House-hunting? In the age of coronavirus, you might have to do virtual tours

By Jack Flemming

Many of Los Angeles’ top real estate brokerages — including Compass, Douglas Elliman, Hilton & Hyland and Deasy Penner Podley — are telling their agents to work from home as the area deals with the spread of coronavirus.

The office closures arrive after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday advised against gatherings of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks. As of Tuesday, there were more than 140 cases of the virus reported in Los Angeles County, an increase of 50 overnight.

It will likely be a big adjustment for many agents, who usually rely on person-to-person interaction to show listings and close deals. Many open houses planned for this week have been canceled.

On Monday, Compass sent out a nationwide memo to its staffers offering advice on setting up virtual house tours, adding that it’s currently working on additional online tools to aid the process. It noted that agents can still decide to give in-person tours of their properties.

Deasy Penner Podley is encouraging its agents to take a similar route, whether that means using a 3-D tour to market homes online or FaceTiming with prospective buyers instead of meeting up.

Lynwen Hughes, Deasy Penner Podley’s vice president, said the company has an online bidding platform in place to sell homes, and it’s working on expanding its use. She added that many agents have canceled showings and broker open houses, except for a few she’s seen advertised as a “social distancing broker open.”

“Sellers still need to sell, and buyers need to buy. When there’s financial uncertainty, buyers turn to real estate as a safe haven,” Hughes said.

Seattle-based brokerage Redfin went as far as to cancel all open houses on properties listed by their agents and are restricting private in-person tours to two people at a time. During those tours, agents will maintain a distance of six feet from customers and won’t shake hands or enter small bathrooms or crawl spaces.

Westside Estate Agency announced a similar strategy Tuesday, canceling all open houses and offering private one-at-a-time tours only with the approval of the seller.

Hilton & Hyland, a brokerage based in Beverly Hills, is having employees work from home in accordance with the city’s directive.

Because of historically low mortgage rates, however, one staffer said a decline in sales is unlikely. As the average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage dropped to 3.29% in early March, a buyer scooped up an $850,000 home in Woodland Hills listed by the firm without even visiting the property.

Last week, The Times reported that home-buying demand has held up despite coronavirus concerns, but Realtors are remaining cautious.

According to a recent survey from the California Assn. of Realtors, a third of California agents reported changes in seller behavior — such as canceling open houses or requiring buyers to take off their shoes and use hand sanitizer before entering a home. However, only 4% had clients remove homes from the market because of coronavirus fears.

The same survey found that 21% of California Realtors reported a decrease in buyer interest because of the coronavirus, but 9% reported an increase.

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