The National Association of REALTORS® Power Broker Roundtable addresses the coronavirus pandemic, and how the brokerage business is responding.
John Horning: We bring a few more panelists than usual to this month’s roundtable, as our industry contends with a two-headed setback: a world-wide pandemic inspiring fear and confusion, and a patchwork of federal and statewide orders that change daily, leaving brokers to deal with day-to-day operations in changing and challenging ways. As we meet now, the trajectory of new cases is still rising, and while hundreds of millions of Americans are being urged to stay home, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has included residential real estate on its list of essential services. There are restrictions as to how to proceed, maintaining social distancing chief among them, but how are brokers interpreting and responding to a crisis that is constantly in flux? Bill, how are things in New York?
Bill Soffel: Crazy. Chaotic. Challenging. We are 400 miles from the epicenter in New York City, but we’re close enough to take extra precautions. We were a bit ahead of the curve, actually, sending our staff and agents home even before Governor Andrew Cuomo put a stay-at-home order in effect. Fortunately, most of our people are accustomed to doing a lot of things remotely, including closings. We’ve been doing a lot of video conferencing and communications, and doubling down on social media, so we’re still closing deals, although we know we’re in for long delays on pending deals that still need appraisals and inspections.
Lacey Conway: At this moment, New Orleans leads the country in new cases, so safety is our first priority. We are no strangers to disaster here, having come through Katrina, and so our agents are busy calling everyone in their sphere of influence, primarily to see if they need help. At the same time, we have some great tools and technology in place to help us carry on as efficiently as possible, and everyone is very positive. We know we will get through this.
JH: Mike, what are you doing in Florida?
Mike Pappas: It’s crazy to think that only two weeks ago (at press time) we were having our best quarter in five years. Now, in the new reality, there are no open houses, but we are showing property while strictly maintaining social distance. At this moment, we’re holding deals together and we’re still seeing a few new listings and contracts. And interestingly, while some things are slowing down, online traffic is exploding. Everybody’s at home, and some people are looking at homes, so we’re doing a lot of virtual showings.
Charlie Oppler: That’s great, although I think a lot of those people online are taking advantage of low rates to look at refinancing right now, not necessarily buying or selling—and many of them are not yet willing to go out and look at homes. In any case, New Jersey is on lockdown, so business is pretty flat—and the concern for health and safety far outweigh anything else. We’re doing a lot of Zoom calls, training, virtual marketing, even a few virtual happy hours. As Lacey said, we will get through this, and until then, we are erring on the side of caution.
Lennox Scott: We were on lockdown in Seattle until just last night (at press time), when our governor issued a modification to the Stay Home, Stay Healthy Order—changes that allow for in-person showings, inspections, walkthroughs, etc., so long as strict social distancing guidelines are followed. We’re glad for the leeway, although we’ve been moving toward remote services for over two years— Zoom meetings, Microsoft Teams and BombBomb video email, to name a few. We’re comfortable with virtual, including 3D technology, and we’re getting better at it every day.
JH: And in California?
James Dwiggins: We were one of the first states to go on total lockdown, but as a non-traditional company, we thrive on doing business remotely. Whether or not we can show property, we’re using this time to push out tons of information our agents can use to keep them connected to their database—COVID-19 updates, guidelines, tax changes, anything and everything consumers need to know to keep them informed and connected with our agents.
JH: The fact is, no matter how long we are asked to stay at home, this is a unique opportunity for agents to dig down, touch base and utilize virtual technologies to engage tomorrow’s buyers. We all know there will be plenty of pent-up demand on the other side of this, and the agents who excel at staying connected will be the first to be rewarded.
MP: It’s a great time for agents to sharpen up their skills—social media, high-tech marketing, drawing buyers to your virtual open house.
JH: What about brokers? No matter how well we use this down time, there will be significant revenue loss. Are you actively looking to cut costs?
BS: Absolutely. We have a three-person team in place doing a deep dive on costs—virtually, of course, on Microsoft Teams—and looking at every line item. We’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t prepare for the belt-tightening we know is coming.
LC: Actually, we were looking at costs well before this disaster, making the hard decisions that need to be made to keep us lean and competitive. There’s a new world out there, and a lot of it will continue to go virtual even when this crisis is over. We know we can’t afford to get left behind.
JH: What should we expect the fallout to be, once this crisis is behind us?
MP: There’s no question the impact will be at least as dramatic as it was in 2008. Not every company will survive it. Maybe this is the time to reinvent yourself—to take your company apart and put it back together in ways you only thought about before.
CO: For sure, there will be a lot of consolidation, and I agree there is work to be done. But whether or not we ever go back to shaking hands instead of bumping elbows, people will always need to buy and sell, and with inventory short even before this began, demand will be high on the other end. Most of us will bounce back, I think, and the smart ones stronger than ever.
JH: Amen to that. Stay safe, everyone. Stay strong.