our day-to-day operations. For some sellers, this means cancelling their MLS listings completely. For others who have to sell or are selling vacant properties, it means no open houses, restricted viewing times to avoid people coming into contact with each other, and increased hygiene practices before and after showings. 

For buyers, we are seeing our already low inventory levels drop further as sellers remove their listings from the market. The properties which remain are selling very quickly and in a flurry of multiple offers. 

Brett Turner, Redline Real Estate (Calgary, AB): The market is currently winding down from the buyers and sellers who were actively in the market prior to the ramp up of social distancing measures.  There are a lot of questions from both buyers and sellers regarding what to do and how to approach their spring and summer plans for real estate in the wake of social distancing measures and changes to the economy.  Our Associates are taking a lot of questions now about what consumers can expect in the coming months.

Taylor Hack, RE/MAX River City (Edmonton, AB): Our market has been heavily affected by COVID-19 over the last two weeks. Our only consolation was that we were ahead of the curve on this one. The daily stats showed house sales dropping 12 percent and condos close to 25 percent near the end of last week – before the announcements of schools closing. This allowed us to check in with our listed clients and start taking action to help the families we serve as they dealt with the uncertainty of this announcement.

Brett Ackerman, Royal LePage Regina Realty (Regina, SK): COVID-19 has been changing the way we do business every day.  We are seeing action from sellers screening or not allowing showings at this time, which is unprecedented in a spring market.  

Jordan Boyes, Boyes Real Estate (Saskatoon, SK): It hadn’t prior to last week, but we’re really starting to see it slow down now. Open houses have been taken down by our real estate board. 

Marco Silvestri, RE/MAX Professionals (Winnipeg, MB): Our market here in Winnipeg has had a slowdown. Deals are still happening, but not anywhere near normal numbers for this time of year. We have had folks delaying the listings of homes and buyers are reluctant to enter people’s homes at this time. Our Spring Parade of Homes has been officially cancelled.

Thomas Pobojewski, Royal LePage Signature Realty (Mississauga, ON): Up until March 13 our market was firing on all cylinders. In fact, we had a home for sale in Mississauga that had 27 offers and sold for a record price. (The sellers debated whether to wait till April and I advised them to put the property on the market ASAP. Needless to say they were happy with the decision.) Since March 13, we have seen a decrease in the number of showings per listing and in new buyers entering the market.

Angela Langtry, Century 21 Immo-Plus (Montreal, QC): We are starting to feel a slowdown while people isolate themselves and are cautious about the economy. Some buyers have pulled back to wait-and-see mode. Many realtors are canceling open houses.

Thomas Bagogloo, RE/MAX Nova (Halifax, NS): There are fewer buyers in the market, more hesitation to view properties, and the buyers that were coming from out of town have cancelled their trips for the most part. What we have to be careful of is: will anybody putting an offer in still have the income required to close on it later on. Associated closing professionals, such as appraisers and banks and lawyers, will be limiting how they work, too. In changing how they work, this will affect, or delay, the closing process.

Mary Jane Webster, RE/MAX Charlottetown (Charlottetown, PEI): We have made the move to get everyone working from home.  If an individual needs to show a property, it is policy for most offices to mandate hand sanitizer prior to and upon exiting a property.  If a homeowner declines the showing, that is totally fine; it is not an issue of not acting in good faith, it is just the opposite. If we can do virtual showings, that is advised. Strict social distancing measures are in place.

Are people still looking at properties in person? What is your message to consumers who are still behaving as if a global pandemic is not occurring?
Vanessa Roman: I am not doing any in-person meetings or property viewings. My entire business has moved to electronic mediums. As realtors, we can still work but we need to adapt to the rapid changes in our business practices and do our part to limit the spread of the virus. 

Brett Turner: There are still viewings happening, although the pace is slowing dramatically. Our brokerage made the proactive decision to cancel open houses, in-person meetings and client meetups.  As for showings, it is up to the seller if they wish to allow people into their properties.  In Calgary, if sellers are declining showings then they are asked to remove their properties from the market; at present, this is being managed on a case-by-case basis according to the preferences of the seller. We are asking all of our clients, agents and staff to observe the social distancing guidelines set forth by AHS. 

Taylor Hack: As our province has declared a state of emergency, it’s key for us to talk to them about what’s required to be safe to be safe ourselves. Our message to our clients has been specific to them depending on their circumstance.

First, we want to talk about safety. For our sellers, if anyone in the property we have for sale is over 65 years of age or has increased risk due to an immunological challenge or other factors we will immediately cease showings and talk about options to withdraw their property from the market. Also, has anyone in their home recently travelled? Are they aware of guidelines related to self-quarantine?

For our buyers, what needs to change about our process in this new reality? Is there a decision maker that should not be viewing properties due to health reasons?

Also, we’re having the necessary conversations with the listing agent of the properties we intend to show so we can get an understanding of how informed they are of these evolving guidelines and their levels of precaution and risk management related to their listings.

We also talk about need. For any clients that have bought before they sell or are experiencing vacancy on a property, we have to recognize their concern for their financial wellbeing. How does this situation relate to the supply and demand of real estate daily and how can we adapt our strategy to execute?

Brett Ackerman: Showings from buyers have been slightly reduced, but I am still getting requests from agents on properties that are vacant.  I think everyone right now needs to take a sober look at the urgency of the situation and decide if what they are doing is in the best interest of the general public and not a selfish personal decision.  

Jordan Boyes: Some people are still looking, but it’s beginning to slow more and more. There’s hand sanitizer at the entrances, all lights are turned on prior to showings and we’re keeping doors open so people don’t have to touch anything.

Marco Silvestri: I have had a number of buyers showing homes but with extra precautionary measures for sure. Some of these homes are now not currently lived in, so I am being very careful. Virtual tours and Facebook Live is also another way to show a home.  

Thomas Pobojewski: Many would-be buyers have decided to put their plans on hold and will wait to see what is the fall-out of the COVID-19 situation. That being said, there are “serious” buyers out there who have purchased since March 13. These are often people who have sold their existing homes and need a place to live. For the duration of social distancing, I would expect less competition for buyers.

Angela Langtry: Yes, people are still looking at properties in person, although not as many. Last week we were laughing about the pandemic being overblown by the media. This week it became real. I have not been in touch with anyone this past week who is not taking the situation seriously.

Thomas Bagogloo: Fewer people have been listing their properties because they don’t want to have people in their homes. But there are still some people who want to move forward with selling because they have their own personal reasons. They’re wiping down surfaces after every showing.

My message to consumers is to take this situation very serious because it can be transmitted without you even knowing about it. From what I understand, it can take up to 14 days to show symptoms, so on the tenth day you could think you’re healthy, but you’re actually exposing everyone you’re in contact with, which allows the virus to grow exponentially. Learn from the countries that have experienced more chaos and more casualties than us so we can limit what happens to our communities and country.

Mary Jane Webster: Some are still looking.  We have left this up to individual realtors to assess their own level of comfort.  If a client is looking, they must be in need of housing, which is a whole other subsequent consequence to what we are experiencing.  Most are adhering to the guidelines set out by the Chief Health Officer and World Health Organization. Our best advice has been "the best way to come together is by staying apart."

How have you adjusted your business? What’s your day-to-day like right now?
Vanessa Roman: I've been socially distancing myself since last week and all of my business has moved to electronic mediums such as phone calls, Facetime, and texting. I'm doing client conferences and listing consultations virtually – absolutely no open houses or realtor tours. For showings, I have been doing virtual tours (MatterPort is absolutely amazing for this) and will not meet with clients in person. We have a responsibility to limit the spread of this virus in any way we can. 

Brett Turner: We are cutting out the extras and are highly focused on our core business strengths: Finding positive cash flow opportunities for investors and managing our client’s properties.

My personal philosophy is that during times of great change it is important to stay very close to your strengths and operate there.  Our management team feels very strongly that we have the right read on how the market will change and what kind of real estate investors should be buying to have success in the post-COVID19 world.  Tenant behaviors will change, so we are aligning ourselves to make the most of the opportunities that will be available in the coming months.

Taylor Hack: I can describe how we adapted our business in one word: quickly. One of the core principles of our real estate team is to be innovative adaptors and another is that we are engaged villagers within our community, so we had a compass to guide the direction of change. Then we put all hands on deck.

Since we’re paperless, we moved to being remote before any announcements and adapted our showing policy to protect our clients. We crowdsourced a resource guide and created a blog of financial help resources and links to health information. We also stopped our regular content calendar and instead highlighted the heroes and championed the helpful ideas and positive humanity of the situation. We became caremongers.

Brett Ackerman: Our business right now hasn’t changed drastically yet as many of our client interactions are done through phone calls, texting and emails.  We have much fewer person-to-person meetings in our industry than 10 years ago, but we’re still having our team admin staff work from home for the time being.

We are still doing regular updates with clients and providing the services our clients have come to expect.  Open houses have been cancelled for the time being, as this is unnecessary contact with strangers that we feel isn’t warranted.  Buyer showings are being taken day-by-day as the situation evolves. We will react based on what the government, board office and sellers decide is best for everyone involved.  

Jordan Boyes: We’re all mostly working from home. No one goes into office. On the rare occasion someone has to go in, it will just be myself an one other staff member. We’re encouraging e-transfers, electronic signatures, etc. so we can have no one in office.

Marco Silvestri: I am still working on my business. I have a daily routine that I do and am continuing. As I am not as busy as I usually am, I am taking this time to research, organize and implement systems and policies that I have been putting off. I am also taking this time to reach out to my database of clients to see if anyone needs or knows of someone who needs help with food, medication, whatever. Just trying to be a part of the solution and help others.

Thomas Pobojewski: We are focusing on continually creating dialogue with our clients to inform them of the situation and its impact on housing and their plans. Much of the discussion is around investors and how to handle potential missed rent payments resulting from loss of income.

We host a monthly seminar that we are now hosting as a webinar. We’re also planning a post-COVID client appreciation event in order to increase morale, raise money for a worthy cause and create community support.

Angela Langtry: When meeting clients in person, we keep a safe distance and no longer shake hands. Our team already provides virtual tours and floor plans for most of our listings. We are promoting that we do this and inviting people who are concerned about going out in public to view the virtual tour. In the past, we have showed homes to out-of-town buyers via Facetime or Skype, and we continue to offer this service.

For all of our listings, we ask for realtors and their buyers to fill out the COVID-19 questionnaire asking if they have symptoms or have traveled recently. During showings, we request visitors not to touch anything and to use recommended hygiene measures. Our team member showing the home wears gloves and opens doors/closets for the visitors. All in all, our day-to-day has not changed much. Yet.

Thomas Bagogloo: You’re seeing a lot of 3D and virtual tours, including agents offering to go on viewings on their clients’ behalf and using FaceTime or other video technology while they’re at the property. Some people are writing an offer subject to viewing.

We’re offering remote listings, as well, where sellers can do a video walk-through for us with their phones so we can prepare a CMA and send it to them. We can then handle the listing accordingly from a distance. 

My agents are not going to the office. We keep the door locked and are holding no client meetings in the office. Two administrators are still working in the office but it’s only them and they’re practising careful social distancing, wiping down doors and surface areas that are commonly touched. I’ve provided necessary solutions and cleaners for that. The next step is for the administrators to work remotely, but at this point it’s not necessary.

The big thing is day care, as one of our administrators has to account for her daughter’s health and well-being. I’ve been very lenient with the team. I’m not asking them to do anything they’re not comfortable with.

Mary Jane Webster:  Everyone is working remotely. Our day-to-day looks different, but we are all trying to take it as an opportunity to work on our business, not in it.  What a great time to go through the database and make those phone calls, reach out to those clients who might be struggling, or help that elderly neighbour.  There can be good news stories among all the bad.  Excellence in what we do can happen, it just looks different for now.

Are you pleased with your real estate board/association’s response to COVID19? What else could be done?
Vanessa Roman: I am pleased with the Victoria Real Estate Board's response to COVID19. They've done an amazing job opening up the lines of communication between realtors, brokers and the board. They are being proactive in helping to protect the public and limit the spread of the virus.  

Brett Turner: I feel [the Calgary Real Estate Board] is handling this properly.  They are communicating with membership much more regularly during a challenging time for everyone.     

Taylor Hack: I am pleased with the response of our real estate board and other regulators. Luckily, we had information before we had a large amount of cases. I think the speed of response and level of communication that are now possible with social media are difference-makers in the outcomes for millions of people when we look at the overall impact of COVID-19.

Brett Ackerman: Our board office has been very proactive with communication regarding the situation and how they’re dealing with the information as it develops.  They have contingency plans in place based on how the situation unfolds and members are well informed on how to handle clients on the issues we’re experiencing.  

Jordan Boyes: So far, yes. I’m not sure what else they could do, but I suspect they will be asked to waive fees for agents as they are likely going to be unable to make money for the foreseeable future, or at least nowhere near as much as they’re used to.

Marco Silvestri: [The Winnipeg Real Estate Association] has postponed our AGM. Our annual fundraiser and board meetings are being done via skype. There are no social gatherings planned at all. I believe that we as Canadians have had the foresight because we got to see what happened in China and Italy so we have that head start. Self-quarantine is needed to prevent this virus from escalating.

Thomas Pobojewski: The real estate boards have encouraged hosting virtual open houses, virtual meetings and virtual tours. They have not banned open houses but I would suggest that they do take a pause. The alternative technologies available are great and should be used.

Angela Langtry: The real estate board has provided a questionnaire for visitors to fill out asking if they have symptoms or have traveled recently. They have also provided government recommendations for hygiene practices and asked us to provide hand sanitizer, masks, gloves and to wipe doorknobs/light switches with disinfectant wipes. The problem is that many stores are sold out of these supplies that we now need for our business.

Thomas Bagogloo: I believe our local real estate board is doing everything they can given the circumstances. They’ve been keeping us up-to-date with messages and have instructed us that we still can transact but we have to follow the health and safety procedures put out by the government. That should be common sense, but they’re reiterating the obvious, including limiting face-to-face meetings and using virtual tours and other technology to help with communication and transactions.

Mary Jane Webster: Our board is in constant contact with its members and the association staff are working remotely. We have daily communiques, and the board is doing everything they can.  We are looking at having fees reduced or waived from a number of service providers.  Everyone is doing what they can as this situation evolves hourly and daily.