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Real estate agents add social distancing, disinfecting to their selling tactics

Even before the governor ordered nonessential workers to stay home, the number of LI open houses had dropped sharply. Real estate brokers offered hand sanitizer at one. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The coronavirus outbreak is changing the way Long Island real estate agents conduct open houses, but the long-term impact on the housing market depends on the virus’ still-undetermined effect on the economy, local real estate experts said.

Already, some agents said the handshakes that used to be common at open houses are out, replaced by a fist bump, elbow bump or friendly wave. Agents said they carefully disinfect surfaces before and after open houses, and they offer hand sanitizer and wipes if they can.

Some local real estate agents are conducting one-on-one tours of houses instead of public open houses, said Michael Miller, business development manager for the Long Island Board of Realtors.

Nicholas Speirs, a real estate agent with Alexander Madison Realty in Merrick, said he brings hand sanitizer to open houses and asks visitors to wear disposable gloves if they will be touching cabinets or other household items.

He said the extent of the precautions “depends if the seller lives in the house, it depends if the seller has kids, it depends if the seller is elderly, there are a lot of factors that go into it.”

A survey by the National Association of Realtors found that one in four home-sellers are changing the way their home is viewed due to concerns about the virus, such as stopping open houses or requiring visitors to sanitize their hands, the trade group said.

The pandemic is likely to at least postpone some home sales, said Jonathan Miller, president and chief executive of Miller Samuel, an appraisal company in Manhattan.

“I just don't see this spring comparing to any recent spring we've ever had,” he said. “From a pragmatic standpoint, if you're a home seller, do you want 27 strangers walking through your house today? If you’re a homebuyer, do you want to walk through 27 houses today? As this spreads, it will become harder and harder to view properties.”

In addition to the likely challenge in viewing homes, he said, consumers often delay decisions such as home sales when the future is uncertain.

“The concern is the uncertainty related to the pandemic,” he said. “There's no clear consensus on how long before it peaks.”
Once the crisis passes, Miller said, there could be a surge of home sales due to "a significant release of pent-up demand."

Despite the uncertainty, Speirs said he believes the local housing market will remain strong, since many buyers want to take advantage of record-low interest rates or need more space to accommodate a growing family. “If you’re in the market and you have that mentality that you need to find a house, I think it would take a lot to change somebody’s mentality,” he said.

Mortgage giant Freddie Mac reported last week the average home loan rate was 3.29 percent, the lowest since its record-keeping began in 1971.

In addition to low mortgage rates, scarce inventory and the high cost of renting will continue to buoy the housing market, said Richard Connelly, a real estate agent with First Hampton International Realty in Westhampton Beach.

“I think it's really going to be subject to what happens with interest rates and the economy,” he said. “There's still a shortage of homes right now, and interest rates are so low.”

Tips for real estate agents

Real estate agents and brokers should take steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and they should also make sure they abide by anti-discrimination laws, the National Association of Realtors said in a new set of guidelines.

The trade group said agents should speak “openly and honestly with your seller about the pros and cons of holding an open house,” and direct them to health authorities for information about local risk factors.

The NAR said agents who conduct open houses should consider steps such as:

  • Requiring visitors to sanitize their hands, and offering alcohol-based hand sanitizer;
  • Placing soap and disposable towels in bathrooms;
  • Recommending that clients clean and disinfect surfaces such as doorknobs and faucets after an open house.

Agents may ask customers whether they have recently traveled to areas that have experienced an outbreak, and they may impose restrictions on driving people around, as long as they treat all customers the same way. The virus originated in China, the trade group said in its guidelines, but “that does not provide a basis for treating Chinese persons or persons of Asian descent differently.”

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