May 26, 2020 Catherine Mesick
Fifty-six percent of consumers say that despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they would attend an open house or take a home tour without hesitation, according to the Back To Normal Barometer from research company Engagious. Additionally, nearly half of respondents to the survey say they would return to activities such as taking a cruise, attending a live sporting event, or staying at a hotel. However, an even greater number—61%—are concerned about the overall public health crisis and the U.S. economy, a sign that consumers are more hopeful about their personal circumstances than they are about the country in general. “People are concerned about societal impacts rather than how [COVID-19] affects them personally,” said Jon Last, president of Sports & Leisure Research Group, a marketing research consultancy based in White Plains, N.Y., and a co-creator of the barometer. “And they feel the same about the economy.”
Engagious presented the findings of the Back To Normal Barometer, a biweekly survey that measures consumer interest in a variety of industries and activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, to the National Association of REALTORS® last week. The panel also looked at the survey respondents who said they weren’t ready to go to an open house yet and what conditions it would take for them to feel safe enough to do so again. According to Rich Thau, president of Engagious and co-creator of the barometer, they would need specific assurances, including the approval of a COVID-19 vaccine (47%) and assurances from the local health department that touring open houses would be safe (45%). “Two things that are critical are a certificate stating that [an area] has been properly sanitized according to established protocols and that the certificate has been issued by a local authority,” Thau said.
The real estate–related findings come from a national online survey earlier in May of 1,040 buyers and sellers. The goal was to provide insights about how consumers want to safely navigate residential real estate transactions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Consumers Prioritize Safety Measures
Gina Derickson, research director of Engagious, expanded on the precautions that are important to consumers: People want to know that cleaning has taken place before they enter an establishment; they want to see professional cleaners rather than staff (or homeowners) working on high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and elevator buttons; and the right products and right wording are important. People prefer terms like “sanitized” and “disinfected” over “cleaned” on signage.
According to Derickson, respondents also saw a difference in risk associated with open houses depending on what side of the transaction a person falls on. The selling side is viewed as having a higher risk than the buying side. Sellers, Derickson explains, are perceived as having less control over who comes into the home and the surfaces people touch. On the other hand, respondents believe that buyers can better avoid COVID-19–related dangers and have a good sense of what a clean home looks like. But whether on the buying or selling side, survey respondents agreed on one thing: Agents are crucial in helping them navigate the open house process. “Buyers and sellers depend on agents to inform them and enforce compliance,” Derickson said. “They want the agent to tell them what to do, and they want vetting to make sure the home is safe.”
In analyzing the survey results, Thau said real estate agents matter more than ever on both sides of the transaction. Fifty-eight percent of sellers and 58% of buyers say the buying and selling of real estate is an essential service, and 62% of sellers and 54% of buyers say a real estate agent’s guidance is especially valued during the pandemic.
Don’t Rely Completely on Virtual Tours
Thau offered some intriguing insights into the characteristics of the buyers and sellers themselves. A majority of both say they are comfortable with technology and conducting business on a computer, as well as taking online tours of homes. In addition, 55% of buyers say virtual tours are great for initially vetting which homes they would seriously consider purchasing, though that number dropped quite a bit when asked if a virtual tour was an acceptable substitute for an actual tour. Despite the drop, two out of five buyers say they would consider buying a home without a visit.
Thau revealed that there are ways to enhance the value of a virtual tour, such as including a tour of the neighborhood or providing written information about home improvements the seller has made. He found that 54% of buyers and 55% of sellers believe it’s important to have a real estate professional help buyers navigate virtual homebuying options.
In terms of traditional in-person home tours, both buyers and sellers see value in precautions, such as providing sanitary wipes, limiting visitors to two to four at a time, providing hand sanitizer, and requiring masks, gloves, and shoe coverings. Thau also noted that buyers and sellers see hand sanitizer, sanitary wipes, and visitor limitations as precautions that will need to remain in place over the long term.
Thau also included a caution for agents in reference to in-person tours: Thirty-eight percent of buyers and 48% of sellers indicate that they would consider legal action if they contracted COVID-19 after a showing. And 29% of buyers and 41% of sellers indicate that they would still consider suing even if they had signed a release. However, 58% of buyers say they’re willing to waive their right to sue.
Agents Expected to Offer COVID-19 Guidance
According to Thau, what matters the most to buyers and sellers about in-person tours is the real estate agent, who is expected to know and enforce health-related safety rules. Sixty-four percent of buyers and sellers state that agents should understand state and local protocols for COVID-19 safety and provide guidance, and 63% of buyers and 64% of sellers say that if someone in the home is not following health protocols during a visit, they expect the real estate agent to address it.
Buyers and sellers also indicated that it is important for an agent to know how to close a real estate transaction electronically, and a majority of both indicated that agents add value to an online search. Helping buyers uncover valuable information about a property, helping them sift through online listings, and providing more in-depth pictures and videos of properties were among the ways agents could be of service to clients. And while 40% of buyers and 52% of sellers stated that they wouldn’t need to meet their real estate agent in person to buy or sell a home, they did place a premium on oral communication—70% of buyers and 66% of sellers said they felt more comfortable talking on the phone or talking via Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, or a similar app that allows face-to-face communication, which are much higher numbers than those who felt comfortable communicating by email or text.
What this means, Thau said, is that agents really matter during the pandemic. Forty-seven percent of buyers and 53% of sellers indicated that relying on a real estate professional for buying or selling a home was more important than before. “Agents’ value has gone up tremendously as a result of the pandemic,” he said. “People need reassurance.” And he offered this advice: “Know the protocols, follow them, and don’t be afraid to enforce them.”