Coronavirus slows, but doesn’t stop Bay Area real estate agents

Realtor Alan Wang sat on the sidelines for two weeks.

The government had called his work nonessential, the grand opening of his Santa Clara office was scotched by a shelter-in-place order, and he spent more time with his children’s homework than selling homes.

The veteran Silicon Valley agent just earned a work-release, of sorts. The government lock-down on real estate sales loosened last week — agents and other professionals were deemed essential workers — but strict Bay Area guidelines banned open houses and close contact.

Bay Area agents, inspectors and homebuyers waiting for the green light — and not all did — accelerated swiftly back into action. Wang escorted a young couple around an immaculate Eichler for sale in Foster City — four bedrooms, 1,700 square feet and $1.6 million of sweetness.

The only thing missing was a handshake. But despite the rubber gloves, paper masks and social-distancing dances from room to room, the deal was near.

“Scale of 1 to 10,” Wang asked his clients, “what do you give it?”

The couple, Nicole Huang and Steve Young, gave it close to a perfect 10. “If this was three weeks ago, we would have been fighting for this place,” Huang said. “It’s an opportunity.”

Even though restrictions were loosened, agents were given plenty of caveats:  no flyers, appointments only, no more than two family members in a house. Once inside, social distancing mandates apply. Homes must be unoccupied by sellers.

“Virtual showings are highly encouraged,” advised public health officials in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

But in the touchy-feely world of residential real estate, pictures and videos can only carry a buyer’s imagination, heart and checkbook so far. Agents are driving back into the neighborhoods with gloves, masks and as much hand sanitizer as they can get.

The $445 billion residential and commercial real estate industry in California has been a vital fuel in the state’s economy. Sky-high prices for Bay Area homes have made multimillionaires out of long-time homeowners and long-time renters our of would-be owners.

The regional housing market had begun to rebound in the first two months of the year, with solid gains in median home prices and strong buyer demand after a flattening of prices in 2019. But the lockdowns, stock market turmoil and long-term uncertainty caused by the pandemic have slowed Bay Area listings and sales.

Bay Area transactions in March and April tumbled from the same time last year, and buyers and sellers backed out of more deals, according to MLSListings data from the counties of San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey. It’s still unclear what restrictions apply to people who want to move.

The number of home sales in escrow that fell through increased by 50 percent from the same time last year. Twice as many sellers pulled their properties from the market in the past two months compared with last year. The total number of home sales fell 9 percent, according to an analysis by MLSListings done for this news organization.

The initial shelter-in-place guidelines — loosely enforced and largely self-regulating — were ignored by some agents seeing loopholes and looking to please clients. Some continued to advertise open houses and broker tours until MLSListings disabled the feature March 21 on its database.

The pressure to hit sales goals, satisfy clients and score deals kept many agents busy despite concerns about the coronavirus.

Will Doerlich, a San Ramon agent with Realty One Group, said showings have slowed down dramatically during the lockdown, but he opened a few vacant houses to insistent clients. He pulled on a pair of gloves and a mask, unlocked the door and let the buyers tour the property themselves.

“When it comes down to it, it’s the client’s decision,” he said. “If they have a pressing need, you have to respect that.”

Another couple Doerlich was helping bid on a house they saw just before the lockdown, he said. They thought they would have one of the only offers. But about 10 other bids came in — with many shoppers likely seeing the home during the black-out period, he said.

Wang said a client called to set up a home tour shortly after the shelter-in-place order came down. Wang apologized, saying they could make the tour only after the county loosened restrictions. Last week, Wang called the client back — but he had already visited the home with another agent.

“Some agents have been following the rules,” Wang said. “Some have not.”

CAR has urged members to follow local rules, but some remain confused about the policies, said Dave Walsh, a San Jose agent and president-elect of the Realtors group. Lenders, escrow agents and some county clerk offices remained open during the shelter-in-place, while other parts of the home-selling business were closed.

“It’s clearly in the code of ethics that you obey the law,” Walsh said. The association has daily updates and video-conferencing to answer questions, and share tips for safe, private showings.

In curbing the pandemic’s spread, he added, agents “need to play our role.”

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