Real estate agents who normally look to spring for a boost in home listings have turned to technology for a new way to sell houses and list properties in the face a pandemic that put the state, and their profits, on pause. 

“In March we were doing tremendously well just as an industry. Our numbers were up, our pending properties that were in contract and properties that we’re selling were up. It was a very active market,” Aaron Velez of Houlihan Lawrence Somers said.

“Then, of course, the executive order came down on the 16th. It stated that the real estate industry was nonessential and it prevented Realtors from engaging in in-person activities with clients. That was the main issue with conducting business, is it’s a very personal business.”

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But due to COVID-19 restrictions and an uncertain future, the industry took a nose dive.

“Over the first two and a half to three weeks, the market pretty much stopped,” said Lou Cardillo of Keller Williams in Mahopac.

“People were concerned, but they didn’t know what to expect. So people stopped looking at houses on the market.”

Real estate agents are seeing a decline in sales compared to the same time last year in Westchester County, but some found Putnam County wasn’t hit as hard. 

“As far as the market, just statistically, of course the markets are going to be down right now. Westchester County, as far as what has gone into contract versus this year to last year, is probably off about 40 percent where Putnam County is not,” said Joan Mancini of Mancini Realty. “They are just about even where they were. I think it’s just about where you’re living, how it impacted you.”

With the stay-at-home order, agents found people were hesitant to list their homes for sale. 

“The pandemic has created a shortage of inventory which has definitely impacted business,” said Marcie Nolletti of Coldwell Banker. “There are also many guidelines that must be followed, but of course people still need to buy or sell homes. Guidelines can be followed and business can still be conducted. People are now looking at their current living situations and finding that they would like to move to homes that have bigger floor plans or larger yards. Home is becoming a key word and it has impacted so many people’s lives.”

The hope, however, is that real estate agents can use technology to help home sellers and buyers feel safe while the industry recovers. 

“Now, more than ever, social media is so important,” said Deb Bravoco of Coldwell Banker in Yorktown. “I’ve been posting virtual showings of listings on all social media outlets. The photographer makes a beautiful and impactful virtual tour. Unlike your conventional photograph, it’s a 360-degree image that shows an entire room.”

Before the pandemic, virtual walkthroughs were used to pique buyer interest, but it’s now become the standard way to tour a property. 

“Virtual tours and walkthroughs, primarily used prior to the epidemic as a way for buyers to ‘see’ the property online before coming for a viewing, have now become the primary way for buyers to see the property,” said Hope Mazzola of William Raveis in Katonah. “We are unable to perform walkthroughs for closings and all closings occur virtually, as well. The closings I had these last few weeks were facilitated by hiring the home inspector to conduct the walkthrough. I was not present at the property, nor at the closing. It has definitely taken some of the celebration out of the event, but new buyers are happy to be in their homes.”

So showings are still taking place, but without the agent and with restrictions for potential buyers, too. 

“Buyers are limited to two at a time wearing full PPE, mask, gloves and booties. They are asked to take them with them when they leave,” Mazzola said. “Everyone’s a little nervous about having strangers in their homes, so we’re trying to reassure everyone by taking extra precaution. Hand sanitizer is a popular and well-received gift.”

Larry Zacks of Re/Max in Somers saw an increase in the number of houses sold just before the stay-at-home orders took effect and people rushed to get into contract before nonessential businesses shut down.

“We’ve been stymied by the quarantine during the highest time period. Now it’s starting to loosen up and as we’ve started to adapt to selling virtually,” Zacks said, “we’ve been utilizing videos to show the interior of the home and the exterior. So, a picture is worth 1,000 words; you could say a video is worth 10,000 words. Unfortunately, we didn’t know this was coming to plan for it, although this has helped propel our industry decades faster. Necessity is the mother of invention and it became a necessity to operate in this manner.”

Elizabeth Boucher of Houlihan Lawrence in Katonah also said the stay-at-home orders didn’t leave much time to prepare, but the real estate office adapted quickly.

“We had no time to prepare for this change but were able to pivot quickly because Houlihan Lawrence already had many tools in place that work virtually,” Boucher said. “Within days we were holding our office meetings remotely, ensuring that our agents were well-informed on the laws, how we could conduct business under the law and how to protect the health and safety of our clients. Communication was and continues to be imperative as these are unprecedented times. We learned about how to use different apps and programs in order to communicate with each other and our clients.”

There may be an upside, however, for real estate agents in the suburbs. Many expect a boom in sales as people look to relocate from the city and other crowded areas.

“What we expect to see is an exodus from the city. People want to have more room. They don’t want to live in high-rise apartment buildings, they don’t want to be stuck having to take an elevator with strangers. Having your own space is now going to be even more desirable,” Zacks said. 

He added that after restrictions lift, people will still be working from home, so they will seek comfortable spaces to make their home base.

Mazzola echoed those sentiments and said the pent-up buyer demand will drive the spring and summer market.
“Once we begin to reopen business, the state will see a surge of new listings and equally as many buyers making offers,” Mazzola said. “With interest rates still low and the pandemic deeply affecting the city dwellers, this has created an impetus for the big move to the suburbs. Those who were considering it seem more committed to finding their new suburban lifestyle.”

Boucher said the market will continue to thrive despite mainly operating virtually as of now.

“With low inventory, and not a lot of homes anticipated coming on in the near future, we should expect steady pricing,” Boucher said. “Despite the fact that buyers are often only seeing properties virtually, online or through Facebook or Zoom, they are putting in offers and often competing at all price levels. Multiple offers are happening at all price points.”

“There’s pent-up demand and that’s what we all feel, to be quite honest,” Velez said. “There was a huge buyer base at the end of February. We were selling a lot of homes. The average sale prices were going up. We were selling more homes than we were last year, and then this came. So that demand necessarily changed, so our anticipation is because our sold activity is relatively stable, we’ll see an influx once our industry is back.”