In New Orleans, the new coronavirus outbreak is bringing back memories of Hurricane Katrina.
In Anchorage, agents and brokers who need to pick up lockboxes from their multiple listing service are being limited to the MLS’s “arctic entry.”
In San Francisco and Seattle, open houses and broker tours are canceled.
As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies, multiple listing services around the country are taking steps to both protect the health of their staff and serve their subscribers in ways that disrupt their businesses as little as possible.
Inman reached out to 21 MLSs representing more than 600,000 agents and brokers to find out how they’re handling the crisis. Almost all said they have at least some, if not all, staff working from home and are offering online education and training options. Some are taking a “wait and see” approach to changes having to do with how properties are marketed or are leaving decisions up to their subscribers. Others have taken more drastic steps or are considering doing so. And some areas have been more hard-hit than others.
In New Orleans, there are 176 known cases of COVID-19 (out of 240 in Louisiana as a whole) and five people have died. Rosemary Scardina, MLS director for the Gulf South Real Estate Information Network (GSREIN) told Inman the 6,500-member MLS hasn’t completely figured out the steps it will take to address the crisis, which she described as a “fluid situation.”
“We’re in the middle or probably an epicenter of this virus,” she said. “This feels almost as an act of God similar to Katrina where so many things have to be put into place at the same time.”
Anchorage-based Alaska MLS, which has just under 2,200 subscribers, has sent out a memo to its brokers letting them know that they will be limited to a front entrance area if they need to visit an MLS office. For the main Anchorage office, the area is an “arctic entry,” which Alaska MLS CEO Michael Smith described as a double-entry doorway that “keeps the heat in a bit better.”
“Essentially we have about half of our staff fully working remotely as of today, prioritizing those who were at the greatest risk. The remaining staff are working with adequate separation between one another, and lastly we have limited all customers from entering our facilities, apart from a small designated area at the entrance of each location,” Smith told Inman via email.
Alaska MLS manages lockboxes for its subscribers and also has stores at its offices where it sells items such as corrugated signs and flier boxes. The MLS asked brokers to order those items in advance so they can be picked up at a station in the arctic entry. Returned lockboxes will be disinfected.
“The membership has been very supportive and cooperative,” Smith said. “Plans may change and adapt as our situation does, but we have well mapped out contingencies for any number of scenarios, and we will do what we need to do to best match the given situation.”
First MLS in Georgia also sells signage and lockboxes to its nearly 46,000 subscribers and has set up a system where agents can order online and then pick up their items outside of the doors of the MLS’s three storefronts, according to FMLS CEO Jeremy Crawford. Subscribers can call from the parking lot to have their orders hand-delivered to them, Crawford told Inman via phone.
In addition, FMLS has put all of its other services online, including previously on-site continuing education courses, he said. There’s a skeleton crew at the FMLS office, but most staff is working from home.
“As a technology company we’re supporting 100 percent our brokers and agents with all that they need and doing it virtually,” Crawford said.
The Houston Association of Realtors (37,500 subscribers) has taken a similar approach with its HAR SuperCenter store. And it’s closed all four of its offices as of Wednesday and moved all in-person classes through April 30 to a virtual format. “We have everything set up to continue to provide all services to our members remotely,” a spokesperson said.
At Regional MLS in Portland, Oregon (14,445 subscribers) all of its offices remain open but everyone except front desk staff are reporting from home, CEO Kurt von Wasmuth told Inman via email. The MLS has also dropped all shipping fees on lockboxes so agents don’t have to come into its offices, he said.
In addition, RMLS is adding a warning message to its Open House and Broker Tour modules:
“We will not be turning the modules off, but displaying the warning on the search screen [and] the results screen and any time you try to add an open house or a broker tour,” von Wasmuth said.
At MLS PIN in Massachusetts, all staff is working from home and the MLS is offering its more than 42,000 subscribers ongoing webinars instead of live classes and office visits.
“Our support team is available for regular support hours via phone or email including evenings and weekends,” Melissa Lindberg, MLS PIN’s chief strategy and marketing officer, told Inman via email. “Our customers are still being serviced and business as usual.”
In Washington State, Northwest MLS has disabled its open house features for its more than 30,000 subscribers until at least March 31. As of Tuesday, the San Francisco Association of Realtors’ MLS (4,800 subscribers) has suspended open houses and broker tours for even longer — at least three weeks. San Francisco County and five neighboring counties are under shelter-in-place orders to prevent the spread of the virus.
The association will consult with the San Francisco mayor’s office after the three-week period to decide when to restart open houses, SFAR President Marc Dickow said in an email to members Monday. SFAR will temporarily allow agents to add comments to their Open Houses or Tour comment fields with links to virtual tour products, the association said.
“[F]ollowing the Mayor’s ‘shelter in place’ order is essential to helping slow the spread of COVID-19. SFAR cannot stop agents or companies from acting on their own — but we are asking that as an organization and as a community we act together to help keep each other and our community safe,” Dickow wrote.
In response to members’ concerns about days on market (DOM) accumulating when a listing is taken off the market for a time, SFAR is temporarily changing its rules to allow listing agents for listings placed on Hold status on or after March 9, 2020 to email SFAR a request to have that listing marked as “new” once the listing has been changed back to any Active status.
“Please note that the ‘new’ status will not change, or zero-out, or ‘reset’ DOM. Using Hold will stop DOM from incrementing,” SFAR said. The association also noted that third-party sites the association has no control over may continue to accrue DOM.
All SFAR employees are working remotely and staff is holding a conference call every other day, SFAR CEO Walt Baczkowksi told Inman via email.
“[The] leadership team [is] in constant contact via [Microsoft] Teams to monitor anything that comes up,” he said.
Dickow advised SFAR members not to judge or publicly chastise people who have a difference of opinion on how to address the crisis and warned that members should treat all visitors the same because to do otherwise could be a violation of fair housing laws.
CHS Regional MLS (formerly Charleston Trident MLS), which has about 7,000 subscribers, put a statement on its website heavily emphasizing that everyone should be treated equally.
“Realtors must be mindful of their obligations under the Fair Housing Act, and be sure not to discriminate against any particular segment of the population. 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 MLS said.
CHS Regional has canceled all classes, events, meetings and planned gatherings, according to spokesperson Meghan Byrnes Weinreich.
“We have closed the physical office location … through March 31 but have not made any adjustments or restrictions to MLS activity at this time,” she told Inman via email.
“We have been preparing for this announcement and are prepared to continue business as usual from a virtual position — all MLS employees will be available via phone and/or email through March 31,” she added.
REcolorado had a business continuity plan in place to ensure it’s prepared to address crisis situations, including a pandemic, according to spokesperson Deborah Shipley. The plan included working from home, which REcolorado’s staff will do through at least March 27, she said. The MLS has published a blog post letting its some 25,000 subscribers know that REcolorado will still be there for them.
“At this time, we’ve not made any other changes. We are monitoring the situation very closely and listening carefully to our subscribers,” she said via email.
MRED (about 45,000 subscribers) has also activated an emergency response plan which calls for remote work for employees, according to spokesperson Jon Broadbooks.
“The plan insures MRED’s Help Desk is fully staffed and able to respond quickly to subscriber needs,” he said via email. MRED has also set up a page on its site specifically to consolidate all relevant COVID-19 information and provide answers to questions the MLS is getting from its help desk.
Regarding open houses, Broadbooks said any decision on open houses would be made at the brokerage level.
“MRED is working with our member brokerages to learn how we can best support them as they work through how they want to handle this situation. We recognize that some agents may be holding video open houses to minimize contact,” he said.
“As with any crisis of this magnitude, our plans are fluid and responsive. No one in recent memory has been through something quite like this. The plan today could well have to be altered based on developing news.”
North Texas Real Estate Information Systems (NTREIS), which has just over 40,000 subscribers, is also currently leaving such decisions up to brokers themselves.
“NTREIS covers a large geographic area. Each county has different levels of precautions in place. At this time, we have not placed any restrictions on features available and trust that MLS Participants will make appropriate decisions for conducting business within their markets. We continue to closely monitor this ever evolving situation,” COO Cindy Miller told Inman via email.
At least one MLS executive who asked to remain anonymous told Inman that their MLS is considering even bigger changes, including delaying implementation and penalties for the National Association of Realtors’ pocket listing ban, temporarily suspending calculation of days on market for all current and new listings, adding a temporary “virtual open house” field, and asking technology partners to offer discounts on products that enhance social distancing such as transaction management software, virtual tours and electronic earnest money tools.
The staff at the largest MLS in the country, California Regional MLS, which has more than 101,000 subscribers, sent a notice to members Tuesday letting them know that staff will be working remotely but all services will remain available to them, including support, online training, compliance, marketing and communications, CRMLS spokesperson Nicole Aguilar told Inman via email. She said discussions are taking place regarding other features within the system, but no ideas had been approved yet.
At Arizona Regional MLS (about 41,000 subscribers) a lot of staff is working offsite, but there have been no policy changes, according to CEO Matt Consalvo. “We will evaluate always to see if there are needs for changes,” he told Inman via email.
The MLS/CLAW in Los Angeles (16,000 subscribers) and Stellar MLS in Florida (about 58,500 subscribers) also told Inman their teams are working remotely.
“We have not shut down any features. I think that open houses will take care of themselves. We are wrestling with showings a bit but don’t have a solution to share yet,” Stellar MLS CEO Merri Jo Cowen said via email.
Similarly, Georgia MLS (41,639 subscribers) hasn’t made any policy or system changes based upon the COVID-19 virus, according to CMO John Ryan.
“[B]ut we are ramping up our webinar and video training during this time of uncertainty. Specifically we are highlighting Virtual Tour possibilities and our Unlimited Online CE member benefit. Our thought is to give our members options on how to continue to market their listings, as well as educational possibilities during bouts of downtime,” Ryan said via email.
The Rhode Island Association of Realtors and State-Wide MLS has discussed shutting down open houses, but has not taken that step, according to CEO Phil Tedesco. The association has published an FAQ for its nearly 6,000 subscribers advising those involved with open houses, broker open houses and other showings to follow the best practices laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and the COVID-19 Guide for Realtors.
Tim Dain, CEO of St. Louis, Missouri-based MARIS (about 13,500 subscribers), told Inman his MLS hadn’t done anything unique — just given staff the choice to work remotely and canceled in-person meetings.
“Like other MLSs we’re going to watch the MLSs that are in areas of the country that have been impacted more dramatically, then follow their best practices,” he said in an email.
As of Monday, Metro MLS in Wisconsin (8,673 subscribers) has taken the step of making showings voluntary for Active listings in cases where sellers are apprehensive about having people in their home.
“This decision is a temporary response to concerns over the spread of COVID-19. We expect this temporary change to be in place at least as long as the current K-12 school shutdown ordered by WI Governor Tony Evers. However, we will continue to also monitor requirements and recommendations from the CDC and local government health organizations moving forward,” the MLS said in a note to subscribers.
“If your sellers choose not to show their property during this time, we require you to disclose in the PUBLIC REMARKS.”
NorthstarMLS in Minnesota (19,754 subscribers) has followed Metro’s lead and will be making showings on Active properties voluntary as well, according to CEO John Mosey. Subscribers are asking for other changes the MLS is considering.
“Agents are still doing Opens and Showings, but the numbers are significantly diminished. We are hearing from subscribers asking that the Coming Soon status be extended in duration from 21 days to as many as 60 and to relax the no showings while in Coming Soon, presumably to provide more time for the agent to pry open the home and to properly disinfect the prospective buyer,” Mosey told Inman via email.
“We are taking a very measured approach to adjustments in our policies. Each day brings new concerns and potential remedies that are being considered.”
Mosey is taking the concerns that the outbreak has provoked seriously, but is still able to find humor in the situation.
“[W]e’ve barricaded the entrance to our office so that none of our customers can get in and contaminate those of our employees who are not working remotely. Handwashing has reached epic levels of obsessive behavior and many of us have very wrinkly, but very clean, hands as a result,” he said.
“Meanwhile, properties are getting listed and sold at expected levels. Based on the observable reduction in road traffic and commute times, however, we wonder if showings are being done using FaceTime if the seller will allow their agent into the property.
“Social distancing is rampant. I haven’t seen my wife in days. I know she’s at home. I just don’t know where. Business as usual…”