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Real Estate in the Time of Coronavirus

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Real Estate in the Time of Coronavirus

Like many real estate professionals on the North Shore, Jena Radnay had been following reports from China, South Korea, and Hong Kong about the coming COVID-19 pandemic as early as January. At the same time, she was also virtually monitoring the ride times at Walt Disney World, in anticipation of a spring break getaway that day-by-day, began to disappear from the realm of possibility.

Then, as the first coronavirus cases began hitting the U.S. in unprecedented numbers, the Winnetka-based @properties broker and agent began to anticipate the worst.

“The first Sunday in March, I went to two Costcos, two Targets, and another supermarket,” says Radnay, explaining that she bought as many hand sanitizers, disinfecting alcohol wipes, and cleaning supplies as she could get her hands on. “I saw it happening so for me, I was already one step ahead of the game.”

What was once unthinkable—the literal shutdown of the state and most of the country—became an undeniable reality on Friday, March 20, when Governor JB Pritzker issued a “shelter in place” mandate for most Illinois residents, effective the following Saturday.

Only the essential services are allowed to continue operating. But the good news for residents who are being told to “stay at home” when their home lives are in transition is that real estate is among the businesses that falls in that “essential” category. Fortunately for us, we are served by some of the finest in the nation—agencies that are not only prepared for the crisis but innovating safe new ways to keep business moving.

Rachael Rohn, Chicagoland regional president of Compass, says her firm was ready to direct their agents and guide them through best practices for safety during this unprecedented moment in history.

“This has proven to be an uncertain time  for the country, and the real estate industry is no exception,” she explains. “The home buying and selling process can be stressful and times like these illustrate the importance of having an agent to guide you through the process.”

While life right now can feel like it’s on hold, Rohn says the reasons people are buying and selling remain the same as ever. Whether it’s a new job, a marriage, a divorce, or even a new addition to the family, the market remains viable and active.

“Many sellers still want and need their homes to sell and there are purchasers who need to be in the markets we serve for work or because they have sold their current home or are out of a lease,” adds Julie Bradbury Miller, vice president and managing broker at Berkshire Hathaway Home Services. “Also, during a time like this people truly value home and their vision of safety and lifestyle. Our communities and local inventory offer those things for many.”

However, it is far from business as usual.

THE NEW NORMAL

“We are urging our agents to adhere to the latest CDC guidance and local government mandates,” says Rohn. “We have recommended that our agents in Chicago do not conduct open houses or in-person showings given the current circumstances but do recognize that this decision is up to the sellers’ discretion. Above all else, the safety of our extended Compass community and that of our agents’ clients remains our top priority.”

Radnay, who studied nursing at Georgetown University, says she and her colleagues at @ properties are taking similar precautions in this strange new environment.

“When the ‘shelter in place’ order went into place, I was able to act and let my clients know that we are going to get through this,” adds Radnay, explaining that she now brings those gloves, hand sanitizers, and alcohol wipes she bought in bulk to every listing or showing.

“Social distancing is going to be the new normal. We’re going to have be conscious of this in the next few months, and then we have to take things we learned from this and apply it to our business model.”

Jean Anderson, a veteran real estate professional who works with partner Donna Mancuso at the Berkshire Hathaway Home Services office in Lake Bluff and Lake Forest, says the COVID-19 pandemic literally changed their business overnight.

“The first thought that came to mind was: ‘What does this mean for our buyers and sellers and how will we continue to do business?’” says Anderson.

However, Mancuso says she and colleagues at Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Chicago have been preparing for this situation and stand ready to serve.

“It’s an amazing company and is standing behind its agents through this time of uncertainty, when our buyers and sellers need a trusted advisor more than ever,” she adds. “Being surrounded by the right people is so important, especially right now and everyone in our organization has risen to meet the challenge.”

Donna Mercier, an agent that serves Lake Forest and beyond with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, says she and her husband were traveling in California in February when they pre-emptively decided to cut the trip short, in anticipation of what was to come.

“We didn’t want to get stuck,” says Mercier, explaining that her husband is a retired surgeon and their two children—Chris and Danielle—are the “boots on the ground” for the real estate business. “There is no precedent set for this extraordinary situation. We are every day adjusting to new things and making adjustments, but Coldwell Banker is great at giving us the tools we need. They are on the cutting edge of everything.”

To say that “cutting edge” has been redefined by this pandemic is an understatement.

VIRTUAL REALITY

As Mercier explains, her children (and business partners) have been utilizing such digital tools as FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, and the latest trending app—Zoom—for some time now. But now, more than ever, being able to do a video chat with a client or even a FaceTime “showing” is proving to be a game changer.

“It works perfectly because I have almost 30 years of experience and they have enthusiasm and tech knowledge,” she says. “So much is online now, and I’ve noticed that views are picking up, now more than ever. With all the time that people have had just to stay home and be on computers, they are online looking at their next dream home.”

Connie Dornan, a Glenview-based broker with @properties, is seeing a similar trend.

“Real estate is never really on hold. Internet traffic remains high with viewings of homes,” says Dornan. “Thankfully most of my business is already virtual. I have place videos, digital brochures, high quality photography, and interactive floorplans already in place and have often done FaceTime, WhatsApp, or WeChat home showings. Adjusting to the new ‘stay-at-home’ mandates was not a problem for me, nor did it require anything additional as these systems are in place already.”

Betsy Burke, an agent at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices’ Winnetka office, says the industry is fortunate that many of these digital tools were already in place.

“Our world has changed quickly in the wake of this pandemic and we, as real estate agents, have had to adapt just as quickly to meet the ongoing needs of our clients,” she explains. “I took quick stock of what my clients need most and was pleased to find that I could still perform most of the functions I need to. Many, if not most, of the pieces to work remotely—like online listing presentations, digital brochures, and the ability to sign agreements—were already in use. Our lending and title professionals are all working remotely as well but are still highly accessible.”

Ann Lyon, an agent with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services in Lake Forest, agrees, noting that virtual marketing has kept a steady stream of interested buyers flowing.

“For all of our listings, we create individual websites with extensive photos and detailed plans to help buyers see the home virtually. We also have aerial videos produced and create details and features of each home to help buyers understand the livability, depth, and breadth of the property,” she says. “We continue to have a surprising level of activity in all price ranges from people relocating to the North Shore from other states and surrounding areas. Due to travel restrictions from out-of-area buyers, we are disseminating pertinent information and FaceTiming them during showings to help them virtually tour the properties.”

At Dawn McKenna Group, cutting edge digital tools and the concept of doing business virtually resulted in a first-ever DMG Deep Dive session via Zoom, held last Sunday.

“It was an incredible forum that Dawn McKenna moderated with questions about the impact of COVID-19, and how it is impacting real estate in our communities and nationwide,” explains Annie Royster Lenzke of the Dawn McKenna Group’s Lake Forest office. “These questions were addressed by Ryan Gorman, president and CEO of Coldwell Banker Real Estate, LLC, Sue Rezin, Illinois state senator, Paul Garver, attorney-at-law, and Jeff Dulla, a VP in mortgage lending. It was a dynamic and informative session. It is part of our job to keep people informed and answer their questions, especially during this time. We are going to be hosting more of these sessions to cover topics that are important to our clients and the public.”

Anne Malone, an agent with the Dawn McKenna Group’s Winnetka office, says it’s an extraordinary time to be in the business.

“We have the benefit of being in multiple markets as Dawn McKenna Group is on the North Shore, Western Suburbs, Chicago, and Naples, Florida, so we were able to collaborate and talk about what everyone was experiencing in their markets and discuss our plan of action,” adds Malone. “Florida was a few days behind Illinois, so it was great for our team in Naples to know what was coming their way and how to prepare for it. Everything has been changing rapidly and we continue to have team conference calls every few days.”

In addition to discussing new initiatives with social media and drone video home tours, Malone and Lenzke says the priority is helping everyone stay in adherence to Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines—another factor of the “new normal” that impacts everyone across the industry.

“We are taking all of the necessary precautions in conducting our business—keeping social distance, wearing gloves, and making sure that  our clients are comfortable with every situation,” Malone says.

“It is such a benefit to us and our clients to be with Coldwell Banker Realty, a 114-year old company that made it through the Great Depression and the stock market crash,” adds Lenzke. “Our CB leadership, strategy, and technology teams are equipped to keep us informed from a national and global level and help us work in the best possible way to keep everyone safe and healthy.”

SAFE PRACTICES

Lake Forest-based Griffith, Grant & Lackie Realtors has also weathered the storms of history, serving clients on the North Shore since 1903. Brad W. Andersen, designated managing broker and owner, says that devotion to excellence is stronger than ever.

“The real estate industry has been classified as an essential business. As such, we are working diligently to provide the highest possible level of service to our clients while at the same time, doing so in a manner that provides the best possible protection for the health and safety of everyone in our community,” he explains. “Our office has been following the recommendations of the CDC and directives we have received from both Illinois Realtors and the National Association of Realtors™. We have done everything in our power to respond to the pandemic quickly and aggressively, to do our part to help flatten the curve.”

Scott Lackie, designated managing broker and owner, along with broker Brady Andersen, add that the iconic real estate agency closed both of its offices to the public even before “stay-at-home” mandates were made.

“In today’s digital world, it is possible to show homes online and eliminate unnecessary showings,” says Lackie, who explains that brokers and staff remain fully operational and are all working remotely. “The online nature of our business has proven to be very helpful and effective, especially in these trying times. We have put a hold of public open houses and broker tours of homes. And we have instructed everyone involved in the transaction process, including all of our vendors, to practice social distancing and to go beyond the current mandated guidelines.”

Title companies are allowing “curbside closings” that eliminate face-to-face contact whenever possible. And, Andersen says they are advancing the concept of “touchless showings.”

“When a showing at a home is absolutely necessary, we are requiring that nobody enter a home before washing their hands and removing their shoes or wearing protective “booties.” We are also asking our brokers to open all doors and turn on all lights before anyone is allowed in the home—providing instructions not to touch anything in the home,” he explains. “Lastly, we ask our agents to disinfect any surfaces that may have come in contact with any person during a showing. The health and safety of everyone involved is always top of mind.”

Gloria Matlin, an agent with Compass’ Winnetka office with partner Zack Matlin, says they are implementing similar safety measures for their clients.

“I think like all of us right now, the shock of the situation took a few days to hit. Early on Zack, my partner, and I decided to limit showings and eliminate open houses,” she explains, adding: “Luckily we do videos and floor plans on all our homes, so we were ready.”

Like others in the industry, they start by carefully vetting potential buyers and limiting the amount of “lookers.” During showings, throwaway gloves are provided, buyers are asked to remove their shoes, and when the home is occupied, sellers are asked to turn on lights and open doors to limit contamination as much as possible.

Dave Chung, also an agent with Compass in Winnetka, says the good news for his company is that video and digital assets have long been on the forefront of their marketing efforts.

“During this time, we are adding additional live digital open houses, enhanced 3-D tours of our listings, and offering buyers and agents the ability to tour our listings online via a live video call,” Chung explains. “For buyers, we have continued to show houses and get them under contract. Inspections and closings have had a new set of challenges, but all of our trusted partners have also implemented new procedures to make sure our clients and everyone involved in a transaction is staying safe.”

Matlin says the fact that agencies like Compass are taking such important health and safety precautions is probably why the market continues to maintain momentum, and why it will continue to thrive in spite of COVID-19.

“On Saturday, we had a seller actually do a FaceTime walk-through of their home since they did not want anyone in their house, and the buyers loved it,” Matlin says. “But I’m hopeful that we will go back to business as usual soon, where we can interact again. That’s what I’m missing most right now, human contact.”

SALES AND SILVER LININGS

Susan J. Maman, an agent with @properties in Winnetka, has much in common with all the fellow real estate professionals interviewed in this Special Report. She’s continuing to enhance online presence for her clients, enforcing strict social distancing and safety guidelines, and staying in constant contact with her buyer and sellers.

It’s an unexpected journey for all, but one that most believe will yield silver linings and success when this crisis, too, will pass.

“As these are uncharted water for all of us, we have to roll with the punches and remain positive,” says Maman, who wrote to her clients this week that in between getting her work done, she’s cooked more food and done more baking in the past two weeks than she has done in the past five years.

She is not alone in believing good things will come from this, especially on the North Shore and suburban communities.

“I am predicting that we are going to have a lot of city buyers coming up to the ‘burbs,” Maman says. “They are fed up with Chicago Public Schools, the city taxes, and the crowds.”

Mercier also foresees an “exodus out of the city” as a result of COVID-19.

“People who have children are going to want space and yards. They are realizing how restrictive that is not to have those things,” says Mercier, adding that she thinks we may be entering a new era of home ownership. “I think there is going to be a pent-up desire to buy. I think people are going to be reinvesting in homes, rather than travel. What’s more important right now than being home and having a comfortable space to live in?”

The collective positivity and ingenuity of the industry is also resulting in sales during the most unlikely of times.

Matlin’s office has seen three closings since last Friday in “homes that could have easily gone south with the climate right now,” she says, adding: “Closings were done in parking lots of title companies, our new norm. We also have received a few offers in the last few days and all have been done through our new way of presenting homes.”

Maman wrote to her clients that in the past three weeks, 21 homes went under contract in Glencoe. “We must simply have faith in our amazing North Shore community and this incredible country,” she says. “Although it will take some time to get back to normal, we need to stick together, remembering that people always need a place to live and that our community is truly like no other.”

Success stories for both buyers and sellers are being reported at Miller’s offices. “Transactions are happening, and we even had several properties go under contract with multiple offers,” she says. “I’m proud of our agents and how they are adapting to continue to serve our clients while staying safe themselves— for their families, clients, and our communities.”

At Dawn McKenna Group, the team has put nine homes under contract and closed 13 deals in the past two weeks. Burke has had four properties go under contract over the last two weeks. Rohn says one Compass agent has five Compass Concierge listings close since the quarantine. Anderson even has a closing scheduled in early April for a buyer relocating to the U.S. from another country.

These are the stories of this time, and each one is unique and profound in its own way.

Dornan, for example, tells the one about a home that had a contract fall apart because of the pandemic, only to be available again for her clients.

“This was a home I’ve been keeping my eye on as I felt firmly it would be a good fit for my buyers. It was within the first week of the shelter-in-place, so anxiety levels were quite high. I called my client and told him that this home got re-activated on the market. We immediately made plans to tour the home together,” she explains. “He and I showed up in face masks and gloves, toured the house with his wife and children on FaceTime, wrote a digital offer as soon as I got back to my home office. The offer was accepted, we have completed inspection, and are on our way to closing … all in five days flat.”

Radnay says she recently sold a house to a family moving from the city, after first standing in a separate room during the showing and then sitting in her car while the clients toured the empty home. Like others, she predicts a new influx of city buyers as a result of this crisis. But most of all, she predicts a resilient recovery.

“I believe this is going to be a three-month stint and business is going to boom again,” she says. “Guess what? We’re Americans. We’re the strongest country out there. We are not going to fall. We’ve always come back stronger after enduring adversity.”

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