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Brokers hit pause on Boston-area open houses due to coronavirus

Agents are relying more on virtual tours and offers prior to showings in an effort to limit crowding—but the changes could doom the real estate ritual once and for all

By Tom Acitelli@tomacitelliMar 17, 2020, 1:32pm EDT

Gov. Charlie Baker’s March 15 ban on gatherings of more than 25 people in Massachusetts to stem the spread of novel coronavirus has rippled into a key aspect of the Boston-area real estate market: open houses for residential properties.

Even before Baker’s announcement, brokers and brokerages were pulling back on the events, which often last more than an hour and can draw dozens of people throughout. Brokers were also already taking precautions, including having hand sanitizers present and regularly wiping down often-touched surfaces, but the rise in coronavirus cases and the governor’s ban seem to have tipped things.

“At this point, as an association, we’re actually reminding people of the governor’s policy of no crowds of more than 25 people,” Jason Gell, a Keller Williams broker in Cambridge and president of the Greater Boston Association of Realtors, said Tuesday. “That said, more and more companies are adopting the position of not having open houses as a policy.”

Gell said brokerages had started cancelling open houses on Friday for the upcoming weekend, and relatively few are scheduled for the coming weekend in the Boston area.

The change—a fairly rapid and significant one, given that a week before Baker’s announcement there were hundreds of open houses throughout Greater Boston—has led more brokers to embrace virtual tours, Gell said. These are essentially 3D or photographic slideshow tours via computer, tablet, or smartphone using technology from firms such as immoviewer and Matterport.

Virtual tours might still involve brokers going into sellers’ homes, but it’s better at stemming coronavirus transmissions than having those dozens of people traipse through. “Overall, it’s trying to do the best we can to limit exposure without panic,” Gell said.

‘We’re going to be much more reliant on technology going forward.’

He did say that such virtual tours—and the general hands-off nature of not having open houses—could put prospective buyers at a further disadvantage in an already very competitive market.

“You have a situation where it’s almost becoming a by-appointment scenario to see a property,” Gell said. “That’s going to make things a bit more challenging for buyers who will not have the same opportunities. It will not be equal opportunity to view properties—it will be the first person to call will get the first appointment.”

Some brokers and sellers may turn, too, to asking for offers prior to showings, with a contingency built into the arrangement that will allow buyers to back out after a showing. Gell said this might become more common in the region’s rental market too, with showings only for tenants who have already applied for a particular apartment based off a virtual tour.

“We definitely think there’s going to be some changes in how business is done coming out of this,” Gell said, “and we’re going to be much more reliant on technology going forward.”



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