California home sales now ‘essential’ but health risks scare agents

Real estate agents have serious concerns about what would seem to be good news: reclassifying their work as “essential” in this era of coronavirus fears.

Over the weekend, residential real estate sales were added to an updated list of essential services from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. That seemingly gave a green light to the resumption of sales since that same list was key to a previous no-selling interpretation of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “stay at home” order.

But real estate professionals, in interviews with the Southern California News Group and numerous comments on social media, questioned the health risks from restarting the very personal sales process that includes bringing strangers into other people’s homes.

What had previously amounted to a sales ban had also put into doubt whether sales in the pipeline could be completed. Becoming “essential” may, at least, ease the deal-closing process.

“This will help allow inspections and appraisals to take place. Other than that, everybody should just stay home,” said housing analyst Steve Thomas at ReportsOnHousing.

California Association of Realtors told members on Saturday, March 28, that selling was now possible, with some strict limits. That was a change from eight days earlier when the association told its Realtor members to stop face-to-face real estate sales.

The association said this new “essential” designation does not mean back to business as usual. For starters, rules of cities or counties will determine how home sales are conducted at the community level. But still “no open houses should be held” and “showings should be done virtually, if at all possible,” the advisory stated.

“I think this is premature and reckless,” said Mara Levy Kahn, a Realtor at Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Wine Country Group in Sonoma. “The virus won’t peak for a few more weeks at the earliest. We can put this on hold and focus on the true essentials of ensuring individual health, household health, and community health.”

Regardless of the details of the industry’s essential designation, the public will have a large say in the immediate future of home sales.

Virus-slowing business limitations have hammered the state economy. For example, a record 186,809 workers sought jobless benefits in the week ending March 21.

As a result of economic anxieties, not to mention sales limitations, local house hunters have balked in recent days. ReportsOnHousing said new escrows in the four-county Southern California region fell 16% in the week ended March 26.

The association’s advisory sternly warned its members to follow all health guidelines designed to stem the spread of coronavirus: “If such health safeguards and protocols are not followed, the rule for the state could easily change to stop or restrict all real estate activity.”

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