Real Estate

A Year Into the Pandemic, What Has Real Estate Learned?

It’s just over a year since COVID-19 appeared in the world and since our part of the country was shut down for two solid months, unable to do business. Since then, what have we learned as brokers and agents?

Working off-site can work

Prior to 2020, many companies insisted on in-office administrative staff, and that office presence was mandatory. Not anymore.

In my own office, I cut my front of house admin staff to zero and outsourced tasks immediately. I had virtual assistants for years, but I doubled my VA staff in March. Our front office still is closed to the public, and marketing and transaction tasks are handled remotely. I do have one person in office handling paper files, but most tasks can be worked from hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away with proper workflow.

Our office still exists for agents to come in and meet clients, for the agents to have their quiet workstations away from home distractions, and because our state (Pennsylvania) requires a working office. Some states — such as Texas — do not have such restrictions. I don’t see the physical office disappearing completely, but our footprint doesn’t have to be as large as it was in the past.

Even after things return to a more normal level, I don’t see myself adding physical admin staff to replace the virtual assistants. I am now comfortable with my virtual staff enough to state that this is a permanent part of my business model.

Working parents need more support

Real estate as a career always was attractive to mothers (and fathers) who wanted a flexible schedule. Work when you want, as much as you want — that’s the attraction to salespeople with children at home. COVID-19 brought new facets to light, as working from home clashed with homeschooling and virtual school options.

Some agents in my office came into the office more frequently simply to find quiet time to work, away from other family members and distractions. Others had less time to work real estate due to the intense schooling requirements their children needed at home. When you cannot leave the house because children need help downloading files and navigating assignments, this limits the amount of time you can be out selling properties.

One year later, this working parent dynamic still exists. Even though some schools are going back to in-person learning, we had one agent who had a child sent home for a 14-day quarantine because she sat next to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Nobody in the family is sick right now, but this affects all of her appointments and her work schedule for the next two weeks. The whole office will adjust to help her out and pick up the slack, but I don’t see this issue going away in the near future.

Digital processing is convenient

Even prior to 2020, our office digitized as much as possible. We used cloud storage solutions and online transaction rooms before they were commonplace. But in 2020, my logjam was paper checks and banking. As the USPS became less and less reliable — checks mailed to us from New York City to Pennsylvania took three weeks to arrive or disappeared completely — I knew we had to figure out a solution to our bank processing.

First, we signed on with DepositLink as way for our buyers to send us earnest money electronically. Even with this secure platform, some buyer’s agents, title companies and even the buyers dug their heels in and said “no.” They refuse to use such a method, and some still insist on sending us paper checks.

Those who do use the system see how quick and easy it is — and how it helps us work toward a future where we are not dependent on the archaic mail system that may or may not deliver an escrow check in a timely manner.

Second, I signed on with my bank to be able to scan and deposit my own checks through their treasury management system. I can also send ACH and wire payments directly through my desktop now. Prior to this, I had to walk into the local branch to send a wire.

With COVID-19, the bank required appointments in advance, and it became so much harder to do everything. Now I can scan all the commission or escrow checks that come in daily, and send my agents or title companies ACH or wire payments right off my desktop.

These banking changes will be permanent with my firm. I cannot see going back to the old system now that I am essentially making my own deposits and payments without leaving my office.

This is a change I should have made years ago. The virus was the perfect excuse to push me over that edge to use banking tech to its fullest potential. Yes, it costs me money to use these services, but the time it saves is well worth it in the end.

Inequality persists

Inequality always existed. The trend in the past few decades was that the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. The virus exacerbated this trend — and real estate is not immune to it.

What I am seeing as a broker is that many of the top agents seem to be barely affected by the pandemic, while the bottom agents were severely affected. I printed out the 2020 stats for my area, and I see agents who rocked it in 2019 who kept on going in 2020 despite lockdowns.

Others who were middle- to bottom-producers either dropped in production or dropped off the grid. What is going on?

Many of the mid- to lower-producing agents may have had other jobs in prior years. In 2020, they had to either double down on that main job to keep going and/or had to drop out of real estate to feed their families. If real estate is your side gig, and you suddenly need to do something different to survive, showing someone a house who may or may not buy drops lower in your priority level.

In 2021, we are fighting against an extreme lack of inventory. Fewer transactions are taking place. Who will close these transactions? Most will still go to the top producers who create buzz and are still selling strong. Midlevel producers will eke out their sales as best they can.

But those who rely on one or two transactions a year to keep their license? Perhaps those will drop off in 2021 as they just cannot elbow their way past the midlevel and top producers to sell the houses. Perhaps this is wishful thinking. But it seems in extreme lack of inventory situations, the lion’s share will go to, well, the lions.

We are one year into this global pandemic. Yet in some ways it seems too strange that an entire year has passed. I keep hearing people say how the year has passed so quickly. Where did the time go?

It’s like we lost a full year of memories and time. Missed time we should have spent with loved ones that we did not. Missed celebrations and events that never happened. Those who survived and brokers who thrived learned to pivot and adapt. Who knows what the next year will bring.

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

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