COVID-19 changing real estate business

Priority is safety in uncertain market

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By Maria Maxham

It's spring, which is normally the season for open houses and showings, for Realtors to drive clients around to look for a new home. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, the market – and the way agents are doing their jobs – has changed. The economy is in jeopardy with businesses closing and unemployment rising.

Local Realtor April Baker, of the Gillian-Baker Team at Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, said the way she does her job has "completely changed."

"We're shifting gears from personal and in-person to doing this virtually," said Baker. "At the end of the day, the show must go on, but how we participate in it has changed."

Open houses are being hosted online, with real estate agents going online at the house being sold and allowing "visitors" to ask questions and make comments. The Realtor can move around the house to show visitors different rooms or spaces on video.

"We're reducing the number of people in homes we're showing," said Baker, who added that it's easier to do for vacant homes than for those still inhabited by sellers.

Alternate methods for some appraisals through Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac include "desktop" or "exterior," online or external-only appraisals. But Baker pointed out that this isn't possible for all homes and depends on the loan program the buyer is using.

For buyers' home inspections, sellers are often requested to turn on all lights and to unlock or open doors in anticipation of the inspection to minimize things that need to be touched.

Village inspections, at least in Forest Park, are still happening. Steve Glinke, director of the Department of Public Health and Safety which oversees building and zoning for the village, says if a home is unoccupied, he gets the code and wears gloves to do the inspection. If occupied, he communicates with the residents ahead of time and asks if they want him to wear a mask in addition to gloves. Some do; some don't, he said.

"I do everything I can to protect myself and the homeowners," said Glinke. "I don't touch anything I don't have to touch."

He said that there were already a lot of closings in the queue before the pandemic began, and his goal is to make things as easy and safe for people as possible.

"Real estate closings are high-stress already," said Glinke. "I don't want to make the situation any more stressful."

Although village hall is closed to in-person traffic, he and his staff are still taking and returning phone calls, and Glinke said payments can be handled through the village drop box. Transfer stamps are delivered to people in their cars in the parking lot by Glinke or his staff.

"We are still accommodating requests being made, as safely as we can while helping meet people's needs," said Glinke.

To further keep people safe during home selling, Baker said real estate rules have changed quickly to keep up with the current pandemic situation. While previously it was required that in-person showings were done for any homes listed on the MLS, virtual showings are now allowed.

And if sellers prefer not to show their home during this time, Baker said the home can be given temporary off-the-market status, which used to continue to accrue market time but currently does not. This change aims to reassure sellers that their homes won't be looked at unfavorably once the market recovers.

"This is a serious advantage for sellers," said Baker.

Baker said all this is a huge shift from February, which was "an extremely busy market" for real estate. But even so, the market hasn't come to a complete halt. Not only were there houses already in the sometimes-long process of contract to closing, there are still people selling their homes now.

Real estate is still deemed an "essential business" in Illinois, and everyone from the Realtors to the title companies to inspectors are making it their primary goal to keep everyone safe.

"Everyone understands the priority is safety," said Baker. "We're trying to take care of each other."

Baker said interest rates right now are good for refinancing, and she encourages people stuck at home to work on home improvement projects if they're looking to sell some time soon.

"It's a good time to attack that to-do list," she said.

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