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Real estate agents are trying to adapt to keep selling houses during the coronavirus pandemic

Open houses are out and virtual tours are in as real estate agents adjust how they help clients buy and sell houses during the coronavirus pandemic.

A home in Malvern, with a for-sale sign in 2017. Real estate agents today are adjusting how they help clients sell and buy homes because of restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
A home in Malvern, with a for-sale sign in 2017. Real estate agents today are adjusting how they help clients sell and buy homes because of restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.Read moreMARK C PSORAS

Realtor Stacey Middleton went out last week “masked and gloved” to look at a house in West Philadelphia with a client.

But her client, a 28-year-old single mother, wasn’t concerned. She was just excited as a first-time home buyer and wanted to make the most of her time working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Middleton had thought buyer interest might slow as the new coronavirus spreads across the country, and governments tell residents to stay home as much as possible.

“People who are home and would like to buy because of the low [mortgage] rates, we’ve actually seen an uptick,” said Middleton, a sales associate with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices and Fox & Roach Realtors based in Newtown Square, Delaware County. “This is a great time to buy a home. It seems like that wouldn’t be so, but it is a very good time to buy a home.”

Of more concern for her client is uncertainty over whether she’ll get as much as $10,000 in assistance through Philadelphia’s first-time home buyer program. She has to figure out how to complete the housing counseling she needs to qualify, which she started in-person at a community center. And the city is not accepting new grant applications until offices reopen.

Before the coronavirus pandemic started, people had made plans to move, whether for a new job, a bigger home, or a new lease, and those plans are moving forward as best they can. But in what is usually one of the busiest seasons of the year, buyers, sellers, and brokers face new hurdles in the form of government orders that restrict business activities and the number of people allowed to gather in one place.

Real estate offices and related services are among the Pennsylvania businesses that Gov. Tom Wolf has said aren’t considered “life-sustaining” and must stop physical operations. The Pennsylvania Association of Realtors and the Pennsylvania Land Title Association are among the groups that have applied for a waiver to reclassify real estate activities as essential.

Real estate agents are conducting business over the phone or electronically. House closings, which had been taking place from the six-foot distance health officials recommend, now are done remotely, if possible. In-person showings, which were becoming rarer, and open houses, which had trickled to a stop, aren’t happening. Agents are using technology any way they can to keep processes rolling, such as making virtual tours available online.

Inspections and licenses have become difficult to get as counties restrict office hours and fewer employees report for work. Agents worry about how long local deed offices and and other government services will stay open.

The Pennsylvania Association of Realtors is working with real estate-related counterparts to share information and plan for an uncertain future, said Michael McGee, the association’s chief executive officer.

“My experience with Realtors is they are an exceptionally creative group of people and exceptionally optimistic group of people,” McGee said. “So they will be able to adapt how they do their business” and work with clients to keep real estate transactions moving forward as much as possible.

Kimberly Merriman, broker of record for FineHill Realty Services, who specializes in Ambler, Montgomery County, has a settlement due to take place in Philadelphia, but she needs a use and occupancy certification from the city, and it’s not clear when the city will be able to provide one.

“That one thing alone will keep a very large settlement from occurring, unfortunately," Merriman said. “It’s understandable, but it’s a tedious, frustrating thing when you’re all set to go, but you can’t follow through on what would normally be a pretty routine thing."

Buyers and sellers are still moving forward with searching and listing, and if a home is "priced right in the right area, it’s still moving,” Merriman said.

“I think it comes down to motivation,” she said. ”People who aren’t motivated are sitting back a little and waiting to see what happens. ... I think there are a few buyers out there that are just set, ready to buy, and this isn’t fazing them.”

But according to a survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors last week, 48% of Realtors said home buyer interest has decreased because of the pandemic. That percentage had tripled from the week before.

Realtor Erica Deuschle said Thursday that she had sold roughly six houses in the last six days, "which is, to me, very encouraging.”

"Supply and demand has not changed. Just the way we do things has to change,” Deuschle said.

Before the more stringent business restrictions, clients and colleagues had asked her how to stay safe during the pandemic, so she posted a video on Facebook about some of the changes she made.

Deuschle, who’s with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices and Fox and Roach Haverford, said she had buyers and sellers sign deed packages separately. She restricted showings to no more than 30 minutes and asked sellers to leave lights on and closet doors open to eliminate the need for touching. Last week, she had four virtual listing appointments with sellers giving her walk-throughs by video.

» READ MORE: As coronavirus spreads, not all Philly high-rises are going on cleaning binges, and the city can’t make them do it

To lease rentals, Judith Conte, a broker, property manager, and founder of Philadelphia-based Rogues Property Management, is going into all her properties and creating virtual tours, which agents don’t usually do for rentals because the commission is low, she said.

Conte said she’s assuming more people will renew their leases if faced with a looming decision of whether to stay put, “because they just can’t deal with trying to find somewhere else in the current circumstances,” but it’s too early to say.

“We just don’t know how long this is going to last," she said. "That’s the biggest concern for everybody.”