The “Dollhouse” view of a Dartmouth house for sale, via Matterport 3D.

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Karen Bingham is reluctant to let people know she’s still doing her job because of the likelihood of online backlash.

But the Lower Sackville-based real estate agent said in the last two weeks, she’s had two clients who would have been homeless if realtors were not permitted to work during this pandemic.

“Both of them, the two sets of clients, would have been homeless. One had her living arrangement coming to an end and she had no place to go after that, and the other one I had sold their house before all this,” Bingham said.

Karen Bingham

“The house they were thinking they were going to move into fell through because of conditions, and they were in a panic…Everything we put an offer on was going into multiple offer situations and going way over the asking prices. She works as a nurse and It was very stressful.”

Although her client did finally find a home, Bingham said she likely settled for less than what she wanted. But at least she now has a safe place to wait out the pandemic.

Like so many aspects of our lives, the real estate industry has had to pivot to adapt to the challenges presented by COVID-19.

Real estate services are not deemed essential in Nova Scotia during the pandemic. However, taking the province’s online ‘Employer Assessment Tool’ indicates that agents can continue to work provided that public health guidelines are followed.

Scott Grace, broker/owner of Exit Real Estate Professionals, said his brokerage has experienced an 80 to 85% drop in new business since the province implemented its state of emergency.

Despite that, the firm still has multiple closings to complete and numerous cases where people simply need to access its services.

“We have a situation where some people are military, or RCMP, and they have their posting message. Some people have their homes sold in Vancouver, Toronto, or wherever,” Grace said.

“Even here locally, lots of people have their homes already sold and we need to help them find a place to move to. It’s just a necessity where a lot of folks just can’t wait. Life happens and they just can’t get away from it unfortunately.”

Grace said although he and his agents have experienced some blowback online for still operating, he believes it’s important for them to continue providing services to those who require them.

“It’s pretty important to have a place to lay your head, especially when you’re under a stay at home order,” he said.

“So where is home? What if you’ve sold your home and that closes in two or three weeks and you don’t have a home yet?”

Grace said he’s helping ensure the safety of his agents and clients by providing masks and gloves, items he purchased in bulk in mid-January as he watched news reports of COVID-19 making its way through China.

He said he hopes that those lashing out at his industry put themselves “in the shoes of the person who’s going to be homeless in three or four weeks” if they can’t access real estate services.

“It definitely is a reality (the prospect of homelessness), especially with the rental market. We have a vacancy rate of less than 1% in HRM right now. It is hard to find a rental,” he said.

“So if you sold your home and you’re staying in the Halifax area, and you can’t rent a home, you need to buy. For a lot of people they are just stuck.”

Grace had previously invested in Matterport 3D, a software which allows potential buyers to take a virtual walk-through of a home like this one in Dartmouth.

Before the state of emergency was issued, agents wanting to use that software had to pay a fee. He’s now offering it to them for free to help facilitate virtual viewings and cut down on the number of in-person showings.

Scott Grace

“What we do is a couple hundred scans, 360 degree scans around the home, so a 200 square foot living room we would do probably eight scans in that living room. It meshes everything together,” he explained.

“That allows buyers to essentially shop. Right now we’re trying to avoid tire kickers and window shoppers and people that would not be serious, trying to cut down on traffic going through homes.”

The technology, he said, allows buyers to view homes and make an offer without seeing the home, conditional upon an actual showing.

But not every company uses Matterport software.

So what are people in the local industry doing to make it as safe as possible to buy or sell a home during COVID-19?

Many who spoke with the Halifax Examiner outlined how for initial consultations, they’re meeting with clients exclusively online or speaking with them via phone before deciding on next steps.

There are no longer multiple in-person home viewings. Clients are being encouraged to browse online with their agents and narrow their prospects down to one property.

“I think I am working more now because before you’d be able to see five houses at a time, but now as soon as one is on the market I have to see it that day,” Bingham said.

“Before it would be once a week, twice a week I’d show houses because you’d show a pile all at the same time. Now each one is individual, and each one takes longer because you’re trying to clean as you’re going.”

Realtors are using masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer and observing physical distancing. They also follow a strict “hands in your pockets” rule when going through homes. Only agents are permitted to touch a surface, and only if absolutely necessary.

“Anything I touch, I wipe down. I wipe off the door knobs, light switches, everything. I clean those houses more than I clean my own,” Bingham joked.

“I just wouldn’t want anybody to get sick…It is a really scary time for a real estate agent because you really can’t say ‘No, I can’t find you a house,’ so I felt the need that I had to go do this. I try to be as safe as I possibly can.”

Natalie Muise is a real estate agent with RE/MAX nova. In addition to always using hand sanitizer, gloves, masks, and practicing physical distancing, she said real estate agents are requesting sellers ensure all lights are left on prior to a showing. All doors, including closet and pantry doors, must also be left open to help minimize the degree of contact with surfaces.

Natalie Muise

She outlines how she now works with a new client looking to buy a home.

“Initially I show a video, not just a virtual tour. It’s about nine minutes long and it starts with the whole house, inside out, focusing on the walls and the floors. Nobody wants to see the furniture, they want to see the details so we focus more on those details as opposed to staging a house,” Muise explained.

“The video is literally details. Countertops, things like that. You can’t have them be disappointed and get in there and say well I didn’t see how rough those baseboards were. Staging on listings is to actually entice people, whereas the video is to say ‘You can’t go in, so let’s get down into the nitty gritty and show you what it’s all about.’”

Once serious interest in a property has been established, Muise said an appointment is set up with the sellers.

“When I’m in there, I wipe down surfaces that might be touched, like countertops and door knobs. If you’ve touched it, wipe it,” she said.

“That way people can come back and not feel all freaked out and worried that they can’t use the bathroom or live in their own space. It is pretty intense in that way.”

Muise said her brokerage also has waivers that both sellers and buyers must sign, answering questions like whether they’ve been out of the province or country in the last two weeks.

Besides people who are moving here from elsewhere for a job, or those who sold a home pre-pandemic and found themselves without one, Muise points to those who can no longer afford their homes due to financial constraints brought on by COVID-19.

“You could also be a person who can’t afford your home anymore, so you need to list it to sell it before you lose it and you lose the equity that you have in that house,” she said.

“If all of a sudden because of COVID-19 you can’t afford that house because you aren’t working, you have to have that solution to be able to sell it.”

Muise’s biggest message for anyone who needs the services of a real estate agent is that those who have chosen to keep working are strictly following all guidelines to ensure everyone’s safety.

“Just like they had trust in us before when we were viewing a property not to take anything or damage anything, trust us that we are also going to ensure that every protocol is followed,” she said. “It’s really important to reiterate that we’re following all the health authority guidelines and there is nothing we are doing to put anyone in danger, not ourselves or clients.”

Matthew Honsberger

Matthew Honsberger, president of Royal LePage Atlantic, said he’s proud of not only his own agents, but those throughout the local industry. He said across the board, what he’s heard is that everyone is taking the pandemic very seriously.

“What we’ve seen is people who need to do business are still out there doing it, but for the majority, the people who don’t have to buy right now or have the ability to delay, they are looking to delay at this point,” Honsberger said.

“We’re kind of actively promoting that. The way that we’ve approached this and what I’ve said to my agents here from day one is here are your priorities folks. Your first and foremost is your own health and safety, the health and safety of your family, your coworkers, your clients, and the health and safety of our communities.”

His agents are among the many who now do online shopping with their clients virtually in order to narrow down a property that might be ‘the one.’ The only people permitted to do a walk-through are the decision makers and the realtor. No children. No extended family members. No friends.

“Where the realtor helps a lot is that the realtor has probably actually walked through a lot of these homes and can give some of the flavour that doesn’t exist online,” he said.

“To say, ‘Yes it does look very nice, but I’ve been there, the backyard is pretty small on that one, that’s why they don’t have a picture of it,’ that kind of thing.”

Honsberger said besides people who need to move because of a job relocation or because they’d previously sold their home, there are other situations that might require a residential real estate transaction.

“There are a whole host of reasons why people move, and need is a different thing for a lot of people. What if you’ve recently divorced or are in a difficult divorce or something like that and have to sell your house so you can both move on with your lives,” Honsberger said.

“It may be well and good to say just wait until the summer for that. Well, I can tell you a lot of the clients I’ve dealt with years ago would say three months in isolation with the person that I’m in the middle of divorcing now is not exactly a comfortable scenario.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. My 75 yo parents sold their house this last month and are moving today. Definitely made me nervous but really appreciate everyone taking extra precautions.