Despite prohibition on open houses, brokers, buyers and sellers employ array of virtual tools to stay safe and fulfill housing needs
December 7, 2020
Even though in-person open houses are not currently allowed under new and reinstated pandemic-related restrictions, broker-members of Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWMLS) continue to provide services to home buyers and sellers using several contactless and virtual tools.
Feedback from NWMLS representatives include reports of sales by purchasers who made offers to buy based on virtual and live stream open houses without an in-person tour. One manager noted sellers appreciate being directly involved with their listing broker in establishing limits on the number of visits to their home and the strict use of CDC guidelines for post-showing cleaning/sanitizing.
On November 15, when Governor Jay Inslee announced a four-week statewide set of restrictions, Northwest MLS published updated protocols for all in-person activities, such as showings and inspections, along with other directives to support efforts to reverse an alarming rise in new COVID-19 cases. The MLS information for its members, produced in collaboration with Washington REALTORS® included an 8-page FAQ document with an accompanying chart summarizing requirements for the phased "Safe Start" reopening plan for each county. NWMLS currently serves 23 of the state's 39 counties.
Using online tools, Northwest MLS members are able to schedule private showings, convene meetings, complete forms, interact with industry partners in real time, and obtain necessary signatures, all while adhering to protocols to slow the spread of COVID-19.
"Brokers and the industry have adjusted quickly to changing business practices necessitated by COVID-19," stated John Deely, principal managing broker at Coldwell Banker Bain and a director with NWMLS. "Protecting the health of all persons involved while providing access to the basic necessity of housing has been paramount in our day-to-day activities," he added.
"While COVID protocols have again adjusted which real estate activities are allowed, I continue to see examples of an industry that is evolving effectively and safely with the ongoing pandemic and fast-paced real estate market," stated Northwest MLS Chairman Robb Wasser, branch manager at Windermere Real Estate/East in Bellevue. "Our member-brokers are being creative and resourceful in finding ways to help their clientele and maintain relationships, and the MLS has kept a focus on how to enhance the tools, programs, and systems that brokers rely upon."
"Our real estate market remains active with virtual tours and scheduled property showings," reported Dean Rebhuhn, broker-owner at Village Homes and Properties. He said buyers are viewing properties online, and then, after narrowing their choices, contacting their broker to schedule in-person showings. "We are experiencing contactless signings and closings," he stated.
Commenting on the latest restrictions, broker Frank Wilson said, "In situations like this it is easy to get stuck on what we can't do, instead of what we can do. We still have many tools to help consumers gain information they need to make good decisions and fulfill their dreams while staying safe and healthy," added Wilson, the Kitsap regional manager and branch managing broker at John L. Scott Real Estate.
Wilson said brokers are making more and more use of video, not only to showcase new listings, but also to help walk buyers and sellers through the paperwork. "Behind the scenes, real estate brokers, escrow and title officers, and lenders use virtual workbenches to hammer out the details of each transaction and work together virtually so closings occur on time," he explained.
Commenting on the resiliency and flexibility of the industry, J. Lennox Scott, chairman and CEO of John L. Scott, noted business practices were adjusted in March when COVID-19 restrictions were first enacted. While some of the mandates were disruptive when first implemented, Scott said the industry quickly adapted to meet strong demand.
"We just had four consecutive months of record-setting sales, and we could only do private showings during three of those months," he commented. He credits a combination of factors for fueling demand, including historically low home interest rates, and work-from home residents and others reflecting on where they want to live in their next phase of life.
Deely, at Coldwell Banker Bain, credited Northwest MLS with moving quickly to restrict open houses to meet mandated guidelines, and to also provide leading software/apps to manage showings as restrictions changed. He also noted home shoppers' virtual experiences are enhanced with an expanded number of online resources. Since May, NWMLS brokers can input up to three links on each listing, including options such as 3-D tours, recordings of video walk-through tours, or photo reels with up to 50 images.
"These enhancements, including live remote showings using streaming technology and real time interactions, help reduce traffic to the home and time spent at a listing," added Deely.
Another director, Frank Leach, said Matterport (a 3D platform) and virtual tours are at their highest use yet. "Buyers' agents are touring homes with cameras and using phones to do live tours with their clients. Zoom is also being used for two-way interactions. The agent serves as the eyes, nose and boots on the ground, saving time and keeping clients safe. We are seeing many buyers make decisions based on virtual tours and counseling from their broker," reported Leach, broker/owner at RE/MAX Platinum Services.
Leach said he anticipates virtual tours will be a growing trend that will likely be used more widely in the future (and post-pandemic). "While there is no substitute for walk-throughs, sometimes it just isn't possible. Buyers, sellers and agents are being creative to avoid losing out on an opportunity."
Meredith Hansen, owner/designated broker at Keller Williams Greater Seattle and a Northwest MLS director, said brokers at her office are very pleased with the success of virtual tours. "Sellers really like the convenience of not having to be out of their homes for any length of time and not have strangers walking through their homes." Buyers appreciate the opportunity to view a home and ask questions before deciding whether to schedule an in-person showing, Hansen added.
"One of our brokers recently held a virtual open house for a listing on a downtown condo and received an offer a few days later," reported Hansen. The buyer decided to purchase based on the virtual experience without an in-person showing.
Hansen said veteran broker Matt Warmack, who runs The Warmack Group at Keller Williams has had lots of success holding virtual open houses. "After the open house, he goes live on Facebook to showcase the listing, then goes live on Instagram where several hundred followers, including other brokers and industry vendors, can preview it."
"Whether it's an open house or a private showing, our updated business practices support changing restrictions along with social distancing for buyers, sellers, and agents. The real estate market remains in full motion," declared J. Lennox Scott.
Frank Leach agreed: "Despite the COVID-19 issues, the market is moving right along, and buyers and sellers are finding new ways to get what they want."
Year-to-date figures from Northwest MLS through October show closed sales (77,877) are nearly equal to year-ago volumes (78,194), even though this year's inventory each month is averaging about 30% less than the selection during the first ten months of 2019.
Northwest Multiple Listing Service is a not-for-profit, member-owned organization that facilitates cooperation among its member real estate firms. With more than 2,300 member firm offices and 30,000 brokers across Washington state, NWMLS (www.nwmls.com) is the largest full-service MLS in the Northwest. While based in Kirkland, Washington, its service area spans 23 counties and it operates 20 local service centers.