Gov. Tom Wolf has begun to roll back certain business opening rules yesterday based on an increase in COVID-19 cases nationally and here in Pennsylvania.
The part of the governor’s order generating the most member questions reads as follows:
“Unless not possible, all businesses are required to conduct their operations in whole or in part remotely through individual teleworking of their employees in the jurisdiction or jurisdictions in which they do business. Where telework is not possible, employees may conduct in-person business operations, provided that the businesses fully comply with all substantive aspects of” the various orders that are already in place.
So what does this mean for Realtors®?
Nothing in the newest orders directly address real estate practice, though the orders and underlying testing trends do suggest some things that Realtors® should keep in mind in your daily practice so real estate avoids the fate of restaurants and bars. Here are some answers to questions we’ve already received:
Q. Has real estate been deemed as essential/life-sustaining?
Honestly, that’s not the right question to ask at this point. While that concept was the starting point for the administration’s original business closure orders, it’s clear that they are taking business categories on a case-by-case at the moment. The most obvious example here is that restaurants are listed as life-sustaining, but their ability to operate is being severely restricted. Real estate and construction are not considered life-sustaining, but are mostly open.
So, to answer directly, no – real estate has not been moved into the category of “life-sustaining” businesses. But the administration is clear that business segments are being handled individually, so real estate practice will rise or fall on how well you are able to protect the health of yourself and your consumers, not that arbitrary categorization.
Q. Are brokers required to close their office and only allow remote work?
If there are activities that must be done in-person, you can keep doing them in-person. And realistically, in-person activities can be maintained for those things that are just waaaay better when they’re in person. But for things that don’t need in-person contact, brokers and agents should go back to remote work.
For example, even though remote notary is legal, we know that many lenders won’t accept electronic notarization, or there are areas where it’s almost impossible to make it happen. So, in-person closings shouldn’t be affected.
Similarly, there is no effective substitute to a prospective buyer actually walking through a property before purchasing it. But while in-person walkthroughs can be maintained because of their transactional value, brokers and agents should tighten down how often they happen and be sure to re-emphasize virtual showings and similar marketing techniques.
Q. Can we still do open houses?
The order does not directly address open houses, but does state that in-person activity should only occur where it is “not possible” to do things remotely. Brokers and agents will have to make their own decisions, but the main question will become whether there are other effective ways to market the property virtually, or simply whether there are less risky ways to conduct in-person walkthroughs (e.g., expanding individual appointments rather than having an open house).
Q. Will there be additional restrictions on real estate?
The new rounds of restrictions in Pennsylvania and other states are based on data showing the types of places and behaviors that are generating new infections. The best way to stay off that list is to keep following the rules that are in place. At this point, we’re not aware that real estate has been identified as an major source of infections in Pennsylvania or other states, so let’s just keep it that way.
PAR will be maintaining our best practice recommendations as-is. These mix the minimum state requirements with some next-level precautions that should help minimize infection risks. Keep in-person activities to a minimum. Wear masks. Wipe off the things that get touched. Just generally be a solid citizen and look out for your health and that of your clients.
Of course, if anything changes PAR will let you know. Continue to use our coronavirus resource page to answer your questions, and call the PAR Legal Hotline if you have issues not addressed in our FAQ.