Tension lingers over showings as brokerage chiefs navigate pandemic

Brokerage chiefs addressed best-practice debate during TRD webinar

Leaders of four major brokerages say they are united in their efforts to navigate their businesses through a devastating pandemic. But the question of whether to suspend showings remains a source of strife.

In a live-streamed panel discussion with The Real Deal Wednesday, Corcoran Group’s Pam Liebman, Douglas Elliman’s Howard Lorber, Halstead’s Diane Ramirez and Brown Harris Stevens’ Bess Freedman said they were trying to modify their practices and reassure agents as coronavirus raced through communities.

“There’s no rule book for this,” Liebman said. “This is not a real estate crisis, it’s a global crisis.”

However, debate over in-person showings — ignited when Compass President Leonard Steinberg said discontinuing them is a “moral imperative” for brokers — remains a divisive point.

“If he wants to do something, he should do that, but he should stay in his lane and not preach to us,” Freedman said in the webinar of Steinberg. “There are people that need to pay bills. Not everyone has excess funds and so agents were also caught off [guard] by that.”

“It should not be an industry mandate,” Ramirez agreed.

In response, Steinberg posted a comment to the webinar’s chat board, stating: “I was not mandating anything. We all know agents are independent contractors.”

But, he said, “I think we as an industry do indeed have a moral obligation to advise our colleagues to be responsible. We have the data and science that clearly shows abstaining from contact is best. That is what we as an industry should be advising. That is called leadership.”

As the pandemic escalated last week, several brokerages closed their doors and advised their agents to work from home. While most have begun offering virtual showings, there are agents still attending physical properties, though many by appointment only.

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

By signing up, you agree to TheRealDeal Terms of Use and acknowledge the data practices in our Privacy Policy.

“No one wants to do open houses now, but if there is an agent that does and then the customer wants them to do it, I think that I have the right to do it,” Lorber commented. “I would try to talk them out of it, but if they wanted to do it, what can we do?”

Asked whether they have any contingency plans if any of their agents get seriously ill, or die, Liebman responded: “I think that’s a question that can be asked of any industry, any person across the country. I don’t think that’s a specific question to real estate.”

The brokerage heads all said they were considering ways to support their agents emotionally and financially, while preparing them for what’s to come.

“[Agents] had a warmup from 2019 for adjusting to less business,” Lorber noted, adding that although deals were still being done, things would probably get worse before they got better.

They were also looking at their business expenses and cutting back on non-essentials, including printing.

Freedman said her team was already feeling the fallout of the pandemic on deals.

“We have buyers that are now saying that they’re going to drop out,” she said. “So we’re going to see some of that in the next two months as well.”

Write to Sylvia Varnham O’Regan at so@therealdeal.com

Read more about how the residential brokerage community is addressing coronavirus