Sight unseen: Realtors urged to end open houses amid coronavirus pandemic

How do you sell a house if you can't show it to buyers?

That's the dilemma facing home sellers and real estate agents across the country as the COVID-19 pandemic grips every aspect of life.

Real estate associations in Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan have called for a suspension of all open houses.

"I am calling on all realtors to cease holding open houses during this crisis and advise their clients to cancel any that are planned," said Ontario Real Estate Association president Sean Morrison in a release Saturday.

"While only the provincial government or the real estate regulator has the ability to mandate an end to open houses, we urge realtors to encourage clients to take advantage of digital tools like virtual tours when buying or selling a home," Darlene Hyde, chief executive of the British Columbia Real Estate Association, said in a statement Friday.

Both associations urged realtors to turn to video or virtual reality tours as a substitute for face-to-face interaction. B.C., Ontario and Saskatchewan have all instituted states of emergency that are aimed at curtailing the spread of the novel coronavirus by restricting public gatherings.

RE/MAX Canada and Sotheby's International Realty Canada are among brokerages strongly urging realtors to suspend open houses.

Listings are still coming online, says David Fleming, a Toronto broker.

Real estate agents then face a "moral dilemma" about whether to host open houses in the midst of a pandemic virus, he told CTV's Your Morning Monday. He says agents who have chosen to hold them have been shamed on social media.

Many Canadian real estate markets seemed on course for a red-hot spring selling season.

Nationwide home sales in February soared nearly 27 per cent compared to the same month in 2019 and the national average home price was up 15 per cent.

March numbers will undoubtedly tell a different story, but it's not clear yet exactly what that will be, says Fleming, who is author of the Toronto Realty Blog. He expects listings and sales will drop in the booming Toronto market.

The public health crisis could mean price increases will flatten or even dip somewhat, says Fleming. But that would come after "skyrocketing prices" in January and February.

"So if we just see a levelling off, I don't think it's a bad thing."

GTA home sales were up 45.6 per cent in February from the same month in 2019, though that month was a 10-year low. February's figure of 7,256 sales in February, was also up 14.8 per cent from January's strong showing. The average price for all GTA homes was up by 16.7 per cent year over year in February.

Figures were similar in Metro Vancouver, where February homes sales increased 44.9 per cent over the year before and were up 36.9 per cent from January.

The pandemic has already shifted pricing strategies in Toronto's market, says Fleming, where low listing prices and holdback offers had been commonplace. Now, Fleming says homes are being listed for fair market value and offers are being taken any time.

People on the sidelines who lost out on multiple bids in a red-hot Toronto market in January and February are "loving their lives right now," said Fleming.

"They get to go in and bid on places with a real, true, transparent price with offers at any time."

There is also evidence that housing units purchased in the last couple of years for short-term rentals through platforms such as Airbnb are now being listed for rent or for sale, says Fleming.

"I think people are nervous for sure but keep in mind some people need to sell. Some people merely want to sell, so there are people just trying their luck out there, but some need to actively sell their home. Perhaps they're moving, maybe they're being job transferred, perhaps they've bought something else."

The market is also being buoyed by low mortgage rates, but on the flip side, the true impact of the crisis is yet to be felt as layoffs in a broad range of industries are just taking effect.

More than half a million Canadians have recently filed for employment insurance, a volume Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday was "historic."

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