For many agents and brokerages in the country, daily life and routines have changed drastically. I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m one of nearly 7 million people who found out one day that we would be under a mandatory shelter-in-place order for at least several weeks.
We were introduced to a new term — “essential business.” What exactly is an “essential business”? In reading the order, it was clear to me that real estate sales and brokerage services were not deemed essential. In conversations with fellow brokers and attorneys, we all seemed to agree.
We had to halt all in-person real estate-related work once the order took effect. It was clear that the counties that issued this order intended it just for businesses the public needed for survival. It was directed toward businesses that had to remain open as everyone else sheltered in place to try and flatten the curve.
They needed the public to have access to doctors and hospitals, for banks to keep the money moving, for grocery stores to keep us fed and so on. It was clear that they wanted as many people as possible to stay home.
I’ve been helping buyers and sellers throughout their real estate transactions and journeys for 16 years. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that what we do as agents and brokerages is essential to the American economy and everyday life. More than that, we help people with one of their most basic needs — shelter.
Are we an essential service or business for surviving the next three to four weeks as we try to slow the rate of infection? That’s a very complicated question. My immediate opinion is no. In recent days, the Bay Area counties have included real estate as essential services on a limited basis. It’s no longer a question of whether or not we’re an essential business, but rather how to proceed as one.
We now have to decide how to operate ourselves. It’s a difficult decision, with many factors to weigh. There are specific circumstances in which we can work with clients in person, but our new reality is anything but business as usual.
Yesterday, I was discussing the new changes with a good friend of mine who owns an incredible, blossoming indie brokerage in the East Bay. This brokerage leader was busy writing a new company policy to reflect these changes.
The comment was made. “I’m going to be brutally conservative on this. I may lose agents over this, but I’m OK with that.” This is someone I’ve looked up to for a long time, and in that moment, I was reminded why. As an agent, I feel that it’s super important to explain to our clients the pros and cons of participating in a real estate transaction right now.
I had a listing appointment over the phone yesterday. My seller was a 73-year-old widower who was looking to leave the state. He said he wanted to get started right away. We had an in-depth conversation about the pros and cons and how the order would affect him. After our talk, he thanked me and said he felt it would be better to wait since it was more of a “want” than a “need.”
Later in the conversation, I explained to him that I have two kids — one is 6 years old, and the other is 3 — at home. I told him I decided not to take on any clients who would require in-person meetings until the order is lifted. I also told him I would have found him someone who would’ve helped him had he intended to proceed right now.
He asked if that would hurt me financially. I said, “Yes, sir. Absolutely.” But my kids need a daddy more than money at this point. We connected on a human level, in a much deeper way than if I hadn’t shown that level of care for him or myself.
We were vulnerable with each other, and that created an incredibly strong bond between us. I wouldn’t want to shame someone for feeling as if they needed to take the deal if their client requires buying or selling during this crisis. I feel for agents who have to make these tough choices. Before that phone call, I personally grappled with the issue, and it made me sick to my stomach.
I truly understand if someone has a critical need to execute a real estate transaction. Undoubtedly, there are people facing financial ruin if they don’t sell. Others might be experiencing physical harm because of an abusive living situation. There are also folks in dire need of shelter for a myriad of reasons.
Our county’s new and updated orders list these as exemptions for being sheltered in place. “To move residences, but only if it is not possible to defer an already planned move, if the move is necessitated by safety, sanitation, or habitability reasons, or if the move is necessary to preserve access to shelter.”
We absolutely need these provisions. I applaud the counties for recognizing this need. Even now, as an essential business, they incorporated this language into the order to discourage what some could construe as being back in business.
Incorporated into this new order is another stipulation. All showings are to be done virtually if possible. If it’s an in-person showing, the home must be vacant. It can’t be someone’s residence. Things are anything but simple.
Let’s face it: We earn a living taking people and their germs in and out of other people’s homes. Currently, there’s a lack of testing. Not to mention, some people infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, meaning they might show no symptoms of the virus at all. How can any of us really know if the person we’re guiding in and out of someone’s house is actually sick or healthy? The occupants of the listing could very easily be infected themselves.
A respected friend of mine, Staci Caplan, who’s the president of her local association, wrote a very thoughtful article. In it, she discusses in detail what’s required to be compliant and urges readers to ask themselves: Is this really “essential”?
Beyond the legal liability, I worry about the people involved and their health. Most people I know are scared about the lives of their loved ones, friends, colleagues and even their own. A lot of news organizations are reporting that we should expect even more cases and deaths within the next few weeks.
Let’s be mindful of how we show ourselves on social media. Our state association issued guidance saying we needed to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, which include the use of items used by health professionals. There’s a shortage of personal protective equipment for nurses and doctors working on the front lines. Should we be posting on social media about the use of these items when showing homes? It takes years to build a good reputation, but only one bad impression to ruin it.
Legally speaking, I can’t even see my parents in the next town over, so how am I supposed to meet a client and take them to see a stranger’s home? Seriously, even if my county allowed it, how many consumers who’ve been restricted from seeing loved ones are now ready to go into and tour someone else’s home that they have been hunkered down in?
Buying and selling a home right now for most is not a basic essential need — it’s a luxury. We’re at war with a faceless and undiscriminating enemy — the more people choose to stay at home, the more lives we save.
I ask us all to consider the way we want to be viewed by our neighbors and communities as we deal with this as a nation. There are so many incredible agents who have shifted their time to help those in need any way they can. They have become a source of information and inspiration for those around them.
These agents inspire me. I want to be known for their actions. As a father, I want my kids to look at their dad’s profession as one who chose to help people in their time of need. Whatever choice you make, I just ask that you do some soul-searching. The decision should align with your personal and business values.
For those deemed to be an essential business, let’s not have a back-to-business mentality. Let’s shift our mindset and realize that we have an opportunity to positively impact someone’s life during one of the most stressful and uncertain times in their life.
Let’s all take a step back and find a way to help someone. To me, that’s who we are.
Nick Solis is the founder and president of One80 Realty, a boutique residential brokerage located in the California Bay Area. He is also the director of the National Association of Realtors and the California Association of Realtors. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Facebook.