Changing times are nothing new for Realtors, whose resilience and talent for innovation have weathered market downturns, Great Recessions, and economic uncertainty for decades. But in an industry built on people skills and face-to-face contact, the fear and social distancing that mark the Covid-19 crisis present a starkly different challenge.
“It’s a major adjustment,” said Chris Trapani, co-founder and CEO, Sereno Group, Los Gatos. “On March 19, Governor Newsom issued an executive order requiring all Californians to stay home except for those providing essential services – and the real estate industry is not considered an essential service.”
While the California Association of Realtors® (CAR) is working with the Governor’s office to exempt the industry from the prohibition, Trapani, like brokers up and down the state, have responded to the mandate by sending all agents and office staff home.
“We get the sacrifice,” Trapani said, “We understand our moral and social responsibility to do what it takes to bring the coronavirus crisis to an end – and we are still up and running, with transactions closing virtually, and marketing, training, and company meetings happening via Google Hangouts.”
Trapani is among a growing number of California brokers using virtual means and back office systems like Brokermint and Bill.com to conduct business as seamlessly as possible.
“We are adjusting to the new reality,” said Robert Bailey, co-owner, Bailey Properties in Santa Cruz, which operates property leasing and property management businesses in addition to residential real estate.
“In our 46 years in business, my (co-owner) brother and I have never witnessed anything that so severely impacted all three divisions of our company. But we are doing our best to work virtually. Our agents and office staff are working from home. Calls to all our offices are being channeled to a central number, and we stay in close communication. We may need to adjust time frames and such, but we sold two homes just today and we are using every means at our disposal to keep our energy and focus up and continue doing business.”
With home showings and open houses off the table, Realtors are finding new ways to carry on.
“Consumers may be scared and wary, but they still have needs,” noted Sheila Marsh, a career agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Newport Beach.
Marsh, who closed a deal on a $1 million-plus home after hosting an open house days before the shelter-in-place mandate was issued, must now sell the buyer’s home to protect the sale.
“I’m relying on virtual home tours based on Matterport 3-D technology and social media to make it happen,” she said. “Fortunately, this home is turnkey, in great condition, and in a desirable area, so I feel pretty confident – but the fact is, this situation is going to force us all to think out of the box for a very long time.”
That means redoubling efforts to use aids like video technologies, DocuSign, and remote online notarization.
“I work with especially vulnerable populations,” said Michelle London, a commercial investment advisor with Keller Williams in Irvine who specializes in residential care facilities. “Even before the CDC guidelines came out, I began using 3-D virtual photography. It captures complete detail, and the photographers are gloved and masked and committed to fresh clothing and disinfecting surfaces as they work.”
For agents at home, this may be a good time to get back to basics.
“I want my people to use their time telephoning everyone in their SOI,” said Bailey. “’How are you doing?’ ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ This is a great time to enhance relationships.”
Despite innovation, patience, commitment, and skill, however, there is no way to predict how long the COVID-19 crisis will last or what the financial fallout to Realtors will be.
“Ninety percent of our spring and summer reservations have been cancelled,” said Bailey. “We are doing everything we can to reduce costs, – closing sales offices, retooling agent services, and rethinking our approach with regard to our physical footprint after the crisis is over. We will weather this, and we will come out of it with a set of tools and strategies that will better serve us and our clients.”
Given the challenges and restraints in place, and total uncertainty about when the health crisis will be behind us, it will take careful strategizing as well as persistence to come out sound when the crisis is over.
“There may be less competition on the other side of this,” Trapani said. “But there will also be great opportunity. There’s no way to know how long it will take, but for savvy brokers and the agents who hang in, the tailwinds for stimulus will be strong.”