In this monthly column, Anthony Askowitz explores a hypothetical real estate situation from both sides of the broker/agent dynamic. This month: An agent wants to continue business as usual, but is uncomfortable with in-person interactions with clients.

In this monthly column, Anthony Askowitz explores a hypothetical real estate situation from both sides of the broker/agent dynamic.  

A busy and successful agent is eager to continue doing business and serving her clients as the coronavirus outbreak worsens. However, she’s uncomfortable doing showings or even conducting in-person meetings. How can her broker help her to accomplish this, while also complying with advice and guidelines set by the National Association of Realtors and public health officials?

Agent perspective

The world has changed quickly and dramatically, but one of the many realities we face is that life goes on. Industries must adapt. Kids are attending school virtually, and restaurants that are closed for dining are still making and delivering meals. Real estate is no different. Like all my colleagues, we have clients to serve who need our guidance and wisdom now more than ever.

That being said, I’m uncomfortable — terrified, really — with continuing some of the usual practices of real estate in a new world where social distancing has replaced attending networking events.

Many of the tactics we did every day and took for granted — home showings, open houses or even office meetings — are incredibly anxiety-provoking, even if we keep our relative physical distances and avoid shaking hands. Sellers, too, are afraid of strangers (who might or might not carry the virus) wandering through their homes.

Health isn’t my only challenge. I’m also finding that ancillary services, such as title and mortgage, are struggling with new roadblocks in the transactions. Our lenders are saying that it can take 90 days to close, and skeleton staffing of some government agencies are adding to delays.

Buyers and sellers are confused and scared. It all adds up to an enormous challenge for agents who are intent on doing their jobs and need to support their families. What can my broker do to solve some of these problems?

Broker perspective

At the time of this writing, there’s no possible way to estimate the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak — and subsequent social distancing policies — on society, and real estate in particular.

However, my agent is correct in observing that the business of real estate continues, and we must continue serving our clients accordingly. I would also add that, while we’re obviously facing an enormous challenge, we will eventually overcome it, and “normal life” will resume at some point.

For now, we must make the health and safety of our agents, employees and customers our top priority. We’ve decided to keep our office open, but in a very limited capacity. We’ve taken extra steps to create a germ-free environment. Obviously, if someone’s not feeling well, they’re directed to not come to the office.

All classes, seminars and meetings are being done live over various video conferencing services, including Zoom, Google Hangouts or FaceTime. All classes and training are being recorded and distributed via YouTube, and the usual in-person events and gatherings are obviously cancelled or postponed.

Our support team is scheduling one-on-one virtual assistance via Zoom for agents needing personalized help. We continue to emphasize the critical importance of actually reading every email, so that we’re all on the same page.

Obviously, I completely understand my agent’s concerns about maintaining social distance, and we’ve suspended any broker opens or open houses until further notice. With respect to showings, we’ve recommended private showings by appointment only, and are carefully following the guidelines as set by the NAR, which advises the following (among other things):

  • Agents have the right to ask clients if (and where) they’ve traveled recently, as long as they ask all clients the same questions
  • Agents have the right to refuse to drive clients to showings, as long as (once again) the practice is applied uniformly
  • Agents who choose to drive clients should clean and sanitize their vehicles accordingly
  • The NAR recommends this guideline for open houses (which, again, we have suspended), but we urge that all visitors be required to disinfect their hands, even for private showings. We also recommend limiting the number of visitors, making soap and disposable towels available and disinfecting commonly touched areas.

Additionally, we also recommend that all visitors and agents wear medical gloves and booties over their shoes as an extra precaution.

How to resolve

Real estate is one industry that’s uniquely suited to manage this crisis, having extensively adopted technology into our practices over the past two decades. For example, any agent who wishes to forgo showings altogether — out of fear or an abundance of precaution — can offer other safe and creative solutions for showcasing real estate through virtual open houses, high-quality video, photography and even live video conferencing.

The agent could slowly walk with their smartphone through the home and narrate while the prospective buyer watches from home. They’ll be able to focus their attention on various features at their leisure.

Of course, through e-signing services and the electronic transferring of files, entire real estate transactions can be done without the need for anyone involved (agents, buyers, sellers, appraisers, inspectors, etc.) to meet in person. Our company utilizes electronic check deposits, eliminating the need for bank visits. We provide direct deposit of commissions for agents so they have no need to come to the office other than to drop off checks for escrow.

Although the actual mechanics of a transaction are left to our agents, they need us to be their source for information and guidance. Each transaction and its set of circumstances is unique. We’re providing our agents up-to-date information on not only COVID-19 issues, but also on interest rates and the stock market, along with changes affecting our real estate market.

We advise on how contract clauses address the handling of unavoidable delays. Our support means agents can be more effective in guiding buyers and sellers. These are challenging times. But real estate pros deal with challenges on a daily basis and have learned to change course as needed to reach the best goal possible.

Anthony is the broker-owner of RE/MAX Advance Realty in South Miami and Kendall, where he leads the activities of more than 165 agents. He is also a working agent who consistently sells more than 100 homes a year. For two consecutive years (2018 and 2019), Anthony has been honored as the “Managing Broker of the Year” by Miami Agent Magazine’s Agents’ Choice Awards. NOTE: Anthony is not an attorney and does not give legal advice. Please consult a licensed attorney regarding matters discussed in this column.

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