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This time of year, from March through June, local residential real estate agents typically start to see business really pick up.
And while business has not come to a halt, the home buying and selling market definitely is feeling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Chris Skogman, president of Skogman Realty, said that in the past two weeks Skogman took on 90 new listings between the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City markets and successfully negotiated 134 contracts.
'Although that is a small window of time, those numbers would tend to suggest the current market is lagging about 30 percent behind what we have seen in the past,” he said
He added these are rates typically seen in a September market.
Mark Signs, broker manager with Ruhl & Ruhl in Iowa City, said the pandemic is certainly keeping Realtors on their toes.
'It has been a daily struggle to keep up and shift,” he said. 'It's been keeping me running for the last three weeks. People are getting very creative, though.”
Luckily, tools existed for agents to tap into in order to continue their business. 'We have a tremendous amount of technology that we just had to start using if we hadn't been already,” Signs said.
He recently sat in on online sales meetings and trainings as well as recruiting events.
Client meetings also are being done virtually through multiple platforms such as FaceTime, Google Hangout, Microsoft Teams and Zoom.
Business couldn't just come to a grinding halt, Signs said.
'In many cases, real estate companies are on the list of essential services because real estate is an important part of our economy,” said Signs. 'There are agents working from home across the country as well as some agents who just want to stay home and not work. It's a huge debate nationally among Realtors. But our company, local and state association stance is that you should do what you feel comfortable doing and be safe doing it.
'If you are a buyer or a seller that doesn't have to move, you probably have stepped back and decided to wait,” he added.
'But there were contracts in process. We had three closings happening for the last couple of days. They are meeting in parking lots to sign loan documents. One of the big closing companies here in Iowa City said the only person they want to see is the one signing the closing document. Agents bring them what they need ahead of time.”
While buyers still are purchasing houses and sellers still are listing, Corridor real estate agents stressed their focus on safety for everyone involved.
Skogman, for example, shifted from preparation to actively responding to the effects of the pandemic on business during the third week of March.
'We closed all of our buildings at the conclusion of the day on March 20,” Skogman said. 'One hundred percent of our employees and agents have been working from home and will continue to do so until we can safely return.”
Skogman Realty's membership in a peer group of 24 independent brokerages around the country - several of which are located in areas that were hit hard and early, such as the San Francisco Bay area, New Jersey, Boston and Washington, D.C. - allowed the company to draw from their experience and gain a sense of how business would need to be modified well in advance of the initial breakout in Johnson and Linn counties.
Virtual open houses
Another tough call was made related to open houses.
'On March 24, our company made the decision to halt all open houses, in all markets, until further notice,” Skogman added.
'I'm aware of very few companies that have gone to this extreme. Industrywide the more common response is to defer to seller and Realtor discretion. I did not and do not agree with that.
'We all have a responsibility to try and keep our companies running, but events designed to attract individuals that you do not know and do not know where they have been is simply too risky and not in the best interest of our sellers or the communities we serve.”
In the place of traditional open houses, Skogman Realtors have continued to market listings by shifting to 'virtual open houses” and Facebook Live.
'As people have less opportunity to be out and about, they are clearly spending more time on the internet and looking at homes has always been something of an American pastime,” Skogman said.
'In March, our company website experienced an 89 percent increase in page views over March 2019 and our new users were up 26 percent over the same time last year.”
Facebook engagement results, he said, are trending the same way.
Showings continue to take place with modified protocols designed to follow CDC recommendations.
'Realtors are told to ask prospective buyers about their recent travels, exposure to individuals who have or are suspected to have had close contact with COVID-19, as well as other questions suggested by the CDC,” Skogman said.
Realtors are directed to drive separately from their clients and maintain social-distancing guidelines, adding that, 'Agents are minimizing the number of people walking through a property during a showing.”
Other precautions include advising sellers to make sure all lights are turned on and interior doors are left open in an effort to minimize the need for people touring the home to touch surfaces in the home; having listing or buyers agents provide booties, gloves and non-medical face masks for prospective buyers while they tour the home; and sellers being encouraged to disinfect all high-traffic surfaces following each showing.
'We are very aware of how important it is to financially protect our agents, employees and our company, but there is no transaction worth jeopardizing the health of our people or our communities,” Skogman said.
He said the agency is working to continue to adapt its processes to continue to do business safely.
'As long as we can satisfy our responsibilities to protect our communities and our actions are in line with the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendations and all applicable governing bodies, we will continue to help buyers and sellers with their real estate needs.”
As for the long-term effects on the real estate market, Skogman said only time will tell.
'Until we get to the other side of the peak and have some sense for what the overall impact on the economy and employment is, no guess is really any better than another on the ultimate impact.”
'It's like we pushed pause. It's an analogy I like,” Signs added. 'Once this virus crisis passes, lots of people are predicting that it will be back to business as usual or possibly that it will pick up as there will be some pent-up demand.
'But in the meantime, the real estate industry is taking this very seriously and is doing a lot to change the way we do business to make sure we are keeping people as safe as possible. For those clients that want or need to be active right now, we are doing what we can.
'And for the clients that want to step back and wait, we'll be here when you need us.”