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New York’s real estate business is ‘essential,’ but showings must be virtual

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New guidance from the Empire State Development Corporation allows real estate deals to move forward, albeit with caveats


The real estate business is officially essential under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s PAUSE order, albeit with some important caveats.

The Empire State Development Corporation, the economic arm for New York state, has changed course on the real estate business during the COVID-19 crisis, just over two weeks after Cuomo deemed it nonessential. The guidance from ESD still encourages real estate agents to “maintain social distance to the extent possible,” but notes that showings (for both residential and commercial properties), inspections, and appraisals may resume.

What this doesn’t mean is that traditional viewings—open houses, or even having an agent bring a client into a home for a one-on-one appointment—should continue, as was previously reported.

“Being an ‘essential’ industry does not mean business as usual — business can only be conducted if social distancing and other public health protocols are followed and all must be doing everything they can to help stop the spread,” a spokesperson for ESD said in a statement. “For real estate, that means brokers can only transact business in their offices or show properties virtually, and anything else is off limits.”

The New York State Association of Realtors posted what it says is the official notice from ESD regarding the real estate industry, which reads as follows:

Essential Businesses must continue to comply with the guidance and directives for maintaining a clean and safe work environment issued by the Department of Health and every business, even if essential, is strongly urged to maintain social distance to the extent possible.

The following functions of real estate and/or realtors (sic) are considered essential: residential home and commercial office showings; home inspections; and residential appraisers.

Back-office real estate work is deemed essential, but please utilize telecommuting or work from home procedures to the maximum extent possible.

“Our industry has been given a great responsibility in this time of crisis to help meet the needs of New York’s residential and commercial property buyers and owners, and the overall welfare of the local and state economy,” NYSAR President Jennifer Stevenson said in a statement. She also noted that “[o]ur mantra must be ‘safety first, work second.”

It’s unclear how brokerages in New York City will respond to the new ruling. In an email to its members reviewed by Curbed, the Real Estate Board of New York emphasized that ESD’s new guidelines were not final and that “[a]ll previous executive orders and guidelines remain in effect.”

In a statement, James Whalen, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said that “Our understanding is that these guidelines have not been published by ESDC and are not final. The health and safety of New Yorkers must remain paramount.”

“Many buildings don’t want so-called strangers coming in and out of the property and the same goes for many of our individual clients. People are not comfortable sharing space in this environment and that is understandable,” says Bess Freedman, the CEO of Brown Harris Stevens. “Nearly every facet of the buying, selling, and renting process can be done virtually at this point and that’s what we are telling our agents and our clients. The more we can flatten the curve, the faster we can get back to doing business as usual.”

Many brokerages had already begun working remotely and shifting their in-person approach to the digital world: Compass sent instructions to its brokers on how to do virtual open houses through Instagram, Facebook Live, and YouTube; Ideal Properties Group and Nooklyn launched virtual showing platforms; and Elegran started conducting applications, lease signings, and payments online while offering virtual reality tours (like this one).

Still, the market has taken some noticeable hits. In the week of March 16, when New York City began shutting down with a series of government-mandated closures, nearly 450 listings were pulled off the market, according to analysis by UrbanDigs, a Manhattan real estate data firm. Contract signings were nearly halved from 214 to 109 compared to the same week last year, and the number of listings that went live sank by a whopping 79 percent.

The new guidance from ESD may help give the real estate industry a boost, but some agents have also expressed concern over the new ruling. “It makes sense that real estate is considered an essential asset, but I am not sure how many sellers will want strangers six feet apart with or without masks and gloves in their homes,” says Wendy Arriz, a real estate agent with Warburg Realty.

“I would not advise any of my sellers to list now,” Arriz says. “The goal is to flatten the curve and keep everyone safe—that includes real estate agents too, right?”

Additional reporting by Caroline Spivack and Valeria Ricciulli.