Early last week, one of the managers in my company suggested that we proactively announce that our firm would be suspending open houses due to the coronavirus pandemic. To give you an idea of how fast things are changing in this new normal of COVID-19, I went from a “wait and see” attitude, anticipating recommendations from our association and perhaps news from other larger brokerages, to pulling the plug on them within a span of about 72 hours.
We do have a fiduciary responsibility to clients to get their listings sold and to exhaust all options to that end, but the root value of being a fiduciary is to do no harm. We have a duty to not expose our clients to contagion. Until we know more, every brokerage should pause the open-house practice at this time.
Here’s what we do know: This virus is considerably more contagious than SARS and other headline-grabbing afflictions of the past.
We cannot effectively vet visitors
Pragmatically, we’ve always allowed for nosy neighbors and unknown strangers to walk through our opens, and the silver lining was that we could pick up new clients from the pool of unqualified and uninterested people in the subject listing. This is no longer a worthwhile payoff.
In a world where title companies are now throwing out pens from closings, we simply have no means of ensuring that open house visitors are healthy enough to enter a home that’s inhabited or frequented by children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.
We can’t manage the logistics
Without a team of agents running an open house (how will you compensate them?), it’s impossible to make sure that the unknown, unvetted attendees don’t touch anything, leave their kids and older relatives out, and don’t sneeze or cough. Herding cats is easier.
If you set up the house to have nothing touched, people will still put their hands on stuff. Also, if you open all doors and cabinets to ensure nothing gets touched, it will look like an unkempt, poorly presented mess — like the scene of a very careful FBI search. That’s not what I’d call staging.
We aren’t Servpro
You aren’t an institutional janitor. Maybe 0.01 percent of the agent population sterilized hospitals, but please don’t sell me the bill of goods that you’re going to personally sanitize a small home — let alone a 4,000-square-foot listing — with your Lysol wipes.
Inasmuch as we are often advised to not act like bankers, lawyers and title folk when we play the agent position, neither should we wear the professional sanitation hat. We can’t ensure that the buyers are entering a sufficiently clean house on a microbial level, nor can we promise a seller that anyone walking in is negative for COVID-19 and will behave pristinely.
As always, technology is available to partially solve the matter. We should, as tech-savvy professionals, educate our clients on the benefits and safety of 3D imaging and virtual tours. The cost of a virtual walk-through by a professional photographer in pricey Westchester County is now roughly the same (or better) than what we used to pay for a newspaper open house ad that ended up in the trash by Monday. What’s more, 3D tours work for you 24/7 online.
Area9 Lyceum, an adaptive online learning company that has MDs listed as principals, has put out a brief, 19-minute course for non-medical personnel on coronavirus. You can take the course for free to help deepen your understanding. Knowledge is power.
I don’t know when we’ll lift our moratorium. But it’s incumbent on us as members of society who deal with the public to make sure that we’re part of the solution. When the dust inevitably settles on this crisis, we want to ensure that the resolution happened with our participation, rather than in spite of us.
J. Philip Faranda is broker and owner of J Philip Real Estate in Westchester County, New York. He is a member of Inman’s Real Estate Influencers of 2017, Zillow’s Agent Advisory Board and the 2014 HGMLS president. Follow him on Twitter @JPhilipFaranda.