Reasonable Rollout: How Real Estate Business Might Resume
A month after our shelter in place took hold here in New York, with another month to go, real estate practitioners all over the state have begun to speculate about when and how business might resume. We, our customers, and our clients are looking forward to safely beginning to transact again. At the same time, none of us wish to assume undue risk as we move back into a more active mode. I, therefore, offer a few thoughts, some my own and some gathered from others with whom I am in contact, about what a reasonable rollout might look like:
No more Open Houses. While this may seem obvious, it needs to be stated. For the foreseeable future, agents cannot create situations in which a group of people are encouraged to occupy the same space. The virtual open house, in which an agent leads a video tour through the apartment, will be our substitute for the time being. That tour, in addition to clear photos, greater specificity about such issues as ceiling height and construction values in the written description, and a detailed floor plan, should enable prospective purchasers to do a “first viewing” online.
Showing protocols will involve social distancing. As showings begin again, agents and buyers will need to adhere to strict protocols to keep all parties and the property free of infection. These protocols might include allowance for the seller’s agent to conduct the showing, observing distancing requirements, with the buyer’s agent, if desired, attending the showing virtually on FaceTime. Gloves, booties, and masks should be required for all parties. The exclusive agent will open any doors or cabinets into which the buyer wishes to look; the buyer will be asked to touch nothing in the apartment. Once the buyer leaves, the agent will disinfect all surfaces which have been touched.
Agents, buyers, and sellers will have to choose. Those sellers who do not feel ready to allow strangers into their homes, and those buyers who don’t feel ready to do so either, will make their own decisions about when they are ready. Similarly, those seller’s agents who, by reason of age or health, prefer not to do showings can choose to either find another agent in their firm to conduct the showing or allow the buyer’s agent to do so while observing the same strict rules.
Office time should be staggered and curtailed. Most administrative staff and many agents in New York must ride to work on public transportation. Since this inevitably involves proximity to others, the risks should be mitigated by staggering both office hours and office days. Many employees will have perfected techniques for working from home, which they should be permitted to do much of the time. I would suggest that staff be staggered so no more than 50% is in the office at one time, with that 50% arriving and departing, to as great a degree as possible, at off-peak hours. At my company [Warburg Realty], we will also alternate agent office days so everyone in the offices sits a minimum of 6 feet away from their nearest colleague on either side. Our offices will be sterilized by UV lighting and viricidal cleaning products.
Closings should be continued virtually. The way closings were conducted throughout my career, with a group of participants crammed into a small conference room, will be a thing of the past for the foreseeable future. Since attorneys and transfer agents have gained experience in handling many aspects of closings virtually, using DocuSign and virtual notarization, these skills should continue to be deployed as we open the business up while still maintaining safety. Use of several conference rooms and protective gear will also aid in this effort to keep critical attendees socially distanced.
The Governor should lay out a behavioral roadmap. New Yorkers will feel more confident in proceeding towards a new normal if the state government and health authorities endorse it, ideally with specifics about how business should best be conducted. The Governor’s words, these days during which he has become a national spokesperson for rational response, will reassure the public substantially.
No one has a timeline for when we can (or will) feel safe about interacting freely within our social and business environments. But we all know that the economy must be kicked into gear. How carefully and strategically the real estate industry can ramp up will make all the difference for agents, buyers, and sellers in both transacting business and staying safe on the streets of our cities and towns.