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How LI brokers are selling homes in the lockdown

Lynn Sabatelle, of Daniel Gale Sotheby's International, on

Lynn Sabatelle, of Daniel Gale Sotheby's International, on the front porch of the home on South Country Road in Bellport that she recently sold through a Zoom walk-through. Credit: Linda Rosier

It was like a hit movie.

Before the coronavirus pandemic barred home showings in March, the Nantucket farmhouse-style property in Bellport, priced at $1.425 million, had attracted scant attention from serious buyers.

But the tide turned after an expertly choreographed Zoom open house, conforming to New York State on Pause, helped turn the four-bedroom house into a hotter property.

A dozen potential buyers wound up attending a virtual walk-through led online by the listing agent, Lynn Sabatelle, an associate broker with Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty in Stony Brook.

What helped, of course, was the extra attention Long Island real estate is getting from New York City residents eager to escape to safer suburbs. Soon, “we had four offers on the table,” Sabatelle said – all from potential New York City buyers. The house went to contract after in- person visits arranged with the seller, Sabatelle said.

Closing is expected in late June.

For the virtual open house, Sabatelle made sure the home was decluttered and full of light so it looked “well-maintained.” She hired an experienced videographer equipped with a gimbal, a handheld device that steadies the camera for smoother visuals.

She had also posted a video on social media singing the praises of Bellport, a historic South Shore community known for its lively downtown and pristine beaches.

The market took care of the rest.

The lockdown “definitely helped the situation because there’s such an exodus of city people that there was multiple interest in his property right away,” said Sabatelle, a veteran broker whose office closed on March 13 because of coronavirus fears. “A lot of city people want Bellport these days.”

As Long Island enters the fourth month  of a statewide shutdown to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, homes are still selling under the restrictions, albeit with online tools and social distancing replacing the warmth of open houses and friendly handshakes.

Under Phase 1 of the reopening, all real estate transactions in Nassau and Suffolk counties, including open houses, inspections, and notarizing documents at closings, must be done remotely, according to New York’s Empire State Development. Services that need to be conducted in-person must observe social distancing and cleaning and disinfecting protocols, and brokerage and branch offices continue to be closed to the general public, according to the published guidelines.

The new, if temporary, rules have put a major dent in home sales.

In the two months from March 20, through May 20, 1,094 transactions were completed for single-family homes, condos and coops in Nassau County, almost half the 1,947 transactions completed in the same period last year, according to OneKey MLS. In Suffolk County, the spring selling season also took a major hit, with 1,755 closings compared with last year’s 2,623.

However, virtual selling has been attracting more millennials, currently the largest generation of homebuyers, who are seeking to escape the city -- not just for summer rentals during the pandemic, but also to move from apartments to Long Island’s wide open spaces, say local real estate professionals.

A new national survey suggests the COVID-19 pandemic may be pushing home prices higher. Currently, 41% of buyers would go over budget by an average of $25,000 for a home that fits their needs in terms of location and neighborhood, according to the national survey of 1,794 homeowners, conducted by Digital Third Coast, for Lombardo Homes, a Midwestern builder.

Instead of shying away from buying a home during the COVID-19 crisis as expected, homebuyers are still turning out, says Melissa Cervin, vice president of marketing at Lombardo Homes. 

Brokers have been taking a crash course in the best way to sell homes virtually.

“Hosting open houses with Zoom has been a blessing to get the job done when our clients need to make a move sooner rather than later,” said Debra Remien, an associate broker with Realty Connect USA LI Inc., in Patchogue.

Remien has hosted three Zoom open houses, which she said have attracted between three and a dozen participants. During a late April virtual showing of a vacant four-bedroom Ronkonkoma house listed at $330,000, Remien narrated remotely while her teammate, associate broker Kevin Collins, wielded the camera onsite.  The sessions generally last between 15 and 20 minutes.

Buyers can ask questions. “They usually want to understand the flow of the rooms and see things like closets that normally are not seen in listing pictures or virtual tours,” said Gary Baumann, an associate broker with Keller Williams Points North in Woodbury.

During the Ronkonkoma open house, Collins and Remien bantered a bit as he walked from room to cluttered room. “The house does need a little TLC but it’s structurally sound,” Collins said. He even injected a little humor into the proceedings after a near misstep, joking, “If I trip, you’ll all get a laugh.”

Said Remien: “We have learned to laugh at ourselves as we create our own bloopers and amuse ourselves along the way.”

Brokers can’t take clients to see homes as yet, but they can provide the seller’s contact information for buyers to arrange an in-person walk-through, Sabatelle said.

Residential real estate sales are expected to reopen when Long Island enters Phase 2 of state guidelines for doing business during the coronavirus pandemic, according to forward.ny.gov 

Until then, sellers can make good use of their downtime to get houses ready for post-shutdown buyer demand, said Baumann said, an associate broker with Keller Williams Points North in Woodbury.

“My advice for a seller would be to use this time to get the house looking the best it can possibly look and get everything ready for as soon as we get the greenlight in Phase 2,” Baumann said.

Part of the spruce-up will require cleaning, before and after showings, and before buyers move in. While Clorox wipes have become ubiquitous, some homeowners and brokers are opting for professional cleaners.

“We come in and we spray all of the areas with a safe, approved chemical,” says Alex Zilberman, president of Fresh Start Sanitizing in Garden City. He said that, depending on the size of the home, cleaning costs from a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars. 

Who pays the cleaning bill? That’s generally negotiated between the seller and the broker.

Safety first, when the market reopens

When it comes to safely showing homes during the reopening phase, it’s not over until it’s over.

Homeowners, buyers and brokers should continue to “take the same precautions as you would when you go grocery shopping,” said Stony Brook Medicine infectious disease expert Dr. Sharon Nachman.

Here are Nachman’s recommendations for safe home showings:

  • Open the windows. Recirculating the air inside the house can prevent viruses from spreading.
  • Clean all high-touch surfaces before and after the showing. Use a sanitizing wipe on counters, the refrigerator and knobs on doors and cabinets.
  • Everyone inside the home should wear a face covering over their mouth and nose.
  • Gloves should be worn and disposed of safely, by peeling the glove off so the inside becomes the outside. Use a hand sanitizer before you enter your auto.
  • Back home, scrub hands with soap for 20 seconds or more and rinse under clean running water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For New York State's real estate guide, go to https://nwsdy.li/nyguide

Jim Merritt

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