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Rose Bigornia always wants the homes she’s showing potential buyers to be as clean as a whistle. But lately, in keeping with COVID-19 measures, she’s ramped up her sanitation efforts to levels never seen before.

Before conducting a home visit, Bigornia, a realtor with Century 21 Bachman & Associates, sends clients strict instructions: touch as little as possible, use hand sanitizer before and after leaving the home, and maintain as much distance from each other as possible.

Purchasing a house is a very tactile thing: prospective buyers love to touch every surface and inspect materials with a fine-tooth comb before hopefully sealing the deal with a firm handshake. It’s become much more clinical, and the typical handshake that’s become representative of the real estate profession? Don’t even think about it.

"It’s making things very unusual," said Bigornia, who focuses on residential real estate. "But then, this whole thing is very unusual, and it’s better to be safe."

Ned Sanders would rather be out showing houses to prospective clients, but instead, the only house he’s seen much of lately is his own.

The realtor with RE/MAX Associates has two active listings — one in Winnipeg, one in the Interlake region — but has had several prospective listings temporarily put on hold, directly related to COVID-19.

"I find this situation has been stressful for my sellers," said Sanders, who has largely been sequestered in his home office for precautionary reasons. "We’re all trying as best as we can to make the right decisions."

Al Shrupka, a co-owner of RE/MAX Associates, agreed. At every level of his company, physical distancing and best practices are being taken incredibly seriously.

"We don’t even allow our mailman in," he said.

Agents have adopted similarly strict protocols.

Some agents, who might normally drive buyers to and from multiple listings, are telling their clients to take their own vehicles. Pre-purchase screenings are common, but a new question has been added for RE/MAX clients, Shrupka said: Have you travelled out of the province, and do you have any symptoms that our realtor should be aware of?

"We’re saying if you have travelled out of the province in any manner, you are to self-isolate," Shrupka said. "If your clients have done that, you can’t deal with them for 14 days."

So far, nobody has found that request unreasonable and refused to co-operate. "If they get mad, they’re probably not a good client anyway," Shrupka said.

But the showings that do go on are being done as carefully as possible, Shrupka said. Some agents are asking viewers to wear gloves and to come alone, with no spouses or children. One realtor is not allowing any viewers to open the door; only she can do so.

Open houses, for now, are closed. The Manitoba, Winnipeg, and Brandon realty associations have suspended the public sales method. Peter Squire, the Winnipeg Realtors Association’s vice-president of external relations, said the option for registering an open house in the provincial multiple-listing system has been removed.

For realtors like Sanders and Bigornia, the situation has led to some changes from normal practices. Sanders is resorting largely to web-based communication. "Thank god for the internet," he said.

Upon request, Bigornia is taking videos of herself walking through properties and sending them to buyers to take them on an in-house tour that doesn’t require them to go outside.

Shrupka said for realtors, virtual tours are a terrific asset. "But the reality is when people make a house purchase, they ultimately want to see the home," he added.

Sanders and Bigornia each agreed. "I don’t believe in purchasing something you haven’t seen in person," Bigornia said. It’s a challenging situation for realtors and sellers hoping to close deals in the time of COVID-19.

Squire said so far, listings have managed to stay afloat. Between March 16 and 22, 487 new listings went up on the MLS, while during that week, there were 287 sales — 40 more than during the third week of March 2019. Condo sales are down slightly compared to last year, but the detached and single-family house market appears strong, he said.

There have, however, been over 20 listing withdrawals, which Squire points out account for less than one per cent of total listings in the system. However, most or all appear to be in direct response to concerns over COVID-19, he said.

But even as sales stay strong, realtors are keenly aware that could shift rather quickly. The possibility that all viewings, not just open houses, are postponed is something many realtors are privately preparing for.

"We’re on new ground here," said Sanders.

"Who knows how it’s going to affect the overall market?" Bigornia wondered.

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
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