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With the pubic-health crisis having worn out its welcome but seemingly not going anywhere, the questions of the local real-estate industry include:

• What permanent changes in industry practices might take place based on the events of the past year, and

• What changes are being seen in the local market in response to the pandemic?

The Sun Gazette surveyed some top local real-estate professionals and, as always, received some comprehensive answers.

Lori Shafran, Yeonas and Shafran Real Estate: “The COVID situation has had a huge ripple effect in not only the way we conduct business but even more importantly, the way potential home buyers are prioritizing their needs. It seems there has been a large paradigm shift away from buyers primarily looking at homes that are close and convenient to work with easy access to urban areas and, instead, buyers looking for homes focused on the quality of life for the entire family. In many cases, buyers are seeking homes with larger yards that have pools/tennis courts, houses with multiple options for rooms to be used as study/work spaces/home gyms, and homes in settings that offer more privacy. In particular, I’ve seen a tremendous increase in the number of people looking for homes in the community of Great Falls.”

Dee Murphy, Compass: COVID has required buyers to do more due diligence prior to touring homes. Photographs and details are examined closely, allowing buyers to rule out properties and also discover homes they might normally have eliminated at first glance. It’s a win for all parties involved.”

Archie Harders, Long & Foster: “Less communication/fewer meetings agent-to-agent. This means we don’t always know what’s going on industry-wide. Some owners are waiting to put properties on the market until this is over. We really don’t have buyers in our car anymore.”

Casey Samson, Samson Properties: COVID has advanced real estate 10 to 20 years. In 2020, Zoom became a very powerful tool for Realtors in communicating. In 2021, we will harness the power of Zoom to make our personal meetings with sellers far more valuable. Online marketing has been taken to new levels, which has helped sellers. There is a westward migration where sellers, who are no longer tethered to large employment centers, can buy larger homes. As more people work from home, look for people to convert their living rooms to a cool office/study/den/home studio, which will make the space the most valuable space in the home.”

Jack Shafran, Yeonas and Shafran Real Estate: “Business has gotten far more serious and specific and a little more efficient. The COVID situation has eliminated the lookers. Those in the market are serious buyers now."

Carol Temple, Caldwell Banker: “Broker open houses will be a thing of the past. Agents who show up for a free lunch seldom sell that property. Settlements/closings are much more efficient. No longer do I see buyers/sellers (and sometimes their children), multiple agents, etc. together around a table. Split settlements and use of e-notaries is increasing, which further streamlines the process. A written purchase offer for a property seen by a prospective buyer only on-line or via FaceTime increases the risk that a resulting contract could blow up. Listing agents should be cautious and hone their skills so that they work defensively to protect the seller.”

Dawn Wilson, TTR Sotheby’s International: We have been doing more buyer and seller consultations by video conference. That has been going very well, and we will likely continue that. This has been a good thing, as we are able to engage with clients face-to-face and answer their questions, yet meet with them at times that are convenient for them, even if it is late at night. They can have the consultations from the comfort of their own home. Clients with children especially appreciate that. They can put their children to bed and have a consultation without getting a sitter.”

Derrick Swaak, TTR Sotheby’s International: “Since the start of COVID, home buyers have shifted to larger, suburban single-family homes with adequate number of rooms to accommodate one or two home offices, as well as dedicated at-home exercise space. Purchasers also expect to stay in their homes a shorter amount of time – 10 years versus 15 years – than they did before the start of the pandemic. Perhaps the most permanent change is the use of technology to market the home: 27 percent of sellers utilized a ‘virtual tour’ compared to 16 percent of those pre-COVID. This reflects the buyers’ desire to review the home thoroughly before stepping inside. There are certain circumstances when buyers make an offer without actually having been in the property.”

Debbie McGuire, Compass: “It seems that everybody moved. All price ranges. Buyers wanted backyards, home offices, and areas for home-schooling. Downsizers found that they needed to stay in the big house for multi-generational living as the kids came home from schools. Real estate agents became marketing innovators. Virtual marketing accelerated. Video/FaceTime and Facebook Live became the norm. ‘Virtual’ listing appointments and staging on Zoom calls changed from in-person visits. Showing a house changed completely with the request to not touch anything, wear a mask and gloves, and use hand sanitizer, and minimize the people in the house by allowing two people at a time. As a buyer agent, you have to stick to your appointed time slot for showings. Open houses were/are a thing of the past. If it was not virtual, people lined up outside the open houses for hours to get in one at a time. Inventory levels are even lower than they were as many sellers decided not to list their house. “

Dave Adams, Coldwell Banker: “Since COVID, there has been less in-person interaction within our office and with some clients. We benefit from sharing experiences with our fellow agents and we miss the camaraderie. Some clients are hesitant to meet in person, so we utilize technology such as FaceTime, 3D virtual tours and integrated floor plans to maintain these client connections. I truly believe the advancement in technology is good for the industry and we take advantage of all innovations to stay up to date and ahead of the pack.”

Craig Burns, Keller Williams: “One thing about COVID is that both buyers and sellers are more willing to meet by phone or video-conferencing. In some situations, I have listed and sold homes that the seller was content with not doing an in-person interview. On the buyer side, I find more buyers are narrowing their searches online, much more than before COVID and are finding their home in under five showings. A negative change is that after losing a client to COVID, it added many layers of complications to the home-selling process. Sellers only want pre-qualified people in their homes, and buyers are more understanding of being pre-qualified and signing buyer-agency agreements before seeing a home.”

Steve Wydler, Wydler Brothers: “Buyers are spending more time consuming digital information before deciding to see a property. Agents have stepped up their game and are providing more online information and offering ‘virtual’ showings. Actual showings in today’s world tend to be higher quality, because buyers have vetted the property more. People are spending more time than ever in their homes and have become keenly aware of the benefits/deficiencies. There has been a huge increase in home renovations and a new de-urbanization trend. We believe this trend will continue. More and more deals are happening off-market. Buyers and sellers are seeking top agents who are tapped into the local community with big networks and in large brokerages.”

Joan Stansfield, Keller Williams: “At the onset of the pandemic, inventory was already slim, and with sellers wanting to protect their health, inventory got tighter, as no one wanted to expose themselves unnecessarily. However, the rise in prices got smart sellers off the bench, which is great for the economy. One negative COVID has had on the market is how extremely competitive it is for today’s buyers, who remain out there in force due to the low rates. My team actually works harder and smarter now to sell a home ‘virtually,’ gathering floorplans in advance as well as creating a detailed walk-through video tour. I now require a pre-approval letter from a buyer’s lender before committing to a showing of a listing, which decreases the number of looky-loos who just want to tour homes. Buyers, sellers and their agents all seem to be taking their job and the process more seriously, which is refreshing.”

Karen Briscoe, Huckaby, Briscoe, Conroy Realty Group, Keller Williams: The biggest shift and change is how people look at their homes, to use them now for work, to educate, for exercise and not to just live and dine. Single-family houses have become more of the thing. People need more flex spaces now and their needs have expanded. I think this will be the feeling for a long time. ”

Dean Yeonas, Yeonas and Shafran Real Estate: There are more ‘virtual’ meetings than ever before. But the fundamental change is more people have decided to stay in place than before. So there is less single-family home inventory than ever. We wrote a contract on a house recently that was one of 23 contracts. Every seller and buyer has different protocols when viewing a house. Some don’t want anyone around and others just want everyone wearing masks. Everyone has to adjust their levels of comfort.”

Betsy Twigg, McEnearney Associates: “People are not leaving  their houses and putting them on the market because of the risk. Those in condos need and want more space. So they want to get into a single-family home faster than planned. They need more space to educate their kids and other reasons. Because of this, the condo inventory in Arlington has increased 500 percent, while the single-family inventory has decreased.”

Mark Middendorf, Long & Foster: COVID has certainly streamlined real estate. Unfortunately, it is not the social process it used to be . Open houses, broker open houses and even previewing have diminished significantly. What is so astonishing is that, even in a worldwide pandemic, the values in our real-estate market continue to escalate. I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised after 32 years in real estate; we are fortunate enough to have a wall around us compared to most of the country.”

Craig Mastrangelo, Compass: “Real-estate agents began embracing live open-house tours at the beginning of the pandemic, utilizing social services such as Instagram Live to promote their listings while engaging the buying public online. This tool will continue beyond the pandemic, because it is such an easy way to engage the buying public, while allowing them to decide, remotely, if this is a home they want to tour in person. In-person tours have been altered, as the amount of time per tour has been reduced to accommodate one tour per agent, and even during public open houses, agents are limiting the number of people touring a home at once to promote social-distancing. Thus, whatever Realtors can do to promote their listings via video, will have a lasting impact for years to come.”

Carol Ellickson, TTR Sotheby’s International: “The big change is doing a lot of FaceTiming. Viewing one home, the listing agent who also was the seller, gave the tour as I Face Timed my buyers. She got to know my buyers on the tour as they asked many questions, and that personal touch made all the difference. My buyers made the offer on the home sight-unseen, and the listing agent/seller accepted. In March, things slowed down a bit, but Realtors adjusted quickly to meet the needs. The sellers of well-priced homes in great condition are still looking at multiple offers with no contingencies. Buyers in certain price ranges are writing great offers on one home after another until their offer is accepted, and some are waiting for a more balanced market. Another aspect is that the criteria of buyers has changed to looking for more space, home offices, outdoor kitchens, bigger yards and pools. Buyers are moving out of more urban areas to less densely populated areas. I see this trend continuing.”

Casey Margenau, Casey Margenau Fine Homes & Estates: “Before the pandemic, homeowners were downsizing. They wanted small, in-town properties with more walkability options and no maintenance and land. Then, in about a month, everything changed. Now, everyone has learned you can do it all at home – work, cook, have more space and land. A lot of people who never cooked before are cooking now. The big house has become a compound. Great Falls became popular again. Condos aren’t COVID-friendly. People aren’t spending money on vacations, so home renovations have become popular. I believe that trend is here to stay.”

Rob Ferguson, Re/Max Allegiance: “Peoples’ timeframes have sped up and they are making decisions a lot faster than before. They want to move now. The markets farther out like in Leesburg, the Chesapeake Bay and the Shenandoah Valley areas, and the resorts-type properties in Bethany and Rehoboth beaches, are on fire and selling like crazy. People want to move away from the population.”

David Howell, McEnearney Associates: “We all learned to pivot quickly and conduct business in a more ‘virtual’ way – from appointments with clients to showings of property to conducting settlements. The physical location of where work is done has certainly changed. This metro area has the highest percentage of employees who can telework, and as more people spend more time at home, many have chosen to seek more elbow room and change their housing since they can work from anywhere. I do think that some of these changes will be long-lasting, but we human beings crave personal connections. Those who can continue to telework will likely do so, but not 100 percent of the time. We may have Zoom-fatigue, but I suspect some of that will always be with us now – honestly, because it saves time. But once our community-at-large feels safe to interact in person on a regular basis, we absolutely will.”

Jean Beatty, McEnearney Associates:  “One of the largest impacts on the real-estate industry because of COVID is the change in how we meet with our clients. Zoom meetings with prospective clients have now become the norm whereas before that was not the case. There are pros and cons to this. On the positive side, the safety level for real-estate agents is improved. However, meeting online is not the same as meeting in person, and the inability to look your prospective client in the eye to tell whether or not it will be a good fit has been a challenge. Only time will tell if Zoom meetings are here to stay, but it has definitely been of help to clients who are relocating from other parts of the country and would not have been able to meet with their agent prior to their move.”

Barbara Lewis, Washington Fine Properties: “Buyers are being very selective on what they want to see, since they do not want to go into too many homes. Settlements are being done remotely now that lenders are accepting power-of-attorney verifications remotely. This is very convenient for buyers and sellers, and will hopefully remain even after the pandemic ends. A big change and advantage has been that office meetings are on Zoom, either with live interactions or by telephone. This makes attendance easy for a lot of people with busy schedules. Again, I hope this option will remain after COVID.”

Gloria Adams, TTR Sotheby’s International: “The way we conduct open houses and/or show properties was changed.  A good thing for the current situation but I believe we will return to past practices after pandemic is over.”

Natalie Roy, Keller Williams: “The new normal now includes masks, gloves, Zoom sessions, social-distancing, sanitizer, plexiglass and car closings. Hopefully much of this will be in the rearview mirror post-pandemic. One positive that could be here permanently, ‘virtual’ pre-closing sessions.  Many of my clients have appreciated pre-settlement Zoom sessions to go over their closing paperwork. These virtual sessions help ensure buyers and sellers are better prepared when they sign the final paperwork. Another positive that might be here to stay: no overlapping showings.”

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