As coronavirus continues to rapidly spread across the United States, public concerns about a possible pandemic have risen as more than 115 reported cases and nine deaths have occurred. Even though the Centers for Disease Control have said the current risk of a U.S.-based pandemic is “low,” that hasn’t stopped some individuals and organizations from preparing for the worst.
The Federal Reserve issued an emergency interest rate cut on Tuesday amid fears about further stock market disruptions, MIPIM postponed its international conference until June and at least one brokerage has adopted a “coronavirus clause” to keep a transaction afloat while a seller is trapped in the virus’ epicenter.
Although most Americans remain untouched by the grips of COVID-19, agents on Inman’s Coast to Coast Facebook page said some clients have expressed fears about the virus’ spread, and what it means for their health and real estate plans.
Dealing with fears near Washington’s epicenter
“I think it’s a fairly mixed reaction, like most of the country,” Windermere Anacortes broker-owner Nate Scott told Inman. “The reaction is ranging from almost panicked, down to those who say, ‘More people die from the flu,’ and really aren’t having any reaction to it.”
Anacortes is in Skagit County, 115 miles from Kings County, the epicenter of Washington’s COVID-19 outbreak where five of six deaths in the state were reported. Although no cases have been reported in Anacortes or Skagit County, Scott said clients are slowly beginning to ask about the virus’s potential impact on their health and real estate transactions.
“We had one listing cancel because of it,” Scott said. “The wife was concerned about inviting people into their home without knowing where they’d been or if they’d been in contact with someone who had the virus.”
“However, the couple called today and decided to place their home back on the market,” he added. “It’s funny because the virus is actually worse now than when they decided not to list, which was about a week ago. I’m not sure how they went from one decision to the other.”
Scott said he’s trained his agents on how to talk to concerned clients, which includes sharing accurate, up-to-date information and releasing a new cleaning procedure for open houses.
“We’ve been talking to our agents about how to calm fears and talk about real numbers in terms of who is infected and the very simple things you can do to avoid getting infected yourself,” he explained. “We’ve told sellers we’ll wipe down surfaces after a showing, and we’ve advised buyers not to get too handsy.”
When it comes to his team of 33 agents, two property managers and four staff members, Scott said everyone has remained relatively calm since the brokerage instated stricter cleaning guidelines and outlined an emergency plan if things make a turn for the worse in Washington.
“We have Clorox wipes sitting on all the counters, and we went shopping to make sure we have plenty of alcohol hand wipes,” Scott said while agents have been given the option to work remotely and have been ordered to stay home if they start feeling sick.
“From a company standpoint, we’ve looked at our expenses and said ‘If this market crashes and sales come to a standstill or are curtailed, what’s it going to take to keep the lights on?’” he added.
Although confirmed COVID-19 cases are expected to double every six days in Washington, Scott is trying to remain level-headed and expects the market to chug along.
“Some people may look at the risks and rewards of listing or not listing, and decide to take a risk even if we have a full-blown virus out there,” he said.
Implementing lessons from previous outbreaks in Canada
Meanwhile, in Ottawa, Canada, RE/MAX Hallmark agent Matt Richling is implementing the lessons he learned during the 2003 SARS outbreak, another form of coronavirus that caused worldwide pandemonium.
“We have a bit of history because we had to deal with SARS a number of years ago,” Richling said. “I was in the business then, and it really didn’t affect us.”
Richling said he’s focused on providing clients with facts and has avoided making predictions about the virus, or how it will or won’t impact the market — the same strategy he used in 2003.
“We’ve taken the position of, ‘We really don’t know what’s going to happen,’” he said. “But we have to be prepared anyway. We can only deal with what we do know as the environment changes and go from there.”
As of March 2, there have only been 27 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada. However, Richling said clients are starting to express concern about how a possible outbreak will impact the market and any buying or selling plans they may have.
“I was at a listing appointment on Sunday, and I had a client ask me, ‘What’s going to happen? How is this going to affect the market?’ That was an interesting conversation because it’s the first time I’ve really dealt with that,” he told Inman. “It wasn’t a matter of, ‘We’re all gonna get sick and we’re going to die,’ it was a matter of, ‘Could this be something that impacts our market?’”
Richling said he provided a current snapshot of Ottawa’s market, which is a seller’s market with high buyer demand. Although he was able to calm that seller, Richling expects that he and his 449 colleagues will be having many more conversations about COVID-19 over the coming weeks.
“Since Sunday, it’s starting to be asked by more clients. I’m not even bringing [the coronavirus] up,” he said. “A large chunk of [my colleagues] said, ‘Yes, we’ve been dealing with questions about the virus over the past few days.'”
Even though his clients have remained relatively calm, Richling said he’s heard stories from other agents where clients have canceled moving plans to avoid open houses or have made sudden, high-dollar purchases in more remote locales to seclude themselves if the virus spreads.
“I spoke to a broker in a small town outside of Toronto, who sold a large lot and house to a couple who are doctors so they could escape if it got bad,” he said. “I mean, these aren’t even crazy doomsdayers.”
Looking forward, Richling wants his colleagues and his clients to focus on one thing: the facts.
“Agents are talking about, ‘How we can protect ourselves?’ People are reporting not being able to get hand sanitizer anywhere. Face masks have been sold out at Home Depot for two months. They get them in and they’re gone immediately,” he said.
“Because of how our industry has changed and because of how our news has changed, it’s changed how we receive information, and we have to be a little more careful of where we get our info from,” he added. “But we have to focus on the facts.”
Going on with life as usual in Texas
Texas has joined the list of 16 states with confirmed COVID-19 cases, as San Antonio Mayor Ron Nierenberg announced a single CDC worker infected with the virus was released into the public after a false negative test. The worker, along with 21 others, has been quarantined, as San Antonio’s leadership works with the CDC to trace the worker’s steps.
Despite being only three hours away from Texas’ first cases, Houston-based Navigation Real Estate Team Leader Ryan Bokros told Inman locals have maintained their “Texas tough” attitude.
“The feeling I’m getting is that people are starting to get a bit ‘tired’ of the hysteria and are beginning to just move on and doing life. However, somewhat cautiously,” Bokros said, noting a nominal uptick in purchases of water bottles and other emergency gear.
Bokros said his team has handled COVID-19 by keeping their clients and the public updated about stock market changes and trends, and how it could benefit their homebuying or selling plans.
“We’re using it as a key opportunity to educate people on what happens when the stock market corrects and what it does to long-term rates,” he explained. “We’ve been pushing an agenda about the market correcting, pushing rates down, and that it’s a good time to buy or refinance. Because of the influx of demand due to low rates, it’s a good time to sell as well.”
“Since the middle of last week, our call volume has probably doubled,” he added.
The team leader said open houses haven’t been an issue, and his agents’ showing volume has actually increased over the past few weeks.
“From my understanding, none of our sellers have made special requests or shown fear about people coming to their homes,” Bokros said. “I don’t know if it has anything to do with us being a little tougher down here in Texas.”
“I live in a very diverse community and we have people from everywhere. Even with that, I don’t feel a sense of fear or concern,” he concluded. “It really seems that people are going about their lives.”