Before the COVID- 19 pandemic swept through our country, Megan McCleary admits that she had never even heard of a trendy videoconferencing app called Zoom. But months later, the real estate broker with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services says she has had more Zoom meetings than she can keep track of.
“We had various tools in place before the pandemic but are using them now more than ever,” says McCleary. “Listing appointments and showings have been conducted via FaceTime, and paperwork is completed electronically, so there is no physical contact.”
And that’s just one of the many ways that real estate professionals like McCleary have had to readjust and rethink the way they do business since the state was literally shut down by Governor JB Pritzker on March 21.
“I have been using social media for live, virtual open houses since the quarantine started,” she adds. “They are interactive and prospective buyers can ask questions. Once the tour is completed, I can save the tour and share it with prospective buyers as needed.”
A practice created out of necessity has evolved into a valuable resource, and that, McCleary says, is one of many silver linings.
“During this time, we are doing business differently, but activity is still happening,” she explains. “I have multiple new listings across all price ranges and have closed multiple transactions.”
This success speaks to the reality of the real estate market during the coronavirus. While most of non-essential Illinois was told to put life on hold, the essential need to buy and sell homes did not stop. If anything, the impact of the pandemic is skewing the market in favor of West Suburban homeowners.
“We are working harder than ever,” says Chris Pequet, Vice President of Residential Sales for Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty. “Social media and online marketing have exploded. We are seeing five times more online activity than last year at this time.”
Like McCleary’s group, and her team set up shop at home and changed to an all-virtual and online atmosphere.
“We have Zoom meetings for meeting new clients, touching base with old clients, and staff meetings. Our company is even holding weekly Town Hall virtual meetings to keep all the agents up to date with everything going on in the market,” she says, adding: “With virtual open houses and online brochures, along with all of the other marketing tools we have always offered, the activity has been outstanding in what could have been a very quiet spring market.”
Zoom and other digital tools are similarly trending at Dawn McKenna Group (DMG), not just to keep business moving but also to foster support during these unprecedented times.
“My team has been having biweekly meetings via Zoom to stay connected and up-to-date on each other’s market activity and deals in progress,” says Dawn McKenna, founder and principal of the luxury real estate enterprise. “But we are also doing it just to see each other and share our lives. We are all friends and care about each other. We miss that personal interaction, and it is an important part of our success as a team.”
DMG also launched a new initiative on its Instagram called “DMG Instagram Live,” where live online presentations of their properties are hosted on a rotating basis.
“This gives prospective buyers a firsthand look at our homes, allows them to interact with the DMG team member hosting, and ask questions about the featured homes,” McKenna adds. “Additionally, we have hosted several ‘Deep Dives with DMG’ where we invite experts in real estate and related industries to come together to discuss market insights, trends, and more. Our clients have made it very clear to us that even now they want to be kept up-to-date on the real estate market and so that is what we are doing.”
Mike McCurry of The McCurry Group quips that like his colleagues, he had to shift marketing gears into a virtual reality dominated by “Zoom and blue jeans.”
“The biggest adjustment that we have made is making appointments to show homes. Now we can easily see which sellers and buyers are motivated by their flexibility to allow showings or go see properties,” he says. “We have been able to keep our clients safe during showings but some have not been out of their homes at all so it can be scary to allow people into your home.”
To counter that fear and ensure the safety of all, McCurry’s group also proceeded following new protocol to any face-to-face contact.
“We have created an environment for excellent virtual meetings. Face-to-face meetings have dropped by 70 percent so honoring our clients’ time has been a high priority,” he adds.
THE “NEW NORMAL”
Even as we transition into the unknown waters of this next phase of recovery, Beth Burtt, a Hinsdale-based agent with Baird & Warner, says she and her partners will continue to uphold the safety precautions that were put in place when the pandemic started.
“We wear masks, gloves, and carry Clorox wipes. We also ask the seller if they would be comfortable with us turning on lights, opening closet doors, and arranging everything so nothing is touched,” says Burtt. “The buyers are asked not to touch anything, and we will be the only one to touch the light switches and the doorknobs. Then, as we leave, we wipe down the front door and key. It has evolved into a comfortable situation for everyone.”
It’s also translating into good news for business.
“We are having an increase in showings, and there are homes going under contract,” she adds. “It has started to be fun to do short live tours and I am getting much more relaxed filming! We are doing FaceTime tours for buyers who are not comfortable coming into a home or cannot come in from out of town. In the last few days, I rented a home and a colleague sold a home based on the Face- Time tours.”
Tracy Anderson, founding broker with Compass real estate in Hinsdale, says there are things about this “new normal” that she hopes are here to stay.
“The strategy has shifted more to try to give the potential buyer as much information and visualization of the home as possible before making an actual appointment. And I have to say, I see this shift as a positive outcome of sheltering-in-place,” she explains. “Buyers are less likely to be out kicking tires. They are much more focused. I am doing virtual showings via FaceTime, using Matterport 3D technology, video recording the neighborhood so buyers who are out of town or can’t drive by are able to see what the surrounding area looks like.”
At press time, Anderson was also poised for a notable first.
“Well, if our offer gets accepted, it will be the first time my buyers bought 100 percent without personally seeing the home,” she says. “I have FaceTimed one spouse in the past but this time, we did everything via Facetime.”
Another agent with Compass, Berger, says while she and her team have heavily relied on virtual tools for some time, going through the shutdown has resulted in more teamwork and collaboration.
“My two transaction coordinators and I have always worked somewhat virtually because I’m usually out and about and talk through text and calls all day anyway. We’ve always been a well-oiled machine, so this has kind of streamlined it even more so now,” she explains. “I have asked that they take the time they need with their kids, and I am doing more of the day-to-day than I had usually been doing. If I have the time, I am doing more of the daily tasks myself and trying to give them time to be with their kids at home, teaching and homeschooling. We are working together and giving each other what the other needs.”
Another local agent, Emily Sachs Wong of @Properties, shares similar stories. Like her colleagues, she and her team embraced Zoom and similar digital resources to take their business online.
“We are doing Zoom open houses, Zoom meetings, virtual showings … basically whatever we have to do to assist in getting the house sold,” says Wong, sharing a prediction that could change the face of the West Suburban real estate market for years to come.
“In the wake of this pandemic, I would plan on more city buyers moving in,” she explains. “People want space now, so this is good news for all suburbs.”
STATE OF THE MARKET
Berger also foresees an “exodus out of the city” as a result of COVID-19.
“I think the Hinsdale area is going to be busy once this all lifts. If you have the means to move from another town or the city, why wouldn’t you want to live in this area? We have everything,” she says. “I really think the younger families that have stayed in the city with kids are realizing that they actually need a house with grass space or an area where parks are in abundance—and more elbow room than their city dwellings.”
Linda Feinstein, a managing broker and team leader at Compass in Hinsdale, is already seeing that trend emerge with her clients.
“We have found that many city residents have decided they are no longer comfortable with the density of downtown,” she says. “With the charm of our village, great schools, spacious parks, and easy commute to the city, Hinsdale and surrounding areas are a popular choice right now.”
While the market never truly lost momentum, our local real estate experts only see it heating up later this summer and fall.
“Home is such a huge component to this pandemic, and people have had this time to analyze it, all of which, I think, will result in change,” Berger says. “That means purchases.”
Anderson agrees, anticipating a new focus on making sure every room is as functional as it is beautiful.
“Rooms that didn’t previously get as much use as they did pre-COVID-19 are getting a workout. I see exercise rooms or at least a designated space for exercise becoming more important, space for each member of the family to work and school from,” she says. “Home offices going forward are going to be of extreme importance, as I imagine many businesses have discovered their employees can productively work from home more so than they thought.”
Based on her team’s current sales during these “worst of times,” Burtt sees nothing but potential ahead.
“We are optimistic about the Hinsdale market. We headed into the spring with a stronger market than in the last few years, so we hope to gain back much of the strength fueled by demand and unbelievably low interest rates,” she says. “Many of the city families will now head to the suburbs, and Hinsdale has always been an attractive area with top schools, 18 miles distance to the city, express trains that are only 20 minutes, easy access to two airports, a strong community, and a great village.”
McCurry also anticipates an increased demand as a result of this crisis.
“I see the end of the second quarter ramping up, then, going into our best third quarter that we’ve experienced in years,” he says. “There will be a lot of pent-up demand after staying in our homes, working out of our living rooms and small home workspaces.”
Does this mean that Hinsdale and surrounding communities could see a new influx of younger residents?
Absolutely, according to McKenna.
“The Hinsdale market has always been strong and has proven resilient despite the stay-at-home order, and I believe it will stay strong. Suburban living is in high demand right now, and Hinsdale is among the best suburbs in the country,” she says. “Lately we have been fielding a lot more questions from younger buyers beginning to think about starting families outside of the city.”
Julie Sutton, principal of The Julie Sutton Group at Compass, says this new crop of urban buyers also realizes the joy of the suburban backyard after being forced to stay inside for months.
“We are seeing increased numbers of city buyers who are wanting more square footage and more outdoor space,” she says, offering an even more inspiring story that bodes well for our collective future.
“At the start of the shelter-in-place, we sold a home in a price point that hasn’t had a closed sale in over 18 months. The confidence of that buyer, that the market would quickly rebound, has been witnessed in all of our buyers and sellers,” explains Sutton. “I don’t think the market activity will dip between the Fourth of July and Labor Day but will pick up and remain steady into the fourth quarter. This could result in one of the best years for real estate in a long time.”
While the pandemic has brought turmoil and uncertainty to our lives these past few months, McCleary and her colleagues acknowledge the positive things they already see coming from this.
Zoom, for example, isn’t going away anytime soon. Shifting to digital marketing strategies and virtual showings reveals an efficiency that some real estate professionals are only planning to build on in the months ahead.
And yet there are some things—vital things—about the real estate business that we may never want to lose.
“I expect we will continue to use the technology we have implemented during this time,” says McCleary. “But nothing can replace the in-person showing. A home is a big investment and people want to experience it when making a decision this important.”