The coronavirus pandemic is rapidly changing the way REALTORS® conduct business. Virtual tours and app-based conferencing have played a major role while brokerages scramble to balance excellent client service with social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and other elements of the new normal.
Perhaps the most profound lesson, in the view of leading residential and commercial REALTORS® around the nation, is that COVID-driven changes will make lasting impressions on the industry — even after there is a vaccine, a drop-in cases and a general return to life before the virus.
Virtually every REALTOR® contacted for this story believes virtual technology will play an even larger role — in a field already known for online video walkthroughs of houses and properties. Many feel remote work will greatly increase, changing the way firms large and small measure their need for formal office space.
John Rosshirt, associate broker/co-owner of Stanberry REALTORS® in Austin, Texas, said more visuals are being added to many listings. He said agents are using high and low-tech to add video.
“Some agents are just walking through their listing with a simple wordless video on their smartphone to have something extra to upload,” he said of low-tech solutions.
“Photographers are adding 3D-technology for agents. Agents are using Zoom to stay in touch with their clients.
“I have set up special lighting and rearranged what is behind me, so I make a professional impression. People who are isolated love this contact, and I find they like to talk,” reminding REALTORS® that the personal touch is needed — even if it is virtual.
Rosshirt added, “Calls do seem to take longer because people have a need to talk about the new challenges in their life as well as the new challenges in achieving their real estate goals.”
He sees the pandemic focusing some homebuyers on high-performance, healthier homes — noting a house with a tighter seal and better air exchange and filters may now be well worth the expense. These are features of high-performance homes that may be called energy-efficient or green by some builders. As homeowners respond to difficult times, their house serves as the office/boardroom, classroom, coffee shop, movie theater, gym, and safe sanctuary to shelter in place.
Ohio REALTORS®, a statewide association, is conducting weekly member surveys to track the market’s condition in an effort to provide further insight to members. Equally important, Ohio REALTORS® are sharing the data with Governor Mike DeWine’s Administration (lauded for quick action to stop the virus spread), the Economic Recovery Task Force of the Ohio House and other key policymakers to be influential partners in identifying initiatives to stabilize the real estate sector during the pandemic.
Ohio was one of the first states to adopt remote notarization three years ago. The legislation requires notaries to obtain a separate certification, but the opportunity to process documents and finalize deals exists. Closings in Ohio are now occurring with only one-party present to ensure social-distancing compliance.
“Ohio’s REALTOR® community has dramatically changed its individual and collective business practices — using proper social-distancing protocols, tapping into technology to conduct virtual showings and remote meetings with customers,” said Chief Executive Officer Scott Williams. “Throughout, we’ve stressed to our membership that, while the state deemed real estate as an essential service, this is not a time for business as usual. It’s imperative that the industry make necessary adjustments to find the proper balance of serving our clients, while also protecting society’s greater good.”
Ohio REALTORS® has created a coronavirus resources page on its website, providing members with important links and top headlines from lawmakers, agencies, and related groups in Ohio and across the nation. Its best practices include conducting virtual meetings with its local boards and associations, as well as with elected REALTOR ® leadership — since the onset of the pandemic.
Rosshirt said with so many people working remotely, there likely will be a permanent change to facilitating virtual work in home design. “A company may realize they do not need expensive real estate if their employees can be effective remotely. Developers are already moving to multi-use plans where the office component is matched with nearby appropriate living and retail/entertainment.”
Rosshirt added that prolonged work from home will show the weakness or benefits of current living arrangements. “Flex space may be less desirable than a dedicated work area. Internet reliability, capacity, and speed will be critical for some jobs. Areas with Google Fiber may earn a premium,” he observed. “If two people are working at home, a shared workspace may not be practical.
“One couple I just closed with on a new house have been both forced to work at home. Her counseling work is transferring to the internet well enough, but she must maintain privacy in her work. His work is high tech and he has been capable of working at home for a long time but now it is full-time and it can be loud (gaming). So, the floor plan they chose provided two workspaces very separate from the other.”
The Houston Association of REALTORS® (HAR) has member coronavirus FAQs on its website and has published columns that address business in the pandemic era. With more consumers home-bound, there has been a surge in traffic to its award-winning HAR.com website.
“What’s about to happen to Houston real estate reminds me of Hurricane Harvey in that we are bracing for impact, but don’t yet know what the full extent on the market will be,” said HAR Chairman John Nugent with RE/MAX Space Center. “There are consumers out there for whom finding a home is critical, however, HAR has urged all REALTOR® members to conduct as much business as possible online, using technology such as virtual open houses, virtual tours, and electronic signature documents, in the interest of protecting everyone’s health.”
On March 20, all in-person open houses were removed from HAR.com out of an abundance of caution. The website introduced a virtual tour feature, allowing REALTORS ® to host and post virtual open houses and conduct virtual showings. Consumers can watch them live on HAR.com at scheduled times and REALTORS® can then share the recordings on their own websites and social media platforms.
Sara Briseno Gerrish is a broker/owner of a family-operated, boutique ReMax real estate office in San Antonio. She assists buyers, sellers, and tenants, as well as managing the agents in her office.
“Although real estate was deemed an essential service in Bexar County, it has not been business as usual. We have chosen to close our office for the safety and health of our employees and agents and work 100 percent remotely,” she said. “As expected, we are leveraging technology heavily. We are communicating with our agents via Facebook group to share tips/resources, motivational posts and giving updates on the almost daily changes in our market/ industry and hosting office meetings via Zoom.”
Gerrish said tech will be an increasingly crucial tool in the industry, but she does not think it will be the be-all, end-all in residential real estate. “I believe most people will still want to walk through what may be the largest purchase of their lives. These tools will not replace the knowledge and expertise that a REALTOR® can provide in a transaction.”
“We assist a lot of first-time home buyers and many have had their jobs affected. They are coming to us for guidance about how the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, which is allocating $2.2 trillion in federal support to individuals and businesses affected by the pandemic and economic downturn, can help them,” Gerrish said, noting that REALTORS® — in good times and challenging ones — help people find, afford, and protect their homes. “This is not the right time for everyone to buy or sell — but if it is, we are trying to equip our agents with tech tools to be safe but also effective in this climate.”
NC REALTORS® (NCR), the statewide association in North Carolina, has an online coronavirus platform that supports “Selling Homes from Home.” The resources, gathered from numerous sources including the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, discusses topics such as virtual showings and how to host virtual meetings.
“Throughout the state, real estate has been both designated as, and as not, an essential business activity through local governments’ stay-at-home orders. This has resulted in a significant amount of disparity in how REALTORS® are able to conduct business in different areas of North Carolina,” said Seth Palmer, NCR’s director of Regulatory Affairs and External Communications. “In support of those who are able to conduct business in their area, we have created a best practice guide for members with important information about how to conduct any activities in compliance with health and safety guidelines.”
Regarding remote closings, we remain in continuous communication with organizations representing real estate attorneys, financial institutions, and title insurers to ensure that closings can continue across the state,” he added. “This has included recommending clarifications to local orders to require that Register of Deeds offices remain open in some fashion, as well as any additional allowances for closings to be completed in a timely fashion.”
Will Doerlich is broker/CEO of Pleasanton, Calif.,-based Realty One Group Today in the eastern San Francisco Bay Tri-Valley area.
“As REALTORS®, we need to support the efforts to contain and maintain the health of our communities — the economic as well as the physical and mental health of our communities. Each of these is intertwined together,” he said. “And right now, a healthy community will be a strong economic community sooner when the market is fully opened and available to our clients.”
Doerlich said the channels are now virtual versus in-person, but it still is vital for him as a broker to keep in contact to encourage and mentor agents for continued engagement and returning to full productivity.
“On-line messaging and social media access were ‘nice-to-haves’ — now it’s essential to maintain continuity, communication, and camaraderie among the agents and staff,” he said.
“We have started a weekly web conference with all the agents in our offices. It keeps the team in sync and is encouraging to hear the activity of our agents. We can also answer questions about new protocols, and it maintains the enthusiasm in a difficult market time,” Doerlich added.
Doerlich finds the silver lining in possible slowdowns. He noted that education and on-going training are fundamental requirements in the business — so downtime is a great time to take advantage of distant-learning opportunities that increase effectiveness in meeting client expectations.
“Everyone was touting ‘Virtual Tours’ and ‘Virtual Open Houses’ as the wave of the future! Well, it’s not ‘virtual’ anymore — it’s here and virtually impossible to sell a house without them!” he quipped about the full-on use of technology required to survive the COVID-19 era.