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Deemed ‘Essential,’ U.S. Real Estate Agents Get Back to Business—With Several Caveats

Brokers are embracing technology, socially distancing and, in some cases, giving buyers and renters more time and leeway. Deemed ‘Essential,’ U.S. Real Estate Agents Get Back to Business—With Several Caveats

Although real estate agents are considered “essential employees” during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s certainly not business as usual.

Some brokers are on pause, and only moving forward with deals that were in the works before the restrictions were put in place. But many have turned to virtual tours and online tools to show property and keep in touch with clients.

“We’re able to do so much more digitally, and buyers and sellers are accepting that as an option where they really didn’t before,” said Hillary Ryan, a Napa, California-based agent with Compass. “There’s just a lot more efficiency in how we can do business now. These tools have all been out there, but they haven’t really been adopted. Now they have to be and people are embracing these options.”

With technology giving agents more options, some clients are buying or renting properties without seeing them in real life, Ms. Ryan said. In addition, buyers have had a lot of extra time to think about how and where they want to live, and agents are seeing a shift in the kind of property buyers are seeking.

“People have had an opportunity to think about how they want to live, how they are functioning and spending time,” according to Vickey Barron, a New York City broker, also with Compass. “As agents, we can think about how to better serve people and meet their needs.”

Government Guidelines

At first, there was some confusion about whether real estate agents were considered essential workers.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not originally include real estate agents as part of the “critical infrastructure workforce,” a list of essential workers released in a March 16 memo. The department updated the list about two weeks later to include brokers in that group.

However, shelter-in-place directives varied regionally.

For example, California followed the federal recommendations, allowing brokers to work under new guidelines. The California Association of Realtors issued guidelines for best practices. They include virtual showings, electronic transactions and the suspension of open houses while the shelter-in-place edicts continue.

But some counties within the state weren’t so fast to allow that agents were essential.

Napa County was one of them, Ms. Ryan said. It wasn’t until the first week of April that the county government gave agents the go ahead to “show property under certain circumstances.”

“It’s been confusing, because we haven’t known exactly whose advice to follow,” she noted.

For example, property that is already vacant can be shown in person. An agent sanitizes the home, comes back out and lets the client in. He or she can have a look around—without touching anything—and the broker will wipe down the home again afterward. Gloves and masks are also required for both brokers and buyers.

New York, which has had the largest number of Covid-19 cases by far, also did not immediately consider real estate an essential business. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo only permitted property showings starting on April 1, issuing guidelines for brokers to maintain physical distancing and avoid in-person showings.

In New York, brokers must work and show homes remotely. No person-to-person contact is allowed, and open houses or other mass gatherings have been suspended.

Agents in Florida are following strict guidelines for carrying on business, which also include working remotely, avoiding person-to-person contact and appropriately sanitizing properties, according to Daniel de la Vega, the president of ONE Sotheby’s International Realty in South Florida.

“We are not showing property for the most part,” he explained. “We’re doing everything virtually. I would say that we are showing probably only about 20% of the properties that we would do in a traditional market.”

Tech Rules

Agents across the country have turned to virtual tours as an alternative to showings.

Many use Zoom or FaceTime or a 3D data platform like Matterport. That’s in addition to the professional photography and video for the property they’ve already created for the listing.

Ms. Ryan recently had an assistant conduct a tour with a couple of doctors based in St. Louis, Missouri. She advised the assistant on angles and made sure she got certain details into the frame while the couple was on the line.

“We’re not doubling up on people, so I stayed at home and directed,” Ms. Ryan said about the virtual tour. The clients “made an offer sight unseen…I don’t think that that would have happened in a different environment, but they feel like they really got a great sense of the property.”

Many sellers have taken their listings off the market, either because they want to wait out the uncertainty or because they are physically waiting out the lockdown at the property. Many of those that remain have motivated sellers.

“Escrows that were in contract before the crisis felt real—like the beginning of March—have been able to negotiate price reductions,” Ms. Ryan said. She estimates that discount is between 5% and 10%, but she didn’t have enough data yet to be sure.

Ms. Barron has also been able to make deals using virtual tours. She recently rented a $30,000 a month apartment in Manhattan to a client after the owner did a walk through with his phone.

“The lease is signed, but he can’t move,” she noted. “Everyone is frozen.”

Although it may feel that way in many cases, moving services are considered essential by the federal government, and major companies are still operating, according to New York City-based Oz Moving. The company has added protocols to combat the outbreak, including sanitizing trucks and maintaining social distancing.

Language specific to the pandemic was inserted into the contract so the client wouldn’t be charged for rent before he was able to move in.

On the sales side, new developments are being flexible and rescheduling signings, Ms. Barron added. Deals on resales have longer escrows to make time for eventual walk throughs, inspections and other hands-on appointments.

Similar allowances are being made in San Diego, according to Jenna Yost, a Douglas Elliman agent based there.

“The guidelines that the California Association of Realtors has put into place does give buyers the opportunity…to do a proper walkthrough of the home before closing,” she said.

Still, she’s been able to sell several properties through virtual tours. And clients are understanding.

“This is the only option right now, whereas before it was one of many options,” she said.

Meanwhile, ONE Sotheby’s has developed digital tools to aid agents. Those who haven’t taken advantage of them before are now learning to use them, according to Mr. de la Vega.

“Agents were taking a little bit more time to adopt this technology because they’re just caught up in the day-to-day lives,” he explained. “In these last 30 days, people have really had this opportunity to embrace all the tools, whether it be sales meetings that are done virtually…or programs like DocuSign and the CRM system. Now they’re taking the time to learn them.”

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