From financial worries to inviting strangers into your home, COVID-19 has put a chill on real estate

Most years, spring is the hottest period for Edmonton real estate agents, the market bursting with new houses up for sale and an influx of customers heading out for open houses. 

But with market listings already down to a fraction of pre-pandemic normal, Edmonton’s Tom Shearer is crossing his fingers that the season has just been postponed.

“This is unlike any spring that I’ve ever seen in my entire career,” Shearer, a Royal LePage broker and owner, said earlier this week. “The buyers and sellers are definitely concerned about the environment they’re showing their homes in right now. And they’re worried about each other’s safety.”

COVID-19 has shaken the real estate industry on numerous fronts.

All open houses have been banned by the Alberta Real Estate Association. Homes that are still on the market are increasingly being “shown” through digital interfaces, including photos, videos and Facebook Live tours. There are growing financial fears about jobs and income security.  

Listings plunged after March 11

And there has been a significant drop in listings since March 11, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

“It’s anyone’s guess as to how this will affect our sales and our activity through the rest of the year, whatever the new normal happens to be,” Shearer told CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

April through June are the industry’s busiest months, with people buying and selling homes in the spring and then moving during the summer, he said. 

A monthly statistics package, published by the Realtors Association of Edmonton, showed the upswing was already underway in February, with a 12-per-cent increase in listings over January. 

The trend was still strong into March, said Shearer, who tracks weekly data on listings in the Greater Edmonton region. 

Listings jumped by 52 per cent, from 542 to 825, in the two weeks leading up to March 9, then started to drop immediately after the pandemic was announced.

As of March 23, there were 520 homes on the market — fewer than there had been one month previous. And among Royal LePage agents, new listings are about one-quarter of what they would normally expect to see at this time, he said.

Taking precautions 

“People who have the option, or who were planning to bring their home to the market, are choosing not to,” he said. “And that’s OK.”

Shearer said agents are increasingly allowing people to cancel their listings, something he said has been happening in a “trickle, not a flood.”

But not everyone has a choice about being in the market, such as those who have already sold their homes and now need to find somewhere else to live, he said.

Sellers and buyers alike are worried about bringing strangers inside to stage, measure, photograph or view a home, he said.

“Our industry associations have created a checklist that we have to follow when we prepare a home for showing, and when we interview a buyer before they go and see a property,” he said.

“We’re not at the point where we’re taking people’s temperatures yet but we are asking them ‘Are you healthy, have they travelled’ — all those questions that you need to know before you bring someone into a stranger’s home.”

That said, Shearer thinks the industry is in good shape to conduct a house sale with a little physical proximity as possible, ranging from the digital signing of documents to virtual tours of homes.

“Maybe there’s a chance that we’ll prolong the cycle. Maybe everyone does their business later in the year. But it’s hard to say,” he said.

“The thing that really drives our business in Edmonton is people working, and that’s what everyone’s really scared about right now.”

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