With the “stay-at-home, work safe” order for Houston and Harris County in effect through April 3, there are many who wondered if their job was one that provided an essential service. Only businesses deemed essential to the community are allowed to operate as the region tries to slow the spread of COVID-19, the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus.
For Realtors, it appears the answer is yes.
The Houston Association of Realtors (HAR) sent out a communication to its members that said that real estate services along with legal, accounting and insurance services “necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities or to further Essential Businesses, Essential Government functions, or Critical Infrastructure” fall under the umbrella of essential professional services.
It is up to the real estate professionals how to continue to work safely under this new reality, following continuously updated guidelines.
HAR has said that open houses will no longer be displayed on HAR.com and Realtors are urged to utilize virtual open houses and video tours during this time.
“I have always been afraid of being in front of a camera but I am adapting, quickly,” Realtor Ashley Day said. “We are conferencing amongst ourselves in front of a camera and it’s helpful. I’m not sure what rules will be rolled out on our ability to enter the homes just yet.”
Amanda Cruser with Bernstein Realty said if schools can use technology, then real estate professionals can, too.
“We are ramping up the ability to do virtual tours and exploring video and Skype,” Cruser said. “The same things I have done for clients who are relocating.”
A marketing email from Bernstein Realty promoted featured listings on its YouTube channel.
One online tool being used for higher-end homes is Matterport, which allows 3D walk-throughs, schematic floor plans, videos and other media.
“Yesterday, I had a Matterport shoot going through TK Images at a new listing going live this week,” Day said. “We can also utilize Zoom, Google Meetup, FaceTime and Facebook live via our phones.”
Cruser said there are still clients looking for homes, although less aggressively than a few weeks back. However, for those who need to close on a home they already decided to purchase, it is business as usual. Although those who seek an extension can be granted one.
The COVID-19 Addendum (TXR-2520) provides those involved in home selling or purchasing a 30-day extension of the closing date in a residential sales contract if the closing is impacted by voluntary or mandatory COVID-19 quarantine or closure.
For those who are proceeding, they will also take advantage of existing technology.
“Title companies will likely use RON (Remote Online Notification) to reduce in-person meetings for closing documents,” Cruser said.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are changing the requirements for physical inspections for some appraisals. If an appraiser cannot go inside a home, desktop and exterior-only appraisals on primary residence purchases and second home/investment purchases with 15 percent down or more are being permitted.
There also is more flexibility in verifying employment for those whose workplaces are closed, although lenders were cautioned to use their best judgement.
“Houstonians are resilient and so is our real estate market,” Cruser said. “We will weather this storm together.”