Wisconsin real estate industry adopts virtual viewings, cleaning protocols to reduce contact as market stays strong
From "car closings" to virtual technology, Wisconsin's real estate industry is rapidly changing how it does business under state orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Wisconsin.
Open houses are out and virtual showings are in. Realtors carry hand sanitizer along with handouts to limited, as-needed showings. And parts of the home buying process that normally bring everyone together are being done online or in parking lots.
At the First Weber Oshkosh offices, the doors are locked and even staff who stop by have to explain why they're coming in. If you want to talk with First Weber Manager Gail Schwab, you'll find a chair in the hallway outside her office to observe 6 feet of separation in accordance with social distancing guidelines.
"We're learning new ways to do things," Schwab said.
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Realtors entered the year expecting the home market to extend robust 2019 sales that saw statewide home sales increase nearly 15% over the previous year, and the median sales price rise more than 10 percent based on high demand and limited inventory.
COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, began to spread in Wisconsin in early March, the same time home sales normally ramp up.
Although the year started strongly, no one in the industry knows what to expect in the coming weeks and months, said Andrew Birder, a Realtor with Resource One Realty LLC in Green Bay.
"Basically, there are a lot of nerves like any industry," Birder said. "There seems to be more demand than I can remember in my five years in the business. There's not been much impact in my opinion, but that's not to say there won't be."
The Wisconsin Realtors Association has produced a guide for real estate agents and has driven some of the changes the industry has adopted, including the cessation of all open houses, to continue operating as an essential business while complying with terms of Gov. Tony Evers' Safer at Home order to restrict gatherings and minimize contact with others.
Schwab has advised her staff members, who are independent contractors, that open houses violate the Safer at Home order. At First Weber, she said staff encourage virtual tours and limit in-person showings to "decision makers" only, rather than whole families.
Jacob Mizgalski, who owns IdleKnot Property Group brokered by eXp Realty in the Wausau area, said his brokerage operations with eXp Realty have been cloud-based for the past two years. The cloud-based office's platform allows more than just video chats. It's similar to virtual reality, and it allows him to work with the company's other agents, and to bring in guests for meetings and create an avatar for them.
If an in-person showing is necessary, agents take specific precautions such as opening all the doors, sanitizing before and after the visit and sometimes wearing gloves and protective boots, he said.
Birder said many title companies, whose offices often host document signings to complete a sale, have also shifted to virtual title signings to reduce interaction. One Green Bay title company was offering "car closings," where the staff would hand you the papers to sign in your car.
"I'm pretty impressed with the response in just a few weeks," Birder said.
When a buyer does request a look inside the home, First Weber Oshkosh agents have been advised to make sure everyone stays at least 6 feet apart, to ensure that the current occupant is not home, and to carry hand wipes and sanitizer with them so they can clean the home as they show it.
Birder and Schwab both said they ask clients not to touch anything or to open doors and cabinets.
"It's a habit we have to want to touch something or open a cabinet or refrigerator," Birder said. "If it happens, then I'm prepared to wipe it off."
Statewide, existing home sales through February had outpaced home sales over the same two months in 2017, 2018 and 2019, Wisconsin Realtors Association data shows. Wisconsin recorded 8,251 home sales in the first two months of the year, up nearly 5 percent from the same period a year ago. The median sales price in that period was up 8.4% to $190,000.
Schwab, like others in the industry, does not know how social distancing and other coronavirus-related restrictions will affect spring home sales. To date, she said agents across the state have continued to close deals started before the state ordered residents to stay home and cease non-essential activity.
"We're only a few weeks into this. For now, we're closing things on the books. (New) listings are coming in," Schwab said. "So far, we're good, but we've got a long way to go yet. We're just grateful for any good weeks we have."
Contact Jeff Bollier at (920) 431-8387 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GBstreetwise. Contact reporter Megan Stringer at (715) 207-1571 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @megstringers.