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An illustration of people looking inside houses. Paige Mehrer

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What it’s like to be a real estate agent during the COVID-19 pandemic

“I won’t be showing homes until it is safe for everybody,” says Beth Lowe

Beth Lowe is a real estate agent based in Smithtown, New York, who has been selling houses on Long Island and in parts of New York City for the past 10 years with Exit Realty. She currently serves as chair of the political action committee for the Long Island Board of Realtors, a nonprofit professional organization with over 28,000 members.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo initially deemed real estate a nonessential business under the state’s stay-at-home order, PAUSE, but issued new guidance on April 1 categorizing it as essential, with the caveat that showings must be virtual.

Curbed spoke with Lowe—who doesn’t believe real estate agents should be showing homes right now—about the categorization of real estate as essential and what it’s like to work in the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This as-told-to has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When the state made us essential last week, I was very vocal that I would not be showing homes. I won’t be showing homes until it is safe for everybody. While I am young and healthy, that doesn’t mean I can’t be a carrier. [The state] isn’t testing anyone. I have friends who are sick who can’t even get tested. It’s just too scary. And what’s it going to be? Another couple of weeks? I am not really willing to risk that now to sell a house.

And to sell a house in what capacity, really? Let’s say that I virtually show you a house and you tell me you love it. In four weeks you can go see the house and tell me you hate it. Now what do we do? We all just need to stay calm, stay home, and focus on keeping everyone in your current deals calm and moving forward.

A lot of people have thanked me, openly and privately, for taking the stance that I took, which is that real estate agents are nonessential. There were a few agents who got mad at me and I said, “Well, I don’t really care, to be honest.” I care about the public. Safety is more important.

Right now, I am basically doing whatever I can out of my house and it’s mostly just to keep my clients calm and to keep my pipeline moving forward. I don’t have any active listings right now. I was very fortunate where most of my listings sold the week before this all happened. All I do all day is ask myself, ‘What can we do? What needs to be done?’ We’re still doing appraisals. We’re still trying to get paperwork and stuff we need to close things. We’re still moving things forward, but new business needs to be on hold right now.

I did have one listing where my clients are in their early 70s. Before any stay-at-home order was issued by the state, we decided that we were just going to take the house off the market and put it back on the market when it was safe for them to have people in the house. Right now, they’re not very comfortable with their home being on the market, and frankly I am not either. Those people happen to have known me since I was born. They used to play tennis with my parents, so they’ve known me my whole life. I couldn’t stomach even the slightest risk to them and I couldn’t really do that to anyone, to be honest.

After the state said real estate was nonessential, agents were calling the New York State Association of Realtors complaining that we were not essential because in other states we were essential. Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Uncertainty is making people want to call the board and be made essential without really thinking it through. What does that really mean? If we all just chilled out, we could get back to normal business a lot sooner.

The overall consensus of the membership of the Long Island Board was that they don’t want to be essential. We want to do what’s right for the community and the state and our hospitals, which are overrun right now. That same day they made us essential, the news was showing field hospitals in Central Park and in the stadium in Queens where they play the U.S. Open. Now the state’s trying to tell me I should go show houses? Are you out of your mind?

I’ve spoken to agents all over the state and I would say 99 percent of them were horrified on Tuesday night when we got deemed essential. We just don’t feel safe. In order for us to do our jobs properly, we can’t do them in this capacity. I would never want to show a buyer a house over Facetime and then have them start incurring expenses of a home inspection, having them retain an attorney, having them sign contracts, having them put their deposit down, and when then finally see the house, they hate it.

I had a situation a few years ago where the buyer was coming from out of state and they didn’t see the house in person until the final walkthrough. They tried to back out at the final walkthrough. We kept it together, but the buyers ended up relisting the house three months later. Is it really ethically and morally responsible if we all start putting buyers and sellers in these situations?

In order for real estate to truly function, the entire economy has to function. You can’t just call pieces of the real estate market essential and expect the whole market to function. Even if we were allowed to go and show houses—and somebody wanted us to come in and buyers wanted to look—without getting the rest of the pieces open and up and running, you’re just creating more of a backlog than what we already have.

You don’t realize how many people are involved with buying a house. There are probably 25 different people involved in getting a deal closed. So it really doesn’t work if we’re all not working. If you’re a buyer or a seller, as far as you’re concerned, you sign contracts. As far as I am concerned, now my work is actually happening. I have to coordinate the lawyers, the title company, the appraiser, the inspector, the bank, the town. Even the IRS is involved because it has to confirm your taxes. Your employer has to verify your income. So if your employer is closed, that is one more challenge.

Everything is going through slowly because our towns aren’t all open for title searches, certificates of occupancy searches, and that type of thing. I can’t say, “Well, the title search is taking too long. Let me run down to the town office,” because the town is not open. Then you layer in the mortgage changes that are happening on a daily basis.

The only people I know who are buying houses regularly are my investor clients. Because what happened in that market is really all of those fix-and-flip investor type loans got suspended or canceled. So there are guys out there who thought they were getting financing for a fix-and-flip type of loan who now can’t buy the house so my friends who are cash buyers are buying those properties. But they don’t buy them by looking at them. They buy by the numbers, so it’s a completely different market.

Needing to sell for the money right now would actually probably put you in a worse position, because you’re not going to get the price you’re going to get in four to six weeks. You’re going to get a fire-sale price. If that’s what you need, then that’s what you need. I can send an investor to your house and he can probably make a really ridiculous offer, but I don’t know if that’s really helping either party.

If we all had a crystal ball and, now with what we know, could go back two or three weeks ago, I think we’d all agree that we should stay truly quarantined for two to three weeks so we could get this all over with. A lot of the stress is coming from the uncertainty of when we’re really going to be allowed to go back to work.

We had 600 people die in New York last night alone. That’s crazy. That’s so sad. That’s not just a number; that’s somebody’s mom, somebody’s grandma, somebody’s friend. I am 42 years old and I am seeing people my age dying when they said we would be fine. So I think the numbers are one thing, but when you start to humanize it, it’s a no-brainer. Just stay home. You’re not essential. I know it’s like an ego thing, but you are not essential.

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