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A real-estate sign stands in front of a west-end Toronto home on March 7, 2020.Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press

Realtors across Canada have been warned not to hold open houses in an attempt to clamp down on public gatherings and stop the novel coronavirus from spreading.

Days after two of the country’s biggest brokerages – Re/Max and Royal LePage – urged their members not to stage open houses, the two major industry groups in Ontario issued a similar directive. On Saturday, the Ontario Real Estate Association and Toronto Regional Real Estate Board cautioned their members against the practice.

Although the industry groups do not have authority to suspend open houses, their decision not to say anything until Saturday confused realtors and meant a slew of open houses were still taking place.

“They should have stepped up and had a strong position against open houses, even though agents could still do one. It would have sent a clearer message to agents and to the public,” said John Pasalis, president of Realosophy, an independent real estate brokerage in Toronto.

“Now they’re back-pedalling and it’s a confusing message to both agents and to the public," he said, adding their lack of leadership meant there were hundreds of open houses over the weekend, which put the public at risk and tarnished the image that most people have of the industry.

Sarah Richardson, a sales representative with Royal LePage Urban Realty in Toronto, said the vast majority of agents have stopped almost all sales in an effort to socially distance, but there are still some insisting on holding open houses.

“They’re finding themselves the target of much criticism from those of us who feel it’s not worth the risk and that open houses are not an essential service,” she said.

Late on Saturday, the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board said it would hide open houses on its websites and will not enforce rules that require listed properties to be available for showings and inspections. It made the statement nearly a week after the board said it was up to realtors and brokerages to make the decision.

Despite the economic uncertainty and growing number of novel coronavirus cases, properties in the Toronto region have continued to receive multiple offers and higher-than-asking prices.

In other Ontario cities such as Oshawa, Windsor and Kitchener, realtors are reporting high levels of activity. A detached house in Kitchener received 53 offers and sold for $491,000. The asking price was $299,900.

“So far, we have not seen anything that makes us think that we are going to have a drastic shift in activity,” said Christopher Alexander, Re/Max’s regional director for Ontario and Eastern Canada. “There is still a big housing shortage across the country, and interest rates are rock, rock bottom."

It’s a similar story in Montreal, where the market has been booming for the past two years.

“We put a property to market and got three offers,” said Amy Assaad, a realtor with Royal LePage Heritage. “We are still getting calls."

However, that interest may change in coming days with the economy unravelling as entire industries close, from tourism and recreation to manufacturing and accommodation.

A slowdown is beginning in other major cities that were either booming or recovering from stricter mortgage rules that went into effect in 2016 and 2018.

In Vancouver and Victoria, realtors say there are still some multiple offers, but calls are drying up. One Vancouver realtor said activity during the previous weekend was bumpy, with one property drawing many viewers, while others “were like ghost towns.”

Mike Stewart of Oakwyn Realty Downtown Ltd. in Vancouver put it this way: “We have cancelled all our open houses, and it is dead as a door nail out there."

B.C.'s real estate association and real estate board have also urged their members not to hold open houses.

In Ottawa, another city in which there’s been a jump in sales and double-digit price increases, some realtors said no one is calling.

“Everyone is in panic mode. We get a lot of calls, and it just stopped completely,” said David Haynes, a realtor with Royal LePage Team Realty in Ottawa. “If I get any calls, I am going to have to say, there are too many people saying I would rather not have any showings. I am going to say no.”

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