Wait and hurry up: Real estate agents describe challenge of working in pandemic
COVID-19Real Estate

Wait and hurry up: Real estate agents describe challenge of working in pandemic

Two months of limited activity is just one of several hurdles.

503 Linden Ave, one of Cheryl Gerson's listings. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Gerson
503 Linden Ave, one of Cheryl Gerson's listings. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Gerson

When Cheryl Gerson, a local Jewish real estate professional, was told to stay home from work it was “strange,” she said.

“It’s hard,” echoed Sherri Mayer a real estate agent whose office is in Squirrel Hill. “We’re so used to working 24/7 and then we were not allowed to do anything.”

COVID-19 reoriented concepts of work and home, but as Gerson, Mayer and other local agents noted, professionally navigating a pandemic proves especially challenging for those whose work is home.

“The two months of sitting idly by was frustrating,” said Melissa Reich, senior vice president of residential sales at Rubinoff Realty. “It all happened at the peak of the spring market.”

Melissa Reich. Photo courtesy of Melissa Reich

In mid-March, real estate activity essentially froze between buyers, sellers and agents, as per statewide COVID-19 related restrictions. Professional in-person activities, including inspections and appraisals, were largely halted.

In early April, the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors sought to overturn Gov. Tom Wolf’s ruling that real estate agencies are nonessential businesses. The 35,000 member group filed an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit against Wolf and requested that the governor designate real estate services as a life-sustaining business; however, it wasn’t until May 19 that limited operations were permitted again.

“This industry impacts numerous types of businesses and Pennsylvania homebuyers who are in the process of, or considering, purchasing a home. It’s critical that these businesses, regardless of whether they are in red phase or yellow phase counties, strictly adhere to all appropriate guidelines and guidance,” said Wolf in a statement.

The governor’s mid-May guidelines noted that “all businesses, even those that are authorized to maintain in-person operations, must minimize opportunities for personal interaction because such interactions provide greater opportunities for the transmission of COVID-19. Businesses must employ remote or virtual methods of doing business whenever and wherever possible.”

The two months of sitting idly by was frustrating

When those guidelines were released — including their requirements that “no more than the real estate professional and two people” be inside a property at one time, and that all parties must wear masks on-site — and working began to be permitted, “we had a huge influx of homes that came back on the market,” said Denise Serbin, of Howard Hannah. Similarly, there were “a lot of buyers that were really chomping at the bit to get into the homes because for two months we couldn’t get buyers into those properties.”

It was “gangbusters,” echoed Reich. That first weekend “we were armed with COVID specific addendums, gloves, masks and booties, and we hit the ground running.”

Much hasn’t changed during the past two weeks, as real estate professionals described feverishly driving throughout the area with ample supplies of personal protective equipment en route to meeting with clients.

David Knoll. Photo courtesy of David Knoll

“I think all agents were concerned for everybody’s safety and health,” said Jill Portland, real estate broker owner at RE/MAX Realty Brokers.

Where the professionals differed, however, was in their perception of the local market.

“We’re so far behind on listings. There’s nothing out there,” said Mayer. That’s partially because “people just don’t move that much, and there isn’t anything for them to move to. If you’re looking for a bigger house there isn’t much to move to, or if you’re looking for a condo or a smaller house there isn’t much if you want to stay in the neighborhood.”

“We’ve had a shortage of inventory and we have a lot of people wanting property in Pittsburgh,” echoed Portland.

Serbin had a different perspective.

“The real estate market is thriving,” she said. “We picked back up very quickly. Fortunately, there were enough people who didn’t lose their jobs and the economic system didn’t affect them personally.”

“Homes have continued to sell once the market was reopened,” said David Knoll, partner at Fifth & Grant Real Estate Services, however, potential buyers haven’t necessarily emerged unscathed from the pandemic. “Unlike previous years, many buyers will slowly dip their toes in the water instead of jumping in the pool.”

“The long term effects will shake out in next few months,” said Reich. For now, “I still think we are trying to satisfy the needs of the spring market.”

Sitting at home for two months was “torturous,” she added. “We are ready to service our buyers and sellers, and we are eager to get the job done with the limitations we are facing.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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