COVID-19 means big changes for realtors, home buyers and sellers
'Some are choosing not to work. Some are choosing to continue working. There's no right answer'
The real estate market is facing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, as home sellers, buyers and real estate agents struggle with trying to conduct business requiring at least some personal interaction amid calls to stay home.
"Our first priority is the health and safety of everyone balanced against an obligation to customers," Matthew Honsberger, president of the Nova Scotia Association of Realtors, said in an interview.
"We have homes that are set to close and people set to move over the next couple of months. We are obligated to try and help them navigate through that part of their lives."
That is easier said than done.
The Nova Scotia Real Estate Commission, which regulates the industry, said on its website that some realtors have suggested all home sales be stopped, but legislation does not allow it to do that.
It said trading has not halted anywhere in Canada and it instead recommends agents try to limit or stop any work that requires personal interaction with others, including in-person appointments, property viewings and open houses.
It said if personal interaction is required, agents should follow provincial guidelines.
The industry has made changes to protect those involved, including using technology like virtual tours to show homes and meet with buyers and sellers. Electronic signatures are another tool used to avoid personal contact.
Honsberger said while the odd face to-face meeting is still required, "each realtor has to decide how to govern themselves." He points to a closing home inspection as one example of buyers having to enter a home.
"The realtor's job is to help the buyer do a scan of that home to make sure it's been left in the condition it was supposed to be left in, so the realtor now has to make a decision," he said.
A previous MLS requirement that all listings must be available for viewing has been relaxed and sellers can now refuse to allow potential buyers in their home.
Some in the industry have developed a declaration for buyers and sellers that asks questions such as whether they have been out of the country recently or in contact with someone who has travelled abroad. It is each real estate company's decision whether to use it, although concerned buyers and sellers can request and insist on it.
'There's no right answer'
Adam Hennigar, a Halifax broker with Sutton Professional Realty Group, said agents are concerned about the virus.
"Some are choosing not to work. Some are choosing to continue working. There's no right answer. It's a lot of difficult choices for people, just as there are for buyers and sellers," he said.
He said they're following industry recommendations and educating agents on how to stay safe by using gloves and sanitizers during viewings.
"Really, the biggest thing is don't touch anything. So if the sellers are made aware of this, too, so they leave everything, like closet doors and drawers open, then buyers have no need to touch anything.
"There's still risk. Nothing is risk-free in this environment, but we're doing the best we can."
He said most clients who are thinking of buying and selling have chosen to back out of the market to protect their health. Others have little choice but to proceed.
"There are a lot of clients that need to buy and sell. There are clients that have been posted and transferred for work, or are moving to town or moving out of town," he said.
'Pause button has been pushed'
While figures show sales and listings were up in February 2020 compared to the same month last year, there are no figures yet for March since the pandemic has worsened.
Honsberger said "the pause button has been pushed" for the time being, just like in other industries.
"The number of listings in Nova Scotia has dropped off pretty significantly over the course of the last five days or so, so I would expect unless people have to move for some reason, right now they're probably not going to. That's just going to be a reality as more and more people deal with the situation," he said.
Considering the situation, Hennigar said the number of new listings in his office is "surprisingly high" and most new listings are still selling very quickly, quite often with competing offers. He said it may be another week or two before the real impact is known.
Honsberger said while the industry may be experiencing a downturn because of the pandemic, the situation will change.
"I think realtors are aware people are going to want to move again so they are OK to ride this out," he said.
- A previous version of this story said the real estate industry developed a declaration about COVID-19 risk factors for buyers and sellers that must be signed. This story has been updated to reflect that it is each real estate company's decision whether to use it, although concerned buyers and sellers can request and insist on it.Mar 30, 2020 11:44 AM AT