Real Estate in the Age of COVID-19: Suggested Best Practices

Updated: Wednesday, November 25, 2020 at 10 p.m.

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Introduction

While many aspects of real estate can be conducted remotely, some elements of a transaction require at least limited in-person activities. In most transactions it is in the interests of both buyers and sellers for buyers to physically view a property before purchasing it, and to have inspections to determine property condition and value, or to address health and safety issues. Whenever possible, licensees should work remotely without in-person contact. Where remote work is impossible, licensees will, at a minimum:

Guidance documents are current as of revision date of this document and will be updated as state guidance changes. Links to relevant documents are provided throughout the text; please consult the underlying guidance for further information on specific items.

Stay-at-Home Advisory (effective Nov. 23, 2020 – Jan. 4, 2021)

As a method of slowing down the spread, the state has issued a stay-at-home advisory. This advisory “strongly recommends” - but does not require - only leaving home for essential purposes, and only allowing individuals who aren’t part of a household to be present in a home if they are providing essential services for the health and safety of the household.

Agents should discuss this advisory with clients to ensure that they are comfortable with any in-person activities - especially anything that involves going into a seller’s home. Buyers may prefer to move initial showings or walkthroughs to a virtual option. Sellers may want to add restrictions to showings or even pull their property off the market altogether if they’re not comfortable with the current environment. You can certainly take that opportunity to explain the safety steps you are taking to help protect all those involved, but it is ultimately the client’s decision if they feel comfortable with in-person activities.

A Note on “Essential Business”

Initial COVID-19 orders and advisories distinguished between “life-sustaining” and “non-life-sustaining” businesses. Significant limitations were placed on real estate practice because it was deemed to be a non-life-sustaining business.

More recent orders and advisories no longer make any such distinction. In the current regulatory environment, there are no “life-sustaining” or “essential” businesses that get preferential treatment. Rather, business rules apply to all businesses across the board except for a few select categories (such as restaurants, bars and gyms) that have been specifically identified as higher risk. This means that there are currently no additional restrictions specifically being placed on real estate practice – though some of the nuances of real estate practice may lead to some unique challenges while interpreting the orders.

These orders, however, have started using the term “essential” in certain descriptions (e.g., businesses should prohibit “non-essential visitors”; individuals should only leave home for “essential needs” and not have others in their homes unless for “activities that are essential” for the well-being of members of the household).

PAR believes the three essentials to life are food, clothing and shelter, and that the work of Realtors® is essential to provide shelter for Pennsylvanians. That said, it must be recognized that not every real estate service is equally essential at every moment.

To aid in the state’s mitigation efforts, and to avoid creating additional transmission risks that might result in additional real estate restrictions, Realtors® should discuss this guidance with seller clients to determine whether, and in what circumstances, they will feel comfortable having buyers and others in their homes. Realtors® should also discuss with buyer clients whether certain services are truly necessary to do in-person, or whether remote services are sufficient.

Brokerage Policies & Resources

This document and other guidance from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should be viewed as minimum standards for the real estate profession. Brokers are required to have business-specific health and safety plans based on the relevant state orders, and are strongly encouraged to consult with counsel to develop their own brokerage policies with specific guidance for licensees and staff working with buyers, sellers and tenants. Merely referencing this document is not sufficient. Additional resources are provided in the Resources section of this document.

General Hygiene and Protection

  1. All individuals present for any in-person real estate activities must utilize hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol, and wear masks/face coverings. Bring plastic bags for disposal and remove all personal protective equipment or other items brought to the property.
  2. Until you wash your hands or utilize hand sanitizer, avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  3. Limit the amount of time that you spend in contact with other individuals. Do not shake hands and avoid all physical contact.
  4. Utilize CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting facilities and provide information on relevant guidelines on cleaning and disinfecting households to clients.
  5. Follow the cleaning and disinfecting guidelines for items such as your cell phone, keypad, steering wheel and door handles, as well as the lockbox and door handles to the property.
  6. All individuals who will be present for in-person real estate activities should complete a health screening prior to every activity, which could be similar in scope to PAR Form COVID-HSA and could include, but not be limited to the following information regarding whether:
    • In the past 14 days, any residents or visitors have been in direct contact with a person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
    • In the past 14 days, any residents or visitors have been in contact with a person who has been diagnosed with, or is being tested for, COVID-19.
    • In the past 14 days, and residents or visitors have traveled internationally, been on a cruise or been to any domestic location subject to a Federal or state travel advisory.
      NOTE: As of November 20, 2020, travelers visiting PA from another state and PA residents who travel to another state and return are subject to increased restrictions, and should therefore answer ‘yes’ to this question (even if they are covered by an exception to the travel order).
    • In the past 72 hours, any residents or visitors have had a fever of over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
    • In the past 72 hours, any residents or visitors have experienced, coughing, shortness of breath or other recognized symptoms of COVID-19.
  7. Do not allow in-person access to properties where a resident or potential answers “yes” to any of the these questions unless the property owner provides informed consent after reviewing the relevant health information and any explanations.
    NOTE: Most individuals who visit or return to PA from other states will be required to either provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test from within the prior three days or quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Anyone covered by that order should be prepared to produce test results to both the buyer agent and listing agent upon request, OR to explain why they fall under one of the state exemptions, which included those who commute across state borders for work purposes, and other PA residents who return from out-of-state travels of less than 24 hours. (rev. 11/25/2020)

Listing appointments

Initial listing interviews should take place remotely. If an agent believes that a physical inspection of the property is needed to assure accurate pricing, assess health and safety issues, assure accuracy in information transmitted to potential buyers, or to avoid potential litigation for the seller, be sure to discuss the stay-at-home advisory with the seller and assess whether they are comfortable with an in-person visit. If the seller allows an in-person visit, the following procedures should be followed.

  1. Limit the number of individuals who attend in-person listing appointments to the minimum who are necessary (e.g., those making the listing decision) and prohibit all non-essential visitors. Any occupants of the property not directly involved in the listing/selling decisions should either leave the property for the duration of the appointment or utilize appropriate physical distancing.
  2. All individuals who will be present for an in-person appointment should complete a health screening prior to the appointment, which could be similar in scope to PAR Form COVID-HSA.
  3. All individuals at the listing appointment (sellers and agents) must utilize sanitizer and wear masks/face coverings.
  4. Provide relevant safety information to sellers and discuss the benefits and risks of allowing in-person activities. Determine whether additional seller instructions are necessary and formalize any such instructions in writing. (Sellers can impose restrictions greater than those imposed by the government but cannot create rules that would have the agent or buyer violate those orders.)

Marketing and Open Houses

All marketing activities should occur remotely or virtually as much as possible. Be sure to discuss the stay-at-home advisory with both sellers and buyers to assess whether they are comfortable with in-person activities where they may seem necessary.

  1. Utilize electronic marketing as much as possible, which could include virtual tours, virtual showings and virtual open houses.
  2. Where a virtual showing is facilitated by someone other than the seller (e.g., an agent or other service provider is conducting a live walk-through for a remote buyer), the seller should be asked to open all doors and blinds and turn on all lights as if for an actual showing and should be advised not to be present.
  3. Open houses are discouraged. Any visits to the property by potential buyers, scheduled or unscheduled, should follow the rules for showings (see below).

Prior to Showings, Walkthroughs and other Buyer Visits

All activities should occur remotely or virtually as much as possible. Be sure to discuss the stay-at-home advisory with both sellers and buyers to assess whether they are comfortable with in-person activities where they may seem necessary.

  1. Encourage the use of virtual showings before scheduling an in-person showing.
  2. Advise sellers and buyers of the risks and responsibilities involved in showing and visiting properties.
  3. All showings should be offered by appointment only.
  4. Schedule a minimum of 30 minutes between showings to allow for proper cleaning protocols (or longer, based on property size and seller instructions).
  5. Consider limiting in-person showings to those who have been pre-approved by a mortgage lender or who demonstrate proof of funds.
  6. Comply with community/cooperative/condominium/homeowners’ association rules regarding access to buildings or common areas in that community.
  7. All individuals who will be present for the in-person showing should complete a health screening prior to every showing, which could be similar in scope to PAR Form COVID-HSA.
  8. Listing agents should post signs at the entrance to the property requiring all individuals to wear masks/face coverings and maintain physical distancing. Download this sample Realtor® sign. Any additional special requirements of sellers should be provided through the MLS or directly to buyer agents/buyers.

Showings, Walkthroughs and other Buyer Visits

All activities should occur remotely or virtually as much as possible. Be sure to discuss the stay-at-home advisory with both sellers and buyers to assess whether they are comfortable with in-person activities where they may seem necessary.

  1. Agents and buyers must comply with any property access instructions provided by the seller (including those noted in the MLS or in signage at the property). If they do not, the showing should not occur.
  2. When performing any in-person real estate activities, all participants must utilize sanitizer and wear masks/face coverings. Bring plastic bags for disposal and remove all personal protective equipment or other items brought to the property.
  3. Agents should not leave brochures, flyers, business cards, etc. in the property. Any marketing material should be provided virtually or by mail where possible.
  4. Agents and buyers should use their own separate transportation to the property.
  5. Limit the number of individuals who enter the property to the minimum who are necessary (e.g., those making the purchasing decision) and prohibit all non-essential visitors.
  6. Sellers should vacate the dwelling during the showing but may remain outside on the property, exercising appropriate physical distancing.
  7. For occupied properties, Sellers should leave lights on, and leave interior doors, drapes and blinds open to limit the buyer’s interaction with those items. For vacant properties, the listing agent should either ensure these tasks are taken care of prior to the showing or provide instructions for the buyer’s agent to do so.
  8. Avoid physical contact within the property. For example, if doors and curtains are not open do not open them unless absolutely necessary. If something must be touched (e.g., a door must be opened to access a particular area of the property), limit the number of people who touch that surface. If there is a specific issue of importance for the buyer, coordinate that request with the seller prior to the showing (e.g., if the buyers are concerned about closet space, make a specific request that closet doors be left open).
  9. Maintain physical distancing guidelines at all times. If an area is too small to ensure appropriate distancing, stagger entry and exit.
  10. After every showing, buyers and buyer agents should do any cleaning/sanitizing agreed-upon as a condition of the showing instructions, and any person utilizing the lockbox should sanitize the lockbox, key, and doorknobs used for entry.
  11. Minimize the time spent in the dwelling or at the property by having post-showing discussions with buyers away from the property, via remote means (email, video conference, telephone, etc.).

Contract negotiation

  1. Utilize remote means (email, video conference, telephone, etc.) to discuss contract terms with clients whenever possible.
  2. Prepare, deliver and execute contracts electronically or by mail whenever possible.

Other service providers

Most real estate transactions involve the services of multiple service providers, including property inspectors, appraisers and contractors, among others. Some of these services can be provided remotely in part, but to protect the interests of the buyer and seller, at least some in-person activity is generally necessary. Real estate brokers and agents function as a conduit between the consumer and the service provider(s), but cannot control the actions of those providers.

All activities should occur remotely or virtually as much as possible. Be sure to discuss the stay-at-home advisory with both sellers and buyers to assess whether they are comfortable with in-person activities where they may seem necessary. Remember that certain inspections and buyer walkthroughs may be incorporated into the agreement of sale, so additional negotiations may be necessary if a seller seeks to restrict access for health reasons.

  1. All individuals who will be present for any in-person activities should complete a health screening prior to the activity, which could be similar in scope to PAR Form COVID-HSA.
  2. Agents and service providers should utilize sanitizer, and wear masks/face coverings. Bring plastic bags for disposal and remove all personal protective equipment or other items brought to the property.
  3. Sellers should provide any additional access restrictions through the MLS or directly to buyers or buyer agents, and buyers should share those instructions with the providers they select.
  4. Limit the number of individuals who enter the property to the minimum who are necessary, and prohibit all non-essential visitors.

Closings/Settlement

  1. Consult with settlement service providers as early as possible to determine what attendance and safety protocols will be utilized (and follow them).
  2. Agents should not attend settlements unless they are necessary as part of the settlement process.
  3. Advise clients and settlement providers to provide advance copies of documents to agents for review prior to the scheduled settlement date and execute any documents remotely if possible.

Office operations

  1. Unless impossible, all agents and employees must work remotely (away from the office).
  2. All in-person work at an office must adhere to state business guidance, including the “Order of the Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for Mitigation, Enforcement, and Immunity Protections” (Effective November 27, 2020). Brokers will:
    • Designate a COVID-19 compliance officer who is responsible for ensuring compliance with relevant orders.
    • Implement temperature screening at the office before employees start work at the office (including sufficient space for physical distancing while waiting for screening) and send home any employee that has a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
      1. Consider implementing further health screenings, which could be similar in scope to PAR Form COVID-HSA
    • Stagger work times to prevent groups entering and leaving at the same time.
    • Provide sufficient time and space to ensure that employees can maintain physical distancing during breaks, meals, etc.
    • Separate work areas to maintain physical distancing, including different supplies at each work area to prevent the continued shared use of the same office materials.
    • Provide access to hand washing or hand sanitizer upon entering the building and at regular intervals during the workday.
    • Employ protocols to have employees or cleaning staff clean/sanitize surface areas in the office when they arrive and before they leave. These areas should include, but are not limited to, computer, keyboard, telephones, printers, and any other office supplies used.
    • Employ CDC-compliant protocols to clean/sanitize high touch areas in spaces that are accessible to agents, employees or visitors.
    • Require employees and agents to wear masks/face coverings at all times in the office.
    • Provide non-medical masks for employees and agents to wear in the office, or approve masks obtained or made by employees according to Department of Health policies.
    • Prohibit any non-essential visitors from entering the office.
    • Post required health and safety notices, and ensure that all employees have access to this information in English and in their native or preferred language.
  3. Office occupancy cannot exceed 75% of listed capacity, including employees and clients/customers.
  4. Do not bring any food to prepare and/or to share with others in the office. Sanitize kitchen areas after use.
  5. Any client or customer visits to the office should be by appointment only.
  6. Any agents or employees that are sick with coughing, fever and/or other symptoms of COVID-19 should stay home. Consider having agents and employees complete a health screening questionnaire similar in scope to PAR Form COVID-HSA prior to resuming work.

Dealing with a positive COVID-19 test

  1. When made aware of a positive COVID-19 test, identify any licensees, staff, clients, customers, service providers or others who are known to have been in close contact (within about six feet for about 15 minutes) or who may have been in close contact, and promptly provide those names to state or local contact tracers upon request.
  2. Promptly notify employees, staff and clients who were close contacts of any known exposure to COVID-19, while respecting the confidentiality of the diagnosed individual.
  3. Where an agent becomes aware that an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19 has been at a seller’s property, advise the seller to utilize the cleaning and sanitation guidelines for businesses required by the most recent state and federal guidance regarding cleaning or the notification of others who have been in the property (see Resources, below).
  4. Any employee who becomes sick with possible COVID-19 symptoms before going to work must notify the broker and stay home. Any employee who becomes sick during work outside of their home – whether at the office or elsewhere – must notify the broker and go home immediately.
  5. Any employee who is a close contact of a person who has been diagnosed, or who tests positive him or herself, may not go to work and must quarantine/isolate according to instructions by the Department of Health or local health department.
  6. Close off any office area visited by a person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Open outside doors or windows, ventilate with fans (if possible), and wait at least 24 hours before cleaning and disinfecting the area (along with any common areas) as well as any items that may have been touched by that person.

Consistency

All policies will be implemented consistently across all groups of clients and customers to avoid any appearance of discrimination against any protected classes. For example, if licensees implement health screenings they should be done for all individuals using the same questions for all.

Transactions other than residential sales

Any in-person real estate services in transactions other than residential sales (e.g., residential leasing, commercial sales and leasing) should be provided in a manner that is consistent with the general guidelines laid out in this document and the relevant state and federal guidance, with additional precautions based on the unique requirements of those transaction types. Brokers should consult guidance provided by entities that focus on these types of transactions for more specific information, including but not limited to the Institute for Real Estate Management (IREM) or the CCIM Institute (CCIM).

Residential leasing

As a method of slowing down the spread, the state has issued a stay-at-home advisory. This advisory “strongly recommends” - but does not require - only leaving home for essential purposes, and only allowing individuals who aren’t part of a household to be present in a home if they are providing essential services for the health and safety of the household. 

Agents should discuss this advisory with clients to ensure that they are comfortable with any in-person activities - especially anything that involves going into a tenant’s rental unit. Owners may want to add restrictions to showings or even pull their property off the market altogether if they’re not comfortable with the current environment. Prospective tenants may prefer to move showings to a virtual option. Current tenants may request additional safety precautions or cleanings be added for showings. You can certainly take that opportunity to explain the safety steps you are taking to help protect all those involved, but it is ultimately the client’s decision if they feel comfortable with in-person activities. 

  1. Conduct as much business as possible via remote means. This could include creating virtual tours of listed units (or similar model units) and conducting virtual showings with the current resident or an agent providing video.
  2. If the property is currently occupied, review leases for terms related to showings. Consult with both owners and tenants regarding any anticipated in-person activities, how those relate to the lease terms, and the safety precautions that will be put in place.
  3. If there are any conflicts or disagreements with tenants regarding access (e.g., tenants refuse access or demand specific safety measures that owner believes are unnecessary), advise landlords to consult with their counsel before moving forward with in-person activities.
  4. All marketing, showings and contract negotiation should follow the best practices otherwise laid out in this document.

Commercial real estate

  1. Whenever possible, occupied commercial properties should be toured after hours or when there is a minimum number of employees on-site. Ensure that any in-person activities comply with maximum occupancy rules for the business (with the understanding that any agents/clients/service providers would count against maximum occupancy limits while present).
  2. If a commercial property presents other risk factors (e.g., highly trafficked site, food service, etc.), additional precautions specific to those risk factors must be utilized.
  3. Consult resources from Institute for Real Estate Management (IREM) or the CCIM Institute (CCIM) for additional guidance.

Resources

Various governmental agencies and trade associations are issuing requirements, guidance and information. The list below is not comprehensive but provides some of the most commonly cited references that may be of assistance in drafting a brokerage policy.

Several areas of this guidance reference following “the most current” information from certain governmental sources rather than citing specific documents. This has been done to avoid the need to continually update the guidance as governmental mandates change over time. Brokers are responsible for periodically reviewing these mandates and adjusting their brokerage policies accordingly.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) resources
  2. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) resources
  3. Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) general resources
  4. Pennsylvania COVID-19 Resources
    1. Pennsylvania COVID-19 resources for businesses
    2. Pennsylvania mask resources
  5. National Association of Realtors® (NAR) resources
  6. Pennsylvania Association of Realtors® (PAR) resources
  7. Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM) resources
  8. CCIM Institute resources