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Home buying during a pandemic

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Though the real estate industry has adjusted since Alberta declared a State of Emergency on March 17, the buying and selling of homes stops for nothing – not even a pandemic.

While real estate agent services, appraisals and mortgage brokerage have been deemed an essential service by the province – exempting them from mandatory shutdowns during the public health emergency – it has not been business as usual for the industry. Real estate professionals continue to be subject to infection prevention and control measures and must follow public health orders to keep staff and clients safe.

"COVID-19 is a significant health concern for both you and your clients," states the Real Estate Council of Alberta, the governing body for the industry, on its website. “As part of providing competent service, industry professionals are expected to work co-operatively with clients to find a solution for relieving the concerns of everyone involved.”

On March 23, the Alberta Real Estate Association (AREA) prohibited its members from hosting open houses to protect public safety and encouraged agents and potential homebuyers to utilize digital technology such as virtual tours, video-conferencing and digital contract signatures, to practice safe social distancing. It also urged caution in showing homes and recommended precautions be taken to reduce the risk.

“Realtors have social responsibilities to their clients and the greater community,” said AREA chair Kristie Kruger in a press release. “This unprecedented health pandemic has forced all Albertans to make significant changes. Because open houses are public, with unpredictable attendance, it is difficult to ensure they comply with Alberta Health recommendations.”

As the province moves forward with Stage 1 of its relaunch strategy, which began May 14, the association continues to prohibit open houses and recommends avoidance of “face-to-face interaction whenever possible and when not possible, extreme caution should always be exercised.”

If the buyer/seller decides to move forward with an in-person viewing, AREA recommends both agent and client maintain open lines of communication, and encourages the agent to verify the clients are symptom-free and have not been in contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19. Before showing a property, AREA advises brokerages to mitigate their risk associated with those showings by utilizing a Hold Harmless Agreement. This tool ensures the client has acknowledged and reviewed the Government of Alberta recommendations regarding COVID-19 and the risk of exposure to the virus and protects the brokerage and its agents from all COVID-19 related legal claims resulting from the client’s decision to view/show the property.

To prepare the home for a showing, antibacterial cleaners should be applied to disinfect common spaces such as door handles, closet and cupboard knobs, sink handles, surfaces, light switches and counters. All lights should be turned on and all doors, including closets, should be opened to minimize the necessity of touching surfaces.

AREA recommends hand-sanitizer be provided at the door and a note be posted in a highly visible location that states those entering the home are required to clean their hands before entering. The note should also inform guests they are prohibited from touching surfaces and doorknobs.

Showings, as outlined by the association, should be limited to one buyer at a time and restrict extended family members, children and others from entering the home. Realtors and clients are encouraged to practice physical distancing at all times during the showing by remaining six feet apart.

Following showings, the common areas in the home should once again be disinfected, lights turned off and doors closed.

Builders of new homes have also changed the way they do business. Many responded to the pandemic by adjusting show home hours, requesting agents/buyers schedule an appointment for showings and implementing strict disinfection procedures.

Homes by Avi, now building in Lanark Landing, informed show home guests they would be required to text the number displayed on the door to gain entry.

"Any recently returning travellers, groups of more than four, groups with children present or anyone showing any symptoms (mild or otherwise) will be asked to kindly reschedule," its website stated.

Alan Boucher, senior development manager for Lanark Landing with Melcor Developments Ltd., said Airdrie’s newest community has also adjusted to the reality of COVID-19.

“We’re taking a lot of procedures to sanitize the show homes properly, take appointments, do screening, just to keep everyone safe,” he said. “All of our show homes are available for touring online and you can actually go through the entire home-buying experience online and through phone calls with the sales centre.

“I think the way homes are being sold is evolving and we're responding to that as best we can.”

Boucher added he knows the situation has far-reaching impacts and Melcor is doing its part to help.

“We know a lot of businesses are struggling right now in Airdrie, and as a 100-year-old company, we're really trying to do what we can to keep things moving as best we can and support those that need it,” he said.

The process of buying and selling a home has also changed for clients, and many may be struggling with the ever-evolving situation.

AREA recommends sellers speak with their Realtor about any COVID-19 concerns related to showing the property, require the agent to ask buyers and their representative COVID-19 health and travel questions so the seller can make an informed decision about accepting showing requests and limit the number of people entering the home by ensuring the Realtor confirms buyers have been prequalified and are ready to buy.

Homebuyers are encouraged to maximize the use of photos and video tours to reduce the number of locations visited and request the signing of all documents to be entirely paperless.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted many of our activities, it hasn’t lessened the need to move forward with life. Buying and selling of homes continues and can be a safe transaction when a few simple precautions are in place to keep those involved healthy.