Not so fast: REBNY urges agents to stay home

Letter to members stresses that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s prior order remains in effect

REBNY president James Whelan (Credit: iStock)
REBNY president James Whelan (Credit: iStock)

New York real estate agents may not be going back to work so fast.

Hours after the Cuomo administration appeared to reverse its stance on whether agents are essential workers, the Real Estate Board of New York cautioned that the new guidelines are “not yet final.”

In an email to members, REBNY President James Whelan stressed that “health and safety” are the board’s top priority, and he urged agents to continue operating under the assumption that in-person showings are not permitted. Noting that the guidelines were not yet published, he stated, “All previous executive orders and guidelines remain in effect.”

On Wednesday, the state seemed to reclassify in-person showings as an “essential service,” after previously including agents in a statewide stay-home order that went into effect March 22.

The state’s economic-development arm, Empire State Development, said in an email to the New York State Association of Realtors that residential and commercial showings, inspections and appraisals “are considered essential.”

A spokesperson for ESD confirmed the classification in an email to The Real Deal Wednesday evening, but said the agency was encouraging virtual showings and remote work for back-office staffers.

The announcement quickly caused widespread confusion among agents and firms, however.

Bess Freedman, CEO of Brown Harris Stevens, said she was inundated with emails from confused and concerned agents.

“We are certainly not encouraging [agents] to go out there and do showings. We think that would be completely irresponsible,” she said. “I’m living in New York City right now; it is not back to business as usual.”

Even if real estate services are re-classified as essential, she said there would be a logistics issue in the city since buildings aren’t permitting visitors and owners don’t want people traipsing through their homes.

“In the suburbs you can get in a car. You’re not in an elevator. You can have social distance in a different way,” Freedman said. “Here in the city, we live in a different sort of environment. It’s vertical living.”

It is unclear what the governor’s position is at this time. However, the ESD’s classification is at odds with earlier statements he made on the matter. At a March 20 press conference, addressing a 90-day ban on evictions, he stated: “I don’t know who you think you’re going to rent an apartment to now … By my mandate, you couldn’t even have your real estate agent out showing the apartment.”

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Representatives for the governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

In recent weeks, REBNY has encouraged members to use virtual tools to do business, and avoid in-person showings in compliance with the governor’s order.

In an email Wednesday, REBNY’s broker counsel Neil Garfinkel said the board had “requested that all local county clerk and/or registrar offices be granted the authority to accept and record documents electronically, and allow title searches to be performed electronically, where the technological capability exists.”

NYSAR had previously sought clarification from the state on a series of questions, including whether walk-throughs were permissible, whether brokers could open the doors of properties for appraisers and more.

“We have asked Empire State Development Corporation to consider real estate licensees and their business as ‘essential’ and we await a reply,” NYSAR’s Mike Kelly said earlier Wednesday.

After the association got word from the agency that some real estate services were considered “essential,” NYSAR sent out an email blast to its members later that evening.

However, several brokerage heads said Thursday that they didn’t know what to make of NYSAR’s notification.

The fact that NYSAR and REBNY seem to be on different pages puts agents in a precarious position and “adds to the overall confusion,” said Kobi Lahav, director of sales at Living Real Estate Group. “One arm doesn’t know what the other is doing.”

“I think there’s a little bit of misinformation,” said Compass’ Leonard Steinberg. “Bottom line, we are sending a strong and bold message to everyone at Compass: Stay at home, stay at home.”

Additional reporting by Erin Hudson

Write to EB Solomont at and Sylvia Varnham O’Regan at

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