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March 10, 2020 | Paul Schott

Some realtors suspend open houses amid coronavirus concerns

Some realtors suspend open houses amid coronavirus concerns

New Canaan: This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. This virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. Some realtors have suspended open houses in the hottest market in nearly a decade, while the New Canaan Board of Realtors has set policies.

NEW CANAAN — While some real estate agents have stopped planning public open houses, the New Canaan Board of Realtors is not willing to give up on the hottest home sale market in nearly a decade. Instead, they have set up policies to address the jittery COVID-19 environment.

“We are hired to sell homes and not sit home on our clean hands,” said Sharon Daley, executive director of sales of Halstead Property in New Canaan.

“This is a very active market and to turn off the spigot to sales, could curtail sales,” Board of Realtors President Melissa Rwambuya said.

Rwambuya said open houses last weekend were well attended, a sentiment echoed by Maureen Kitson of William Pitt Sotheby's in Stamford.

There were “a lot of buyers” at open houses, Kitson said, perhaps because “interest rates are so low.”

Holding an open house, she said, has risks, but removing a home from the market carries its own risks for the seller. In Stamford, Kitson said she and her fellow real estate agents are not interviewing attendees or asking people if they have traveled to affected areas. However, they are asking potential buyers to squirt sanitizer on their hands when they enter, not to touch things and be careful.

Taking precautions, like those Kitson described, is the same advice the New Canaan Board of Realtors has for its members.

On March 9 they put into place a policy that allows for open houses, given how active the market is, while taking into account the current situation with the coronavirus.

“Please use best practices and protocols for your open houses. We recommend you not serve food and take necessary precautions such as providing hand sanitizer and/or non-latex gloves to visitors. Handshakes should be avoided. Ask visitors to avoid touching anything and using the bathroom. Have all visitors sign in with name and contact information to keep track of everyone who visits the home,” the policy says.

A Greenwich-based broker for Compass went even one step further.

“A young family whose property I am representing for sale met with me last week to discuss our response plan to heightened concerns in our area to the threat of the coronavirus,” Robin Kencel said. “They have young children with compromised immune systems, so naturally, they have an extra layer of concern for health and safety during this period.”

Her solution was to check with every agent making an appointment to ensure none of their clients had any recent illness and, for their open houses, to replace the tabletop accessories on the console at the front entry with an over-sized bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, a box of tissues and a sign explaining the situation: “If you do not feel well, please enjoy our yard but come back another day to tour the house. If you are touring, kindly remove your shoes or wear booties, and help yourself to tissues and Purell.”

“Of course, I ran to the nearest hardware store after the meeting to scoop up booties for my clients so that they wouldn’t have to scramble for the weekend's showing. They were all set with the other precautionary items,” Kencel said.

However, some Realtors are arguing it is time to suspend all public open houses.

“We have decided to cancel public open houses for the immediate future. While public open houses do a great job introducing buyers to the market, this is just not the month to be putting either buyers or home sellers at risk unnecessarily,” said New Canaan’s John Engel, a Halstead real estate agent, who made the decision personally and was not speaking for the agency. “We can afford to take a short pause until Connecticut has adequate testing in place and a better understanding of the risks. Additionally, accountability will be key going forward, having the ability to let clients know who they’ve been in contact with.”

Another Halstead real estate agent, Christine Saxe, also thinks open houses, at this time, “are not the best idea.”

She held them last weekend, but said her traffic was not as high as normal.

“Maybe people are concerned about being out in a public space when they don’t have to be,” she said.

Saxe said she has been discussing the issue with colleagues and decided not to hold more public open houses next weekend. Instead, she will continue to have private showings, with both buyers or selling agents.

One-on-one showing is preferred, Saxe said, since the agent is familiar with the client, instead of “whoever from wherever entering a house who you have no background on.”

Engel is employing a similar strategy.

“Instead of hosting open houses, we will make ourselves available for weekend appointments and on short notice,” he said.

While he is suspending public open houses, Engel is still holding broker open houses this week. A broker open house is a showing of a property for sale targeted to other real estate agents to help them decide if the property might be of interest to their clients.

“This is a small town,” said Engel, who is also of chairman of the New Canaan Town Council. “When agents come through I usually know who they are. They always sign in. They touch nothing. I can give the homeowner an accurate picture of who has been in their house and I can contact those agents rather easily if asked to do so.”

“In contrast on the weekends, we get visitors from the entire tri-state area. We might get more than one group at a time through a house. And, visitors do not always want to sign in. They might give a bogus email. They often bring their children. Sometimes they just come through because they saw the sign. They might not be in the market or qualified to buy the house, they might be just curious. I truly believe if a customer is qualified and in the market, they’ll make an appointment,” he said.

“I owe it to my clients to provide a greater level of accountability and reducing risk wherever I can. And for me that starts with open houses,” Engel said.

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