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Realtors adapt amid pandemic as sellers, buyers take step back 

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It’s a mixed bag for selling new high-end residential homes like Crooked Billet in Greenville. | DBT PHOTO BY MIKE ROCHELEAU

Real estate agents who still have homes on the market to sell are dealing with the impact of COVID-19 in different ways, from expanding virtual tours to screening prospects more carefully and reducing the number of family members who might want to wander through a home on a tour.  

“We’re waiting day-to-day to see what’s going to happen,” said Mike Milligan, owner of Century 21 Emerald in Wilmington and Millsboro. “We’re taking extreme precautions and limiting showings to the decision-makers. Sellers are leaving the lights on and cabinets open and putting out bottles of Purell. It’s almost like you have to have your hands in the air, which can slow down the process a bit.” 

Real estate agents are having to deal with two big concerns that are out of their control: the ebb and flow of the categorization of businesses as “essential” or “non-essential” and the uncertainty of the job market, where buyers might lose their jobs and not qualify for a mortgage. In addition, Gov. John Carney’s Executive Order No. 8 banned showings to out-of-state buyers. 

As a result, the short-term future looks a bit bleak, given the declines in showings, contingent and under-contract listings, closings, and homes being taken off the market as owners wait out the pandemic.  

“We are focusing on how we continue to operate and keep everyone safe,” Milligan said. “But when you think about Realtors, attorneys, movers, appraisers, and mortgage loan officers, if one of them is deemed non-essential, the whole sales process will collapse because they’re all intertwined.” 

Delaware has seen a consistent increase in the number of homes that have been taken off the market during the pandemic, with 5.19% of all listings falling into that category, up from 2.45% in late February. The number of new purchase contracts has also fallen significantly over this period in 2019, and daily showings of Delaware homes have fallen from a high of 1,324 on a Saturday in early March to an average of below 300 per day during the week of April 13, according to data provided by Maryland-based Bright MLS, a multiple listing service that has 95,000 subscribers in six states and Washington, D.C., including 4,200 in Delaware. 

“We’re making it easier for our subscribers to promote their virtual showings by providing a link so that consumers can directly access them, where in the past only the agents could see them,” said Chris Finnegan, chief marketing and communications officer for Bright MLS. “Ten years ago, this would be game over. Now we can have Sunday showings without people leaving their homes.” 

DAR President Beau Zebley

“The real estate market has been hit heavily,” added Beau Zebley, 2020 president of the Delaware Association of Realtors (DAR). “Showings are down, pending contracts are down, and a number of listings went into temporarily off the market, which means no showings until they go back to active. Agents are doing virtual showings and open houses and DAR has created 32 best practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” 

Zebley, who’s a Realtor with Olson Realty in Dover, said many agents are using Facebook Live for virtual open houses, particularly in Kent County because of transfers to the Dover Air Force Base. 

“People are getting used to [virtual tours] because it’s a bit wonky,” Zebley said. “You have to point out what doesn’t look good along with what does look good. It has to feel the same as if the person was actually there. You need someone to point out the stain on the carpet, the big pink wall in bedroom. I’m personally not showing out-of-state leads, and with others we’re asking them qualifying questions, creating forms to protect everyone, asking them to sign a waiver before they go into the house. There’s tremendous confusion on the part of Realtors who are trying to figure what they can and can’t do. We are trying to deal with facts, not alarming customers, and adjusting to our new normal.” 

Zebley says he sold three houses in March – one through a virtual showing to a military buyer in Alabama, one before the first state of emergency, and one who was a repeat client and knew the house because they were a friend of the seller. 

The key metric, Zebley said, will be the closings per day in May and June. 

“We had been ramping up for a hot spring market,” he said. “This is going to put a damper on that. People are still buying, but not as many.” 

Brandywine Prime Properties President Laird Bunch said “people just aren’t looking” at his high-end listings of $800,000 or more. “The entire market is sitting and waiting to see how things play out. Open houses are not common in this market,” he noted. 

Century 21 Emerald’s Mike Milligan

Milligan says it was a “seller’s market” before the pandemic, where homes that were priced correctly were selling within 24 to 48 hours with multiple offers. 

Today is a different story. 

“People are reluctant to go look,” Milligan said. “Limiting showings to decision-makers hurts because younger, first-time buyers like to lean on their parents for advice, for example. We’re seen an increase in pageviews on our website, which isn’t surprising since 90% of buyers find their home online. It used to be that you’d find an agent who would then help you find a house. In the last decade, we’ve seen more people find a house before looking for an agent.” 

Across its six-state region, Bright MLS said that while inventories are above 2019 levels, the rest of the data – using comparisons between April 16 and the same Thursday for previous periods – were nowhere near as strong. 

  • New listings were at 72.2% of the level of new listings from a year ago, and 88.7% over the last four weeks. 
  • New listings under contract were at 52.6% over the same period last year and 90.2% for the previous four Thursdays. Bright MLS expects that trend to continue and move downward. 
  • Daily showing activity tracked at 54% of the same day last year. Week to date showing volume was 44.3% of the same week last year. 

Christine Schontube, of BPG

For Christine Schontube, vice president of residential operations for Buccini/Pollin Group, her organization has been ramping up on the virtual side of things for their residential-lease properties. 

“Our leasing consultants have been providing these virtual tours on their phones, Facetime, and Zoom and we have links on the websites for virtual tours,” she said. “For properties like Midtown Park, we have a link that takes you through step by step. You see the outside of the building, then the lobby, then the community rooms and apartment layouts. We’re a bit ahead of the times because all of our applications are online as well. You don’t have to come in and we even have keyless entry with a one-time code for some of our newest properties. And we also have virtual hard-hat tours of the properties that are under construction.” 

Schontube said the “vast majority” of BPG’s units were already leased remotely as Wilmington businesses recruit from Philadelphia and out-of-state colleges. For its The Concord apartment community in north Wilmington, the company is using Tour24, which is a self-guided virtual tour that prospective renters can set up themselves. 

360VR Technology, the startup founded by University of Delaware students Sury Gupta and James Massaquoi, has seen a spike in inquiries about creating virtual tours for residential properties, particularly from owners of large properties, including apartment complexes, and from former clients they worked with during their startup phase. 

“I think people are still going through the initial shock,” said Gupta, the company’s CEO. “Many of them believe this is going to be over by the end of April. I’m expecting things to get more hectic. It’s spiked but I think it’s going to get a lot bigger.” 

By Peter Osborne 


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