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Reopening your brokerage? Ask yourself these questions first

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As COVID-19 restrictions loosen up, business owners are faced with a few ethical dilemmas. As a broker-owner, when should you allow real estate transactions to take place? Should your employees go back to the office? What’s safe? Here are a few soul-searching questions to ask yourself.

Our office in Pennsylvania has been closed officially since March 18. On May 19, we got a notice that we’re now legally allowed to open under the new COVID-19 restrictions. I’ve been planning for this reopening for weeks. Our agents are chomping at the bit and so ready to do business again. But I didn’t sleep last night. 

Nervous excitement — and worries about how this would all play out — ran through my head. Yes, we want to be back to work. I want to help buyers buy and sellers sell. But are we ready? Can we really do this safely? What happens if someone in my office or one of my clients gets sick under my watch? These are the questions I keep returning to in my head. 

There’s no ‘on’ or ‘off’ switch

I’ve been thinking about this for weeks. I’ve been calling our active and pending clients and sending our newsletters regularly. But when the call to “green light” our opening came around 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, I panicked.

Earlier that day, the governor had vetoed a bill that would have opened us up for business. I was annoyed but relaxed. It would be weeks, maybe. Then, he issued an executive order hours later opening us up as an industry. It felt surreal. One minute we were closed, and the next minute we were allowed to show houses. 

This virus — and how to operate safely — does not have an on or off switch. The danger is still there. The right to conduct business may be “on” or “off,” but the threat still lurks in the background. This is mostly what kept me up last night. How do we open an office when COVID-19 is not gone? 

What’s legal is not always ethical

We’re allowed to do business, legally, under the COVID-19 restrictions the governor outlined. But is it the right thing to do? I’m not sure. In some cases, yes. 

We have a seller who is paying two mortgages while we try to sell his old home. He would emphatically agree that it’s ethical to help him sell his house. He wants this off his plate. The buyer in the wings, who we refused to show the house to for the past few weeks, wants to buy it. He has a baby on the way. He wants this house to raise his family. In this situation, maybe continuing to do business is the right thing to do.

In other cases, is it ethical to push us to list or sell a house when there isn’t an immediate need? What if we open too quickly and people get sick? What if a seller lists an occupied house, and after a group of showings, the seller gets sick? 

Some would say we can’t control the virus, but the counter is that we can control our own actions. We can choose to show a property or to stay home. While I believe that buyers who must buy and sellers who must sell now, for whatever reason, take priority, I don’t believe that we should be showing properties to unqualified buyers or allowing them to view properties on a whim. 

Housing is essential. Not all showings are essential. Weed the tire-kickers out. Yes, we as agents should have been doing that all along, but not everyone understands that process.

Now is the time to enforce the “ready, willing and able” test to buyers. Now is the time to make sure everyone who views a house is a serious buyer, not someone who just wants to view a property with no proof of funds or financing.

What is a broker’s responsibility?

I do believe the broker has a responsibility to his or her staff, agents and clients. It’s my responsibility to provide a safe working environment. I must set office protocol that ensures the staff is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines and minimizing the risk of infection to all.

The broker also must accept that there are legal risks to opening the office. From regular cleaning routines to policing visitors wearing masks, from keeping logs of agents and their appointments (for contact tracing) to offering staff flexible time off, there are so many things to worry about. There is no “normal” anymore. Agents who ask when we will get back to normal need to understand this may never happen.

There is the new normal and how we do business now. For now, we are showing homes wearing masks and maybe even gloves and shoe coverings. We are logging our appointments so we can do contact tracing. We are wiping down light switches and keys with sanitizing wipes. This is how we do business right now, in May of 2020. 

As I mentioned, I’m not sleeping well these past few months. In the beginning of this, in March, I was worried about how we would make it through with no showings allowed. In April, I obsessed about the pipeline thinning out and closing the last few days. 

It’s late May. We are finally opening up, and I’m worried about how to do this correctly. How to do this safely. How to handle buyers who want to buy and sellers who need to sell — and my agents who need a paycheck at the end of the day.

I don’t want to harm anyone. I want to protect the vulnerable and provide a safe environment for all those who trust me as their broker. I just want to do business safely in this strange new world.

Erica Ramus, MRE, is the broker/owner of RAMUS Real Estate. You can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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