Social distancing measures could cool Ottawa’s hot real estate market: Realtors

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In an industry where the “personal touch” can make or break a sale, the new age of social distancing has prompted Ottawa’s realtors to rethink their tools of the trade.

With open houses largely shelved due to fears of spreading COVID-19, many agents say they’re opting to take clients on virtual tours via smartphone teleconferencing apps. When Ottawa Real Estate Board president Deb Burgoyne took a client to a home about 10 days ago, the vendor had disinfectant wipes and gloves handy near the entrance. 

It’s all part of the new reality of doing business, says Burgoyne, a broker at Royal LePage Team Realty. But so far, she adds, it hasn’t completely doused what’s been a blistering residential real estate market in the National Capital Region. 

“With all this pent-up demand, I've seen a lot of listings come on in the last week – a surprising number,” Burgoyne says. “The vendors want to get on the market and take advantage of what we’ve been doing the last couple of years, but they also have the same questions. We’re all in this together – we’re all trying to figure out how we’re going to manoeuvre, and we don’t have answers for everything.” 

Until just a few weeks ago, it looked like Ottawa’s housing market was set to continue riding a wave of prosperity that saw prices jump more than 20 per cent year over year in February. Thanks largely to a booming job market and favourable lending rates, residential-class properties last month fetched a record average of nearly $564,000.

But the COVID-19 crisis that has dealt a body blow to the Canadian economy is threatening to slow that momentum to a crawl, and some realtors don’t expect the good times to continue much longer.

“My phone has quieted down,” says David Sugarman, a longtime agent at Coldwell Banker Rhodes & Company. 

“When I’ve reached out to some clients, they’re just like, ‘Look, we’re staying in our home for the next couple of weeks,’ and I don’t blame them. I think we’re not really seeing the quiet time quite yet. I think it’s just starting. I think we’ll probably head into a much different type of a market over the next month or two. I think those really crazy prices that we have just seen, it is not a sustainable business model.”

While acknowledging the industry has “definitely seen a bit of a slowdown” in the last week or so, veteran realtor Paul Rushforth says it’s not all doom and gloom. About 360 homes still changed hands the previous week, he notes, and he’s still seeing a few bidding wars on highly sought-after properties.

At the same time, he says, there’s no question realtors have had to dramatically alter the way they interact with buyers and sellers. With real estate boards across Canada urging realtors to stop hosting open houses in effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, in-person showings are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

His company, Paul Rushforth Real Estate, has closed its offices and all of its dozen or so employees are now working from home. He’s still selling properties, but more and more appraisals and walk-throughs are being carried out remotely and transactions are being conducted electronically.

“We’re just being very careful and doing a lot of things by Zoom, Facebook calls, Facebook Live, things like that,” Rushforth explains. “This could be the new norm of doing business.”  

Sugarman says he’s all in favour of any measures that help protect the public’s health.

“We just don’t know how (the coronavirus) is being spread as well as we probably should, and I think it’s just a time where people probably need to be at home,” he says.

Rushforth agrees.

“Business is secondary,” he says. “We just don’t want this to spread. So if that means short-term pain for long-term gain, I’m all for it. We have to do what’s responsible.”

Burgoyne says she applauds realtors for finding “creative” ways to keep serving clients during the pandemic. Conceding that the industry’s short- and medium-term future is “murky” at best, she says she’s hopeful that the city’s real estate scene will bounce back once the crisis passes.

“Our market will recover,” she says. ‘I can’t tell you when; I can’t tell you if it will go back to the way it was. But I’m confident. We’ve always had a very resilient market.”