‘The Big Move’ is a MarketWatch column looking at the ins and outs of real estate, from navigating the search for a new home to applying for a mortgage.
Do you have a question about buying or selling a home? Do you want to know where your next move should be? Email Jacob Passy at TheBigMove@marketwatch.com.
I have been looking to buy a home these last few months, but am getting more and more worried about how to do so safely in the middle of a pandemic. Whenever I see a new place, I have to sign forms about COVID-19, such as if I have traveled anywhere, tested positive recently or know anyone who has.
But my question — are there any responsibilities or rules Realtors must follow? What happens if a real-estate agent I meet tests positive for the virus… will he or she have to tell me? Do they have any timeframe until they must return to the workplace and start showing homes again? I’m sure there are policies around sanitizing and protective gear, and I have seen Realtors wearing masks and wiping down countertops, but I’d appreciate any guidance you have on how to best proceed in these unprecedented times.
A worried but hopeful homebuyer
Buying a home can be a stressful and strenuous process even before you factor in the concerns related to the ongoing pandemic. The good news is that the housing industry has digitized much of the home-buying process, in an effort to keep people safe.
For starters, it’s important to know that real-estate agents must abide by local and state ordinances. Some areas have deemed real estate to be an essential service, allowing open houses, home tours and in-person signings to proceed even while stay-at-home orders are in place.
But even then, many real-estate agents are taking even more precautions to keep people safe. The National Association of Realtors recently put out a guide to its members, giving advice about how brokers should handle real-estate showings moving forward. The trade group has urged its members to use virtual showings and to limit in-person activities whenever possible, even when local lawmakers allow for things like open houses.
Many agents are now using 3D technology such as Matterport to picture what a home looks like, which people can use to tour homes and get a feel for them without going in person. Other agents are doing initial consultations over Zoom or FaceTime to limit the amount of in-person interaction they have. Some are even requiring buyers to be pre-qualified for a mortgage before touring a home to make sure they are serious and cut down on casual tours.
“If a buyer is not willing or able to go look at a house I have done a lot of FaceTime-ing of properties to give them an additional perspective, so that if they want to open a particular door or just to ask questions on the ground, I can be able to do that through FaceTime,” said Maggie Wells, a Realtor with Keller Williams based in Lexington, Ky. Indeed, some people have opted to buy homes having only toured them virtually , though understandably that may not be for everyone.
When in-person showings do happen, Realtors should be requiring everyone to wear masks and sanitize any surfaces that may be touched in advance, such as door handles, counter tops and light switches.
Once an offer is made, many agencies can handle much of the closing process digitally as well, though that can vary based on where e-signings are allowed. In cases where an electronic signing is not possible, many agents are coordinating drive-by signings where the process is done in the car rather than by people going into an office.
As for cases where an agent comes into contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19 or tested positive themselves, those policies can vary from brokerage to brokerage and based on where their practice is located. “Everyone is relying upon the honesty of other people to help mitigate the spread and protect people,” said Dan Galloway, Redfin’s /zigman2/quotes/203726414/composite RDFN -5.14% market manager for the District of Columbia.
The National Association of Realtors has put out a sample plan for firms to use to guide their COVID safety practices. Let’s say the seller has found out they’ve caught COVID-19. If an agent has a confirmed case of COVID-19 (either they tested positive or a client did), the National Association of Realtors first suggests they contact their head of human resources immediately.
The agent in question should self-isolate for the time period recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the brokerage should determine whether other staff should do so as well.
The agent is then advised to get the seller’s consent to disclose to any other agent who toured the property within the last 14 days that someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19 resides at the property.
They should also immediately inform their clients of this. However, real-estate professionals need to be mindful of people’s privacy. If the seller didn’t consent to having their identity shared, the agent may not be able to identify the specific property or person involved. And even when they do consent, agents need to be sensitive to their privacy.
In these cases, this information may be communicated via the multiple-listings service so that other brokerages are aware of a positive case. “I have gotten exposure notifications from other brokers [through the multiple-listing services] so I know that many of them do have processes in place,” Galloway said. “And it’s often advertised in the multiple listing service what safety precautions you’re expected to take.”
Moving forward, I suggest you have an in-depth conversation upfront with any agent you’re considering working with to find out what their practices are, not just when touring homes but also at signing. Find out how they communicate COVID cases, both within their office and to their clients. If you are ever concerned that your agent is not taking enough precautions, don’t be afraid to contact their office or end your relationship with them.
Good luck with the rest of your home-buying journey. I hope that you and your family can safely find a new home to call your own soon.