For LA brokers, coronavirus means closed open houses and peak uncertainty

(Credit: iStock)

(Credit: iStock) (Credit: iStock)

Open houses are cancelled and private showings postponed as the Los Angeles residential real estate community responds to the coronavirus, the pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the global economy and is rapidly spreading across the U.S. Still, many dealmakers haven’t lost their senses of humor amidst the crisis.

In L.A., the reaction from residential leaders and brokers to the virus has been mixed. Some brokers are downplaying the threat to their businesses, while leaders of firms are split on whether to leave day-to-day operational decisions up to individual agents, who are independent contractors and not employees.

Measured by reported cases, the coronavirus has so far not hit Los Angeles County as hard as other parts of California or the country. The county’s Public Health department reported 32 known cases in the 10-million person county as of Friday afternoon, with one virus-related death.

As a preventive measure, some brokers such as Stephen Shapiro, managing partner of Westside Estate Agency, fired off company memos in the last 24 hours imploring agents to cancel all open houses. The events, which typically run on Sunday and Tuesday, are often catered and can be quite extravagant.

“Clearly matters are going to get worse before they get better,” Shapiro said in an interview. “It is too risky to have 15 people in the house at the same time, passing each other in the hallways and stairways. You’re putting the seller at risk, and you’re putting yourself at risk.”

Compass, the second-largest brokerage by sales volume in L.A. County, has employed a centralized plan of action, shutting down all offices for Los Angeles (and New York) employees effective Monday, though agents can still access the offices.

Compass also sent out a memo to agents Thursday night advising them on best practices to conduct virtual tours via online streaming. Tips include, “Keep your live video engaging by switching up your camera’s view,” and “always remember to relax and be yourself!”

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The county’s biggest brokerage by sales, Coldwell Banker, has not issued company or regionwide edicts related to the coronavirus. However, individual agents with their own sales teams such as Joyce Rey at Coldwell Banker have put the kibosh on open houses over the next few weeks.

Brokerages cited agents’ independent-contractor classification as a reason for a limited coordinated response.

“Our agents can make those kind of decisions on their own,” said Billy Jack Carter, general manager at Hilton & Hyland.

Carter was talking from the brokerage’s Beverly Hills office. “We’re still open for business,” he said, noting that the firm’s biggest precautionary measure was placing hand sanitizers throughout the office.

It’s not a given that the virus will lead to a slowdown in sales, he added. “It’s too early to tell,” he said. “We may not see the effect of this for months.”

Other agents like Fran Flanagan of Compass claimed that even during a global pandemic, real estate is a wise investment, and deals can still be consummated.

“Everything can be online now including showings and sales,” she said. “As my daughter said, ‘I’ve been social distancing for a long time.’”

Flanagan, who scheduled three in-person home showings Friday, joked the coronavirus may help her profession. “People are not going to be traveling, so maybe they are going to want to shop for houses. They will certainly need the entertainment.”

Rey of Coldwell Banker also tried to find humor in the situation. “I personally love it when I go out in the car and there’s not much traffic. The coronavirus has single-handedly solved L.A.’s traffic problem.”

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