As The Coronavirus Spreads, It’s Not Business As Usual For Real Estate Agents

Real estate agents have been encouraged to speak openly with sellers about the pros and cons of holding an open house – GETTY

Traditional real estate practices have become a tough tightrope to walk in the age of the new coronavirus as agents try to balance job responsibilities with common-sense measures to protect buyers and sellers, and even themselves.

As the spring selling season gets underway and the number of coronavirus cases and deaths rises across the United States, some agents have had to come to terms with the harsh reality that the outbreak is putting them in the delicate position of forgoing common practices such as holding open houses or shaking hands to contain the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

In guidelines issued by the National Association of Realtors, agents have been encouraged to propose alternative marketing opportunities for their sellers’ consideration such as video tours and other methods to virtually tour a property.

Agents must be mindful of their obligations under the Fair Housing Act, and be sure not to discriminate against any particular segment of the population, the guidance states, noting: “While the coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, that does not provide a basis for treating Chinese persons or persons of Asian descent differently.”

The NAR points out that agents can refuse to drive clients who show signs of illness or reveal recent travel to areas of increased risk of coronavirus. Or agents can decide to stop driving clients in their vehicles altogether and simply arrange to meet clients at a property. However, agents must be sure that any change to their business practices is applied equally to all clients.

The coronavirus is causing fewer home buyers to search in the marketplace as well as some listings being delayed, according to Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors. In a recent NAR survey, 11% of agents indicated a reduction in buyer traffic and 7% reported lower seller traffic when asked about the coronavirus impact on the market.

David Kong, director of relocation and partner with the LevinKong Team at Keller Williams NYC, keeps hand sanitizers at the door during open houses to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading coronavirus. “No one’s shaking hands these days,” he said. “They’re doing the elbow bump.”

Kong said an open house that he was scheduled to host March 7 was canceled because the homeowner has two children with health issues. “She was concerned that if people came through their home, it might expose the children to the virus,” he explained. “You’re seeing much more of this. So with this particular unit, I’ve shown it twice, but I have to screen potential buyers seeing it. I have to ask if they’ve traveled, do a background check on who they are, just to be really more cautious.”

To ease the home-shopping experience, Kong said he is ordering a 3D walk-through to give prospective buyers an opportunity to check out the apartment any time they want from a smartphone or computer.

“It’s a little more cost to us, but I think it’s better,” he said. “Actually, I like it because now only more serious buyers will view homes versus anyone that’s just hanging out, wanting to look at places for fun.”

Kong said his team has been busy with open houses in Manhattan, but activity has been slower in Queens and Long Island. “I think maybe because it’s homes versus apartments,” he said. “I’m not sure why, but people are a lot more hesitant to have open houses. Whether or not I believe the coronavirus is as bad as people make it out to be, obviously, a lot of people are concerned. And at the end of the day, a lot of people don’t feel as comfortable having strangers in their home.”

NAR’s Yun pointed out that the stock market crash is no doubt raising economic anxieties, while the coronavirus brings fear of contact with strangers.

“At the same time, the dramatic fall in interest rates may induce some potential buyers to take advantage of the better affordability condition,” he said. “It is too early to assess the likely impact as to whether lower interest rates can overcome the economic and health anxieties.”

Yun noted that the latest survey of Realtors is “implying in the short-term at least that home sales will be chopped by around 10%, compared to what would have been the case, due to the spread of coronavirus.”

As a common-sense measure, Redfin has advised its agents not to shake hands with customers who would prefer not to be in close contact with individuals.

“Please don’t take it personally,” stated Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman in a blog post on the tech-powered brokerage’s website. “Fortunately, Redfin’s technology investments over the years leave us better prepared for virus fears than many other brokers,” he said. “We perform three-dimensional scans of nearly every home we’ve been hired to sell so that buyers can tour the home virtually without having to congregate in an open house. We create online marketing campaigns for nearly every Redfin listing on Facebook and other sites. Perhaps alone among brokers, we believe we can sell homes just as effectively without an open house.”

He pointed out, “We’ve long had a push-button tool for requesting a private in-person tour of homes for sale. Starting today, we’re letting home buyers use that tool to ask the agent to conduct the tour virtually via video chat. Our customers can also complete every part of a contract virtually. In the states where the law allows it, customers who use our mortgage and title service can close electronically. If you’d rather not meet others except where necessary, we can let you see a home, bid on it and close on it, all virtually.”

Lou Izzo, broker and owner of Select Sotheby’s International Realty in Saratoga Springs, New York, said the epidemic is clearly a hot topic. “It seems that everywhere I go, the coronavirus is a daily topic because of the amount of press and coverage that the virus is getting,” he noted. “That said, we are not seeing a significant impact in our buyer or seller behavior at this point. Now, we’re early in the newness of this information, so it may be too early to tell, but right now, our buyers and sellers still seem to be engaged in the real estate process.”

Miami-based Compass Florida broker Audrey Ross is finding that the coronavirus “certainly is top of mind, but we were very busy at our open houses this past weekend and at this point, I would say business is about normal in terms of the high-end luxury market.”

She explained that people are talking about the epidemic, but so far, any specific concern about resale properties or whether sellers did not want potential buyers coming to their homes for showings “has not come up.”

Staci Donegan, associate broker at Seabolt Real Estate|Christie’s International Real Estate in Savannah, Georgia, said she is seeing more activity in the lower price points due to the drop in interest rates.  “I had an investor that was looking at an investment property mention concerns of the coronavirus but thought that the impact on tourism here in Savannah would be temporary if at all. I don’t think we will be impacted as significantly as other markets, but we are certainly bracing ourselves.”

Real estate agent Steven Gottlieb of Warburg Realty believes people will continue to go about their daily lives during the spring home-buying season.

“If people need or want to move, then they are likely to do it, coronavirus or not,” he said. “Right now, coronavirus still feels like a far-off concept, but in the coming weeks, if there really is a widespread pandemic, I think open-house traffic will be the first thing to be affected. We are keeping a bottle of hand sanitizer front and center when people walk into our listings to make everyone feel more comfortable.”

Gottlieb added, “My clients haven’t brought up coronavirus so, thankfully, I have not had to really analyze how this might affect the market, but in the coming weeks, I think this might be a real concern and something all real estate agents will need to address, if not for our clients, then certainly for us, as we are out and about, meeting tons of strangers when we show property or host open houses. I think the more hypochondriac-ish among us might stay home more.”