Real estate agents return to work as New York City reopens

[NEW YORK] As New York City entered Phase Two of reopening this past week, thousands of real estate agents across the city returned to work, but the business of listing and showing properties has taken on a series of pandemic protocols designed to keep brokers and their clients safe.

Many agents had adopted some of these practices in mid-March, when the coronavirus arrived in New York and much of the real estate industry went on pause. There will be no open houses where potential buyers or renters can drop in unannounced. With scheduled showings, brokers will clean before and after each visitor, discourage clients from touching any surfaces and provide access to hand sanitisers. Virtual tours have become the norm and will likely continue.

As of Monday, real estate brokerages have been deemed essential businesses, and as with the other industries reopening during Phase Two, the state has recommended a series of best practices.

The Real Estate Board of New York has issued its own set of guidelines to its members to ensure the safety of employees and clients in the field. In addition to the usual forms that a broker might ask a potential buyer or seller to sign, many agents may also ask a client to sign a coronavirus liability form and fill out a health screening questionnaire. The real estate board also urges members to conduct in-person showings only in vacant or unoccupied properties - in other words, only when the seller isn't home.

Before Monday, Jason Haber, an associate broker at Warburg Realty, hadn't been in an apartment other than his own since March 10. For three months, he declined new showing opportunities - even virtual ones - and instead focused on checking in with his existing clientele, going so far as to help some of them organise various Covid-19 relief projects. He did, however, close contracts for spaces that had been seen by clients before the pandemic.

Like many agents, Mr Haber isn't worried about returning to work. He's itching to begin showing properties again and is sitting on 12 residential listings, a mix of rentals and sales, all of which are coming online in the next few weeks. He said he had never had so many on the market at once.

For the foreseeable future, virtual walk-throughs will probably remain a popular option. As the only way to do business during the pandemic, many agencies touted them as the wave of the future. Candace Adams, chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New York, New England and Westchester Properties, said in-person showings will eventually become the second and third step, not the first.

"Everyone's time is so valuable today," she said. "Virtual tours will be a forever thing for us going forward."

Sotheby's International Realty has featured 3D tours and virtual-reality experiences on its website since 2016. Cathy Taub, a top Sotheby's broker in Manhattan, said she has been getting more questions about virtual tours than ever before.

"Real estate has always been eye candy," she said, "but during this time when we've all been sheltering at home, people have been browsing nonstop."

Practicing safety during in-person showings is crucial for engaging with clientele, but the same goes for returning to work in real estate offices across the city.

Corcoran bought a robot - and trained a receptionist - to test the temperature of employees in its Bridgehampton office when Long Island entered Phase Two on June 9. Pamela Liebman, chief executive of the company, said they may use the robot in Corcoran's Manhattan and Brooklyn offices in the future. For now, the company is providing PPE and also tracking how many people enter the office. To limit the number of people in the office, staff key cards were deactivated and agents must sign in to an app before heading into work.

Bess Freedman, chief executive of Brown Harris Stevens, said the key to reopening was "harm minimisation". Ms Freedman, a survivor of the coronavirus, said her agency was mourning the recent death of one of its top agents from Covid-19, Sal Capozucca, but she also spoke of the near future of real estate with optimism. Like many agency heads, she thinks all the pent-up demand from the weeks-long pause will make for a strong market in the late summer and fall.

"Obviously we can't expect this year to be anything like it would have been without the pandemic, but given all that's happening in our world, it could pan out to be OK," she said. "And I'm OK with an OK year."

NYTIMES

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