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On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus COVID-19 as a "pandemic." Our world hasn't been the same since, writes Barrie realtor Ian Woods.

Everyone has been affected, including those involved in buying and selling real estate. Just imagine if you had to "make a move" in the midst of all this turmoil. What would that be like? Hopefully, this article will help those who need some guidance.

Twelve days after the worldwide emergency was declared, the Ontario government demanded that all but essential services be closed (that was on March 24). However, the government also announced that real estate agents (realtors), lawyers, movers, banks, insurers, home inspectors, photographers and many other businesses that affect the closing of real estate transactions were deemed to be "essential services."

This was good news, especially for anyone who had to sell their home or find a new one. But as we've all discovered, it's not business as usual.

We have to stay home whenever possible, and keep a safe distance of at least two metres (six feet) from each other if we do have to go out. Plus, we need to self-isolate for two weeks if we've been travelling internationally, been in contact with anyone who has, or if we’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus, or if we ourselves have experienced any COVID-19 symptoms. 

Real estate agents have to follow the same rules as everyone else. Just after the pandemic was declared, many real estate brokerages voluntarily stopped doing "open houses." As of April, open houses were completely banned by the Province of Ontario. That was a wise restriction, because too many people are likely to come into close contact with each other at open houses.

Are they absolutely necessary? No. There are alternatives such as Facebook Live, which some agents are using instead to simulate an open house. They are called “virtual open houses” and can be found online at Realtor.ca, where most properties are listed for sale.

By tuning into the time slot of the open house, you can see a real estate agent show you the house as if you were there. You can even ask questions, such as ask the agent to open a cupboard door to see what’s behind it. It’s as close to a real open house as you can get.

Buyers who want to see houses in person are encouraged to take a closer look at listings online by looking at the virtual or video tours for each property before booking a showing. Some agents have posted “virtual showing” videos which show you the nooks and crannies you would see if you saw the place in person, such as the mechanicals, the furnace, and the sump pump.

The most popular Canadian website, by far, is Realtor.ca for seeing all the listings that are on the MLS (multiple listing service) system. By clicking on the various properties listed, you can see all the details and when the virtual open houses are happening. If you scroll down a bit on a listing, you'll find some other buttons --More Information, Brochure, More Photos, or Multimedia -- where you can click to find the tours or sometimes individual property websites.

Serious buyers who want to see a property can book a showing with their local realtor. Many brokerages insist that every buyer, buyer agent and seller sign a waiver or questionnaire before a showing, in order to keep everyone as safe as possible. This form asks all the usual questions to make sure everyone has been following all the recommended protocols with regard to COVID-19.

Listings may have the following instructions: “All showings to follow current health and safety guidelines. Serious parties only. Maximum two adults per showing, no children. Buyers must view virtual tour before their agent books a showing.”

When the seller leaves the house during the showing time slot, they are asked to leave all the lights on and leave the doors to the basement and closets slightly ajar. The buyer’s agent is asked to use safe practices such as: using gloves, masks and hand sanitizer before and after entry to the home, as well as using handy wipes, Lysol spray or similar disinfectants to sanitize any door knobs or light switches they touch. Also, agents who supervise these showings must use physical distancing of at least two metres from their clients.

If a buyer wants to see a property in person, and can't get a showing inside, he or she might want to book a "walkabout showing" around the outside of the home. Then, if they are really serious, try and book an inside showing later on. Failing that, a serious buyer can put in an offer that is conditional upon seeing the inside of a home.

If the buyers themselves don’t feel safe, they can have their agent book an on-site video walkthrough using an app such as FaceTime on their smart phone, so the buyer can get a live tour and ask questions without going inside. Sellers are once again asked to turn on any lights and open any doors prior to the showing so the buyer agent doesn’t have to touch anything when viewing the property. The “follow-up” can be done in a Zoom meeting. (Home inspections can also be done this way. There’s no need for buyers to be physically present during the inspection.)

Most offices report that showings have dropped off significantly since the pandemic, down about 10- to 20-percent. Most buyers and sellers are waiting on the sidelines to see what happens and plan to get back into the market when this is all over.

Sellers who are willing to show their homes "safely,” however, are seeing more serious buyers come along who tend to follow through with offers.

Home sold at full asking price          

One of our clients, a couple who had to show their home during the pandemic, was pleasantly surprised when they sold their home in Vaughan for full asking price after just four showings. The seller explained: "Our agent had masks and gloves for everyone that came though. No using washrooms or touching anything. And [we used] medical grade disinfectant for commonly touched surfaces after every showing."

When listing new properties, real estate agents nowadays practice physical distancing protocols and have little or no physical contact with their sellers when listing properties. We can do most of the "fact finding" regarding their listing by phone, email, texting or Zoom.

For signing listings documents (as well as offers), electronic signatures can be used via computers or smart phones. (It's easier than you think, if you haven't tried it before.) For ID checks we can use FaceTime. You simply hold your driver's licence or passport up beside your face, and then your agent can identify you properly.

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As you can see by looking around, things are still moving in the real estate world, albeit a lot more slowly than a year ago. Homes are being listed and sold ... for many different reasons, most out of necessity.

As we move along, we are all finding many different ways to do what needs to be done in the real estate business, with little or no physical contact, so that we can keep each other safe.

If you have any questions, check with your local realtor, as all of us have been briefed on best practices.

As they say, “we are all in this together,” so let's be safe and follow all the rules and guidelines.

Disclaimer: These guidelines are only suggestions and should not to be taken as the final word on COVID-19 protocols because things are changing so quickly all the time.  Please be sure to check with your local realtor or lawyer before proceeding with any real estate transaction. Keep safe and be well!

Ian Woods is a Broker with RE/MAX Crosstown Realty Inc., Brokerage in Barrie.

Photos: 3055 Ridge Road West, Shanty Bay, which is listed for sale. Please contact Ian Woods for details: misterwaterfront.com

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