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Realtors push back on non-essential sales, adopt safety measures amid outbreak


TORONTO — The coronavirus outbreak is pushing some realtors to turn away all but the most desperate clients, while others are adopting extraordinary measures in an effort to help maintain social distancing and stem the spread of the pandemic.

Darren Slavens, a broker and vice-president at Toronto-based Slavens and Associates, says he has seen many agents decline to put out new listings or hold showings in order to do their part to fight the virus, but not everyone's doing so.  

"It's a question of making sure everybody's safe. We're told to self-isolate, we're told to stay in, so how do you purchase a property, why are people still out there looking to purchase a property if that's the case?"

Real estate boards have recommended against open houses and even any in-person sales activity, but even doing things remotely through video and virtual tours requires a team to go through the house including stagers, photographers, and a floor plan assessor, he said. 

Slavens said he's concerned that because the market was in such a frenzy before the outbreak hit, new listings are too tempting for those who were in the market.

"When properties are put out, it's like putting candy in front of a baby, we can't expect our buyers to not want to go out and see these properties."

He said he's only helping clients who are truly in a bind, such a family who recently moved from the U.K. and are stuck in an Airbnb, but doesn't think people should be listing properties if they don't have to.

"Bringing out something because someone wants to sell right now is just wrong, it's wrong." 

Said Warde, a Toronto-based realtor with Royal LePage, said he's only taking out people who are in a situation where they need to buy, and would try to dissuade those simply looking for a bargain from shopping for a home right now.

"Some buyers might a bit selfishly, if they're not in the need, try to sort of score a deal and take advantage of the fact that there's less competition going on, but if that's going to be your strategy, and that's not something you need to do, I would talk you out."

Ontario Real Estate Association president Sean Morrison said the designation of realtors in the province as an essential service means it should be used only when necessary.

"This should only be for essential transactions at this point, this is not business as usual."

The association has particularly urged realtors to recommend clients avoid in-person showings when the homes are occupied by tenants, who otherwise often have little say in the matter.   

Morrison said that overall the board is definitely seeing a drop in activity, but that it's too soon to say what kind of long-term impact the outbreak might have.

The Quebec Professional Association of Real Estate Brokers said Wednesday in a release that the number of sales in the Montreal area is growing at a slower pace than in previous weeks, but is still higher than it was last year during the same period.

The association, however, notes that new listings are down and it says that "the number of listings should drop rapidly in the coming weeks," because of government action on the virus.

Those realtors who are still showing properties are taking increasingly stringent precautions.

Alaina Burnett, a realtor with ReMax in Vancouver, said the company has come out with a waiver for showings that instructs clients not to touch anything and not to bring children if they can't be controlled.

She said she's also driving to showings in separate vehicles from clients, keeping a distance in the homes, using lots of hand sanitizer and even taking fire escape staircases to avoid the confined space of elevators.

"We just have to do it in as cautious a way as we can."

She said she's still seeing a fair bit of activity, with 201 new listings and 136 units sold Wednesday in just the areas of the city she monitors for clients.

"Things are still being listed and still selling, so things are chugging along." 

She said she tries to lay out the situation to clients but that it's ultimately up to them to decide.

"People have to weigh the risks with their own personal needs and agendas."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2020.

Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press

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