Real estate lessons learned from a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all facets of our lives this year and perhaps has even changed many things forever.

The real estate industry being one of them.

When lockdowns began in mid-March across the country as the crisis took hold, the real estate industry had to adapt and change quickly to meet the challenges presented by this pandemic.

We talked to four industry experts about the impact the pandemic has had so far this year – Alan Tennant, CEO of the Calgary Real Estate Board; Brad Mitchell, CEO of the Alberta Real Estate Association; Costa Poulopoulos, Chair of the Canadian Real Estate Association; and Sue Styles, a professional speaker and author and CEO of Maximized Results Consulting.

Are you surprised at how well the real estate industry has adjusted to the challenges presented by the pandemic?

Tennant: “I’m not at all surprised by how well our members adapted to the low-touch real estate environment. They had a lot of tools at their disposal . . . Very quickly some tools that have been around awhile were put into play and the support was there for them to do so if they hadn’t had the previous experience of learning something new. The entire environment shifted quickly and we saw a lot of innovation. We had to be adaptive in some rules to acknowledge the new environment. Not only did they adapt technology to generating business and leads but creating and maintaining relationships. After all, this is a relationship business.”

Mitchell: “Am I surprised? No. We put together a plan pretty quickly. All the strategies around open houses and everything were to make sure that when the restrictions eased we weren’t going to have problems with the government. The rules we imposed in the short term kind of allowed us to come out of it more quickly. It’s actually a testament to the industry that people were able to adapt. I’m quite proud in how we reacted in Alberta.”

Poulopoulos: “There’s one thing that COVID or the pandemic has shown us as a profession is how resilient we are as realtors and how quickly we’re able to adapt and pivot to all the changes that had to come about with the pandemic. Rules and regulations. Local and provincial ones from health orders. And the new technologies and the new protocols. No in-person showings, no in-person open houses. Virtual. It shows how resilient we are and how quickly we adapt and even the fact we went from zero to 100 in a couple of days. People that had never been on a video call now it’s in their everyday vocabulary. The speed at how quickly we adapted happened really fast.”

Styles: “I am completely surprised that real estate is doing so well all across the country from the experience of my clients. People are busy. Statistics are up and I just keep telling everyone to make hay while the sun’s shining . . . I have found many good realtors if they’ve been in business for any length of time have actually already served clients in a virtual way. Surprisingly realtors have already had many virtual processes in place. Now they are doing them very consciously and I would encourage them to promote that . . . I think it’s all working very well.”

What are the most important lessons realtors have learned through this crisis?

Tennant: “To not be afraid to try new things with consumers and not always accept or take for granted for example people want to look at four or five dozen houses before making a decision . . . They can get down to a short list by using the online tools and helping them through that process. Doing it together. The presumption around the old model was kind of almost carved into reflex and routine and when that received a shake consumers were quite receptive to a new way of doing things.”

Mitchell: “It’s mostly to just persevere and continue doing what they’re doing. We always knew the market would come back. We just didn’t know when. I’m not sure realtors learned much. They’ve kind of always behaved this way. We had a really short and swift downturn and realtors in Alberta have been dealing with a downturn for a long time. Tough times in Alberta have taught realtors how to change their businesses quickly. All of them reduced expenses. A lot of them stopped advertising or reduced their advertising budgets to kind of deal with the short-term stuff. They’re adept at dealing with change all the time.”

Poulopoulos: “If there is one thing that is certain throughout the pandemic and when this is going to be over as well is what we heard is the consumer’s need for a trusted advisor and for expertise. You can get all the data you want but there’s a sincere desire for the interpretation of the data. How do you make sense of this data in these uncertain times? That uncertainty that’s there is how consumers are gravitating to realtors now more than ever to navigate through this. That spotlighted the relevance of a realtor and how important realtors are to interpreting and making sense of data.”

Styles: “Keep a plan B in your back pocket. You never know what could happen. It could be a personal family crisis or a global crisis and you’ve got to have a plan B. I’ve seen agents have to let support staff go and I’ve seen agents who have needed to hire support staff. Everyone is very aware that they need to have a plan B because nothing is ever for sure.”

What changes that have taken place as a result of COVID will be long-lasting?

Tennant: “I think we’re going to see a more common digital relationship where it used to be the exception where an agent and their client maybe did not necessarily do in person or sometimes at all during the transaction. I’m not about to suggest that’s going to swing into the majority range but it will be less of a rarity and I think we’ll see more online relationships over a period of time as well not just by design or by requirement because of travel or something . . . A more streamlined transaction process from start to finish is probably here to stay. Ultimately the idea of being low touch will continue.”

Mitchell: “It’s probably using technology more effectively. Less in-person meetings. It was going that way anyways but it’s accelerated the change. Better preparing clients before realtors take them somewhere.”

Poulopoulos: “The technology has always been there, maybe not to this level. It was there before the pandemic and it will stay there after the pandemic I’m quite certain because now we’re kind of used to it as an important tool in our tool box. It will be an everyday tool. The tools were there before but maybe they weren’t utilized to the level that COVID, the pandemic, has forced us to utilize them. That’s the takeaway. These tools and I’m sure more tools to come will be part of our everyday tool box and brokerages and realtors will be utilizing tools that consumers have found are helpful when they are looking at real estate.”

Styles: “Huge attention to the online capacity. Many realtors were not embracing social media or online presence and now they’ve been forced to or I don’t think they can sustain their business.”