Kristine and Tom Salzmann had been waiting to put their South Surrey house on the market at the end of March, immediately after spring break, when families like theirs with small children would have returned from vacation.
But by mid-March COVID-19 had struck, and they had to revisit their strategy. Would they want people inside their home during a pandemic? And would they get low-ball offers from people assuming they were desperate? The Salzmanns had purchased a bare lot with Kristine’s parents on Vancouver Island, with plans to build a home. But they weren’t in a position where they had to sell right away, says their realtor Carly McClellan, who is also Ms. Salzmann’s cousin.
“I told [them] that this is an unprecedented time, and I was unsure of what the demand would be on the house,” Ms. McClellan says. “I’ve been a realtor for 12 years and of course have never been through this. No one has. It was very challenging to determine the level of activity we would be getting.”
They decided to proceed with the listing of their four-bedroom fully renovated house, but with many safety protocols in place. All buyers were screened. The listing agent made it clear to the other agents that only serious buyers who had the budget could come through the house. The buyer’s budget mattered more than preapproved financing, which currently doesn’t carry as much weight, Ms. McClellan says. That’s because a bank appraisal still has to be done after the deal is made and it could come in lower than the accepted offer. The bank could then decline to finance the buyer for the preapproved amount.
Ms. McClellan raised her marketing budget for all her listings, providing floor plans and videos of every space in the house so buyers could prescreen what they were getting. Ms. McClellan already included staging on homes priced at more than $1-million as part of her marketing package, and stager Janet Williams figured out a way to stage the house using the Zoom video app.
As well, anyone who entered the house would have to sign a waiver that they hadn’t been outside the country recently and weren’t showing flu symptoms. They could lie, of course, says Ms. McClellan, but people tend to be more honest when signing a form.
“And no one wants to be responsible for bringing COVID into a house,” she adds. “There’s that moral obligation.”
“We were definitely anxious about letting people into our home," Ms. Salzmann said. "But I think people were just as nervous viewing the home of someone they didn’t know.
"All the viewers followed the protocols we set out with our realtor in advance – we turned on all the lights and opened doors before we left, the viewers wore gloves, let Carly open and close cabinets and took turns coming into the house if they had children with them so that the kids could stay outside. When we came home, we wiped commonly used handles and surfaces with rubbing alcohol as a precaution.”
Buyers’ agents were told to provide gloves and masks, if they had them available. No children were allowed inside the house.
And then there was the pricing. The year had started off as a promising one for real estate, with a surge in Metro Vancouver sales that was 46.1 per cent higher than March 2019, and 17.4 per cent higher than February, 2020, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. But with the sudden public health crisis, Ms. McClellan couldn’t price the house based on those comparables, so she priced it according to the current listings in the area. The price wasn’t far off from pre-COVID prices. On April 2, they listed the house at $1.128-million and began receiving inquiries the next day.
Although fewer than 10 people ultimately saw the property, on April 4 they received an offer of $1.11-million, which they accepted. Three days later, they received a back-up offer, which is difficult to obtain and puts the seller in a power position because the first buyer now knows that there’s a serious offer waiting in the wings.
“The listing went up April 2, and we accepted an offer on April 4,” Ms. Salzmann said. “On April 15, the deal was finalized. We also received a back-up offer the following week, which certainly surprised us.”
The Salzmanns sold to the buyers who’d made the first offer, a young family who lived in a nearby townhouse and who wanted to up-size.
Ms. McClellan was surprised at how quickly the house sold. She had other listings that weren’t even getting showings, and that continue to sit on the market.
She says the market has slowed considerably and a market intelligence report released recently by the B.C. Real Estate Association forecasts a drop of home sales by 30 to 40 per cent for April, and a slump that will continue throughout the summer. Prices haven’t yet been affected and Ms. McClellan believes that’s because so many listings have come off the market. People aren’t selling unless they have to.
“I think everyone went into shock mode,” she says of the COVID-19 effect.
But the property showed well and it’s within walking distance of White Rock beach. And the sale proved that there are those buyers out there who know exactly what they want, which is why it sold quickly.
Ms. Williams, the owner of Magic Home Staging & Design, has asthma, so she is especially careful to follow all safety protocols. Luckily, she had been in the house prior to the lockdown and she’d taken measurements. She scaled down on the extent of the staging, however, and she dropped off a package of staging items on the driveway at a scheduled time. The items hadn’t been used for many months, but Ms. Williams still cleaned them and wore gloves when packing them up. Ms. Salzmann left them for several hours before bringing them into her house. They then scheduled a Zoom call and Ms. Williams instructed the Salzmanns on where to place each item.
“Everything takes twice as long this way,” says Ms. Williams, who’s been through the process a couple of times since. “I ask them to measure book shelves and the fireplace. Accessories have to be a certain height and width, and I have to figure out where it’s all going to go.”
Her work has changed in the era of COVID-19. She has started charging clients a cleaning fee, since it takes considerable time to disinfect everything that is placed inside a house.
Once the staging is done, she does not take the items back for safety reasons. So far, the realtor or homeowner has purchased the items once the property has sold, but she knows this is impractical and won’t become the norm. For one thing, it’s not easy to obtain new inventory with the shops closed. As well, not everyone is going to want to buy the items and not all realtors will want to store staging furniture. And some objects don’t lend themselves easily to cleaning, in which case they are destroyed.
Ms. Williams is not sure how her industry will survive the crisis. She’s in a better position than others because she’s also an interior decorator. Many stagers have the carrying costs of rented warehouses and storage lockers that are filled with furniture and accessories. In the United States, some stagers are going so far as burning items that were used for staging, she says.
“I don’t know what my staging business is going to look like after this. I think a lot of people [in my industry] won’t make it… Who knows what the future holds. Maybe realtors won’t use stagers anymore, or maybe stagers will have to reinvent themselves.”
Paul Friesen, owner of I Find It Inspections, had inspected the house for the buyers, and he says that while business is down 50 per cent, it’s still brisk. They’ve told their clients that they don’t have to attend the inspections and they will be able to see any deficiencies in photos and recordings. Almost everybody pays by e-transfer.
“You do not have to come to an inspection. Our reports are digital. Let’s say we see a big crack in the foundation, we will take a close-up photo and photos from a distance and measure it, and write a detailed inspection report.”
But it surprises Mr. Friesen that he and his staff are more conscientious about social distancing and safety protocols than his clients. About half of his clients insist that they attend the inspections, particularly the older demographic.
“What’s crazy is that people over 50 are showing up more than the younger generation … and those are the people most at risk.”
In terms of business, he had 25 inspections last week and he hasn’t had to lay off any of his staff or reduce their wages. He’s not completely without worries. He hasn’t spoken with his financial advisor as often as he has in the last month. But he said he’s feeling “blessed.”
“I did a $7-million house yesterday,” Mr. Friesen says. “People are still buying. I thought it was going to die off. We were worried the first week. And then the jobs kept coming in, and people were still working. And this week there are more clients than ever.
“I think May will be insane. I think the real estate market will open back up, based on figures we saw last year. So many people were sitting on the fence, but now we are seeing multiple offers on things priced well. We won’t see foreign money coming in and that gives a lot of people a chance to buy because they won’t compete with foreign money.
“I told the guys, ‘enjoy the time off, because we will hit the ground running come end of May.’”
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