Nfld. & Labrador

How technology is allowing real estate agents to keep doing business during a pandemic

The real estate market is being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's not dead, says an industry leader.

Virtual tours, digital documents and old-fashioned phone calls keeping agents and clients connected

There were 54 home sales recorded last week in Newfoundland and Labrador, amid a public health state of emergency. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Not long ago, the strict physical distancing rules that have caused so much disruption in society would have forced the closure of the real estate industry.

There was a time when potential buyers would need to feel the carpet beneath their feet or walk into a kitchen to determine whether they felt a connection to a home, and face-to-face interactions with a real estate agent would be necessary in order to finalize documentation.

But that was before this era of virtual tours, digital documents and remote conferencing.

So with nearly every sector of society in the pinch of a pandemic, real estate agents in Newfoundland and Labrador are still doing business, said Bill Stirling, chief executive officer of the N.L. Association of Realtors.

"Our industry has not ground to a halt at all," Stirling said Monday.

Bill Stirling is chief executive officer of the N.L. Association of Realtors. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

And the numbers — though lower than past years — prove it.

Last week, said Stirling, 63 real estate transactions were concluded in the province. These were homes that sold in January or February, with the money changing hands last week after all the legal work was completed at the height of a public health emergency.

Stirling said another 54 new sales were recorded last week, meaning buyers have been approved for their financing, had inspections completed, and are now working with their lawyers to finalize a mortgage.

"You can still buy and sell. But there will be some delays," said lawyer Chris Peddigrew, a partner with St. John's firm Wadden, Peddigrew and Hogan.

The way real estate agents interact with their clients has been evolving for years as technology improves, and agents welcome these changes into their daily workflow.

Virtual tours are proving to be very useful, as those in the market for a new home can visit a listing without ever physically venturing onto the property, so people are only going to look at a house after they've seen it online and are really serious, said Stirling.

"Anybody who is just a tire kicker or they've got some discretion as to whether or not now is the time to buy or sell, those people are being encouraged to stay home and wait."

St. John's lawyer Chris Peddigrew is continuing to carry on real estate law, despite an ongoing pandemic. However, he says clients should prepare for a long closing process. (WPH Law)

The real estate industry has been deemed essential because even in a pandemic, life situations continue to present themselves.

There are still deaths, divorces and job changes, and these factors are largely responsible for the limited amount of activity.

"Our job is to be there for all our clients, but to do it properly, with safety first and foremost," said St. John's real estate agent and NLAR board member Keith Soper.

But with public health experts implementing strict measures to limit physical interation and contain the spread of the coronavirus, agents and others in the business have been forced to adapt.

Open houses have been stopped, with viewings limited to vacant homes, and only under careful distancing and cleaning protocols.

When a viewing is necessary, both the agent and the client sign a document, affirming that they have not travelled, do not have COVID-19 symptoms, and have not come in contact with anyone with the disease.

On top of everything else that's going on globally, the Newfoundland and Labrador economy is nothing to be writing home about these days.- Keith Soper

"If any of that criteria is not met, then it doesn't happen," said Soper.

While home inspections are continuing, face-to-face interaction is practically non-existent, with technology relied upon to deliver a final report to the buyer.

But those insisting on buying during these trying times will have to be patient. 

It typically takes 30 days for a real estate transaction to close, but that process could now take double, or three times as long, Soper said.

With so many people working remotely, and offices reduced to essential workers, critical steps in the process, including title searches, tax information and banking documents, are taking longer to complete.

And with the court system closed, a transaction that involves changes to an estate may not even be possible, said Peddigrew.

Meanwhile, one area where a face-to-face meeting is still required is the signing of a mortgage, and like every other step in the process, this is done with care and caution, said Peddigrew.

"Right now there's no ability for electronic signatures for lawyers to witness these mortgages. We are required to meet with clients in person," he said.

St. John's real estate agent Keith Soper is a member of the N.L. Association of Realtors board. (Keith Soper Real Estate Team/Facebook)

But business-as-usual seems like a distant memory, and agents are worried about what the COVID-19 pandemic will do to the housing market in the long term.

"On top of everything else that's going on globally, the Newfoundland and Labrador economy is nothing to be writing home about these days," said Soper. "I don't think that's going to improve any time soon."

The average price for a home in St. John's and area prior to the pandemic was roughly $290,000, said Soper.

It's too early to say how the economic shock being delivered by the coronavirus will affect the market, but Soper believes the stage is set for an erosion of prices.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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