California's new stay-at-home order is beginning to slow local real estate activity — and forcing agents and brokers to brainstorm alternative marketing strategies — as homebuyers and sellers alike worry about the spread of the new coronavirus.
Guidance issued earlier this week by the California Association of Realtors trade group advises agents to do as much "virtual" sales activity as possible, including computerized home tours and inspections. It said property management and repairs may proceed the same as before.
Additionally, financial uncertainties that have accompanied the pandemic have led to new contingency agreements allowing parties to a transaction to back out or delay escrow closings if the buyer suddenly encounters financial difficulties related to the pandemic.
The virus-related challenges have sent shock waves through an industry that thrives on face-to-face interaction, open houses and in-person contact.
While industry leaders lobby the state to exempt real estate from the state order, as half a dozen other states have done, the result so far is a varied response as real estate industry professionals come up with their own interpretations of how to best carry out safe home sales.
Bakersfield Realtor Mary Christenson said she no longer shows properties in person to would-be buyers and instead relies on computer platforms offering virtual home tours.
Though helpful in many cases, she said, the situation is not ideal and has already dissuaded buyers who insist on walking through a home for sale before buying it.
"A person really wants to feel the ambiance of the home and see it in person before they make a decision to buy," Christenson said, adding that the severity of the challenge will be determined by how long coronavirus concerns persist.
Broker Frank St. Clair said he has taken a more lenient approach. Although he locks his office doors, avoids shaking hands and only sees clients by appointment — and only after they have been pre-approved for a home loan — he has no problem with at least a minimal level of personal contact.
"If someone wants to see one of my properties, I will be happy to show it to them," he said.
Other aspects of the sales process have been less problematic, local real estate professionals say, because of computer technology permitting computerized activities such as email-based document signings.
The CEO of the Bakersfield Association of Realtors, Kim Huckaby, said the pandemic has prompted the industry to search for new ways of doing business.
A spirit of collaboration was evident, she said, on a conference call Tuesday with several dozen brokers and sales managers. She said there was a healthy discussion of how to proceed with home sales without violating the state order.
"We're going to have to as a community work together and figure it out," she said. "It creates an opportunity to think about the transaction differently."
The timing has been unfortunate in that home sales typically pick up every year in spring. Observers say the local market has been very strong lately, with multiple offers on a single home and buyers willing to pay more than the listed price, because of a shortage of properties for sale during what had been a strong economy.
Already some transactions have fallen apart because of concerns about the virus.
The mother-son sales team of Sheeza and William Gordon said Wednesday they lost a deal recently when an investor from Los Angeles refused to visit a downtown Bakersfield property he had wanted to buy before the pandemic. The seller responded by marking down the price and putting the property back on the market.
While the Gordons reported closing three sales so far this week, they have also had to cancel a number of open houses altogether.
Sheeza said she and her son are open to showing properties in person as long as certain conditions are met, such as sanitary measures that might include the availability of sanitizing wipes outside the front door to protect interested buyers.
William Gordon, a longtime user of computer software allowing virtual home tours, said new language started showing up in sales contracts within the last two weeks reflecting uncertainties from the coronavirus.
The new contingencies allow both parties to postpone escrow closures by 30 days because of unforeseen delays, he said. The new clauses also allow the transaction to be canceled if the buyer loses income because of the virus or if both parties agree to walk away.
Home inspections are also being handled differently because of the pandemic, local appraiser Gary Crabtree said.
Lenders still want the inspections, he said, but they advise appraisers to wear masks and gloves. There's also new flexibility to cancel inspection appointments if anyone in the property is sick.
"Otherwise," he said, "it's business as usual."