Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.
On Feb. 29, I boarded a 200 passenger cruise ship in Puerto Rico and set off for the Leeward Caribbean and British Virgin Islands.
Later that day, the news broke of the first coronavirus-related death in the U.S. It happened less than 15 miles from my home back in the Seattle suburbs.
Even later that day, a second death was announced, in the same place. Home was suddenly the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. At this moment in time, 16 of the 19 U.S. COVID-19 deaths have been in the Seattle area.
Two days later, we woke to a note slipped under our cabin door. The first case of COVID-19 was discovered in the Caribbean — on the island we were docking at in a few hours.
The internet was buzzing. There were stories of runs on toilet paper and water. Store shelves were emptying. Stock markets were imploding, swinging wildly day-to-day.
Fear was (and is) rampant.
On our ship, however, it was business as usual, for the most part. There was no panic among passengers or crew. Nobody donned face masks or was shunned when they coughed. The only sign that something was different was the numerous hand-sanitizer stations around the ship. And it was obvious the crew was more cleanliness-conscious than usual. You could have eaten off the floors and performed open surgery in the dining room.
The crew’s calmness made a positive impact.
That said, of course we were cognizant and aware of the coronavirus and accompanying hysteria happening back home.
Cognizant, aware and armed with well-sourced information — that’s key. You want to see corona hysteria? Dive into a Facebook travel group. Read Twitter. Listen to all the newly minted epidemiologists surfacing all over social media.
Do yourself a favor and find solid, science-backed sites and information. Listen to the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Back away from the hysteria in Rick’s European Travel Group.
The problem is that lots of people aren’t listening to the experts. They’re reading clickbait-y, sensational headlines, but not the articles. They’re listening to anyone with a microphone or a platform, regardless of their qualifications. They’re speculating and assuming. They’re buying lifetime supplies of toilet paper — for a respiratory disease.
Regardless of what you believe about the coronavirus outbreak, some people are freaking out, and some are just extra precautious. Others live without a care in the world.
How you choose to live your life during this event is up to you. And it’s an “event,” whether we like to admit it or not.
This may seem unprecedented. Despite seeming similarities to other “outbreaks” — SARS, Ebola, Zika — this one seems different. It’s the always-on mass media driving hysteria. It’s the unknown. It’s lots of things, but it cannot be dismissed or ignored.
You, oh avid reader, are an entrepreneur and a business owner. Those people who freaking out and those who are simply concerned — they are your clients. They are the people paying your mortgage.
You don’t have a choice. You have to take this seriously. And you’re going to have to adjust and adapt to a rapidly shifting situation.
So, what can you do?
Wait, before we go there, let’s talk about something you can not do. Not now, not ever.
1. Don’t discriminate
It should go without saying, but sadly, it must be said — do not discriminate. Situations that we’re in now can lead people down this path, no matter what their intentions might be.
There are reports scattered about people wearing face masks being ridiculed, and fear and hate being expressed toward someone simply because they are of Asian descent.
The coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, but that doesn’t mean anyone of Asian descent should be treated differently from anyone else. Not now, not ever. Be extra-cognizant that your personal fears and biases could come across the wrong way.
2. Talk to your broker
Hopefully your brokerage or franchise has issued some guidance. Joe Rand, Inman contributor and managing partner at Better Homes and Gardens Rand Realty posted some great guidelines — but ask your broker.
Brokers, you haven’t issued any guidelines or advice? Get busy. This isn’t going away anytime soon.
Read the National Association of Realtors’ guidelines. There’s good information here about how to interact with clients. For example, can you ask clients if they’ve traveled recently? Yes — if you ask them all.
3. Go ‘virtual’
Reports are beginning to surface that attendance at open houses is dropping. That’s understandable if you accept that many have fears and concerns of exposure to viruses (be they of the corona or influenza variety).
What can you do? FaceTime, video, livestream — there are many easy and inexpensive ways to get clients info and visuals of a home. As always (and frequently ignored), you should get the listing broker’s permission before videoing a listing.
4. Openly practice good hygiene
Showing your clients that you’re aware of the situation can go a long way to easing their fears. Use hand sanitizer frequently and liberally. Offer it to your clients before and after entering homes. Wipe door knobs before use.
Cough into your elbow, not your hands. Don’t shake hands. You can practice “social distancing” without being aloof. You don’t have to go to a showing wearing a hazmat suit. Just be conscious and aware.
5. Don’t step out of your lane
Do not, under any circumstances, offer your interpretation of current events. This is way outside your area of expertise. If you’re the type who wants to curl up in the fetal position, alone, until this passes, then you’ll need to find a way to continue doing business.
Assuming you need to work to survive, you’re going to have to be around people. Now is not the time to spread fear. Nor is it the time to promise that all is well and that there is nothing to be concerned about.
Remember back in the housing crash days when everyone trumpeted, “Now is a great time to buy!” Well, it wasn’t, certainly not for everyone. Being overly optimistic is just as dangerous as fear mongering. You need to remain a neutral party, understanding fears and concerns. It’s a delicate line to walk. Be aware.
6. Remember the rules
Look, I get it. Interest rates are insanely low. This is a pitch just begging to be made: “Wow! Interest rates are at historic lows! Now is the time to buy, buy, buy!”
Stop. Don’t go that way. You know (I hope) there are laws that dictate what can and can’t be said about loan rates and rules about disclosing APR. Every single day, I see ads from agents that violate truth-in-lending laws. Talk to your broker. You can leverage low rates. You need to do it carefully and legally.
7. Don’t panic
It’s easier said than done, but don’t panic. The world will get through this. Things may change, and it may all fade away. Only time will tell what the lasting effects will be. Financial markets are a mess, and that will make people uneasy about real estate.
But that uneasiness also means opportunity. Investors are looking at the U.S. market as somewhat of a safe-haven for real estate. There are buying and selling opportunities. It’s chaotic now, it will be less so later.
I want to close with a story about Patsy. She is the only female cab driver on the island of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands — a true paradise. Patsy drove us to a beach, while she pointed out the devastation and recovery the island was going through since it was struck by multiple hurricanes three years ago.
Everything was wiped out. Everything. Tourists, Patsy’s and the island’s lifeblood, are just starting to come back. Buildings have been rebuilt. Sailboats, once “stacked up like matchsticks” on shore are repaired and back in the water.
And Patsy is laughing and smiling and providing kick-ass service to her customers. Her incredibly positive attitude is uplifting. Her business is booming.
Patsy and people all over the islands survived total destruction of their homes and businesses. Yet here they are, doing what needs to be done, adapting and living life to its fullest.
No matter what happens, homes will continue to be bought and sold. Someone has to sell them, and it should be you. Your attitude determines everything.
Be careful, be aware, be like Patsy.
Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree in Seattle, as well as the one spinning the wheels at Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty. “Retired but not dead,” Jay speaks around the world on many things real estate.