One Year Later: How COVID-19 Impacted REALTORS® Across Canada

Looking back on 2020, it will be remembered as a roller coaster of a year in every industry, in every corner of the globe—a year unlike any in history. It started out like any other, but no one could have predicted the impacts of a novel coronavirus that was spreading across the planet.

In March, as the country went into lockdown, real estate transactions came to a grinding halt. As weeks turned into months, REALTORS® learned to adapt to this new normal, and the industry started to see some unusual trends.

“Looking back to New Year’s Eve 2019 seems like both forever ago and the blink of an eye… I guess that’s what a worldwide pandemic will do. Heading into my year as Chair, I didn’t know what to expect; I can tell you for certain, this wasn’t it,” said CREA Chair Costa Poulopoulos in his 2020 year end message.

“As REALTORS®, we pride ourselves in how we relate and communicate with people. We want to be there for our clients as they navigate the complicated home buying process. We are an important step in helping Canadians achieve their dreams; don’t forget that. Just because in-person café meetings are now replaced with messy home office Zoom calls, doesn’t diminish the work we’re doing to help keep Canada’s economy rolling,” he said.

We look back on 2020 and how COVID-19 has impacted REALTORS® around the country—from pivoting away from in-person interactions to tackling technology, safety and mental health.

When Sean Morrison took over as president of the Ontario Real Estate Association (OREA) in February, the full impact of this novel coronavirus hadn’t yet hit North America.

“We very much planned for a different year,” he says. “As we moved into March, we were learning more about COVID-19 and realizing this was going to have an impact on our membership.”

That realization hit hard when the country went into lockdown.

“Organizations didn’t have a ‘break glass in case of pandemic’ plan,” says Morrison. “Not since the Spanish flu have we seen something like this hit our shores.”

Boards and associations, along with CREA leading the charge, worked to ensure the REALTOR® community was safe, shifting to remote work and lobbying the federal government to ensure real estate was deemed an essential service and REALTORS® unique needs were considered when emergency relief plans were rolled out.

Woman working in office.

CREA launched an online hub to provide valuable content and insights into all aspects of how the pandemic affected REALTOR® members personally and their work. The hub is populated with resources to help members get READY and SET to GO—government collaborations, tech information, webinars and legal information.

A hub was also created for consumers on Living Room to help Canadians deal with the uncertainty and impact of COVID-19 during the home buying or selling process.

OREA created their own COVID-19 info hub with everything from health guidance to program availability (both provincial and federal).

They also offered more than 35 webinars and provided mental health support for members through Morneau Shepell (which continues to this day), recognizing the enormous toll the pandemic has taken on members’ mental health.

“I’ve been generally paperless for a long time in my personal business,” says Morrison. But this was the first time he listed and sold a property entirely online.

“I had never set foot in the building, I was using Facebook to tour through the house and using [a digital signature platform] to sign it,” he says. “We did 3D mapping of the home so [buyers] could do a full 3D virtual walkthrough first. So certainly, it’s a very different way of doing business.”

Fun fact: Before March 12, 15% of listings included a virtual tour (such as Matterport, iGuide or YouTube) but this quickly grew to 25% in a matter of weeks and continues to grow.

But that way of doing business isn’t necessarily an easy adjustment. “I felt very removed from the process—you lose that personal connection with the client,” he says.

“I pride myself on my personal service,” he adds. “We’ve had some great solutions to the pandemic and it’s certainly something I’ll offer going forward, but I’m very much somebody who likes to be face-to-face with people so that’s the part I’m struggling with during this.”

In early June, buyers started coming back in force, but sellers were still holding back, Morrison says, which was an “amplification of the supply-and-demand issue we had going into the pandemic.”

Pent-up demand resulted in an active summer and fall.

But he’s noticed that buyers are also changing. The focus used to be on kitchens, bathrooms and square footage. The No. 1 request now is green space.

“Everybody wants a backyard … and a home office or fitness area,” says Morrison. “So it’s very much changed that way.”

In Alberta, the real estate market had been struggling for several years prior to COVID-19, but things were starting to look up at the start of the year as jobs returned to the energy sector.

“We were finally starting to see sales activity improve, inventories starting to come down,” says Ann-Marie Lurie, chief economist with the Alberta Real Estate Association (AREA). “Then all of a sudden COVID hit.”

March and April saw a steep pullback in sales activities; listings also came down, which helped to adjust supply. But then something unusual happened, which “has many of us scratching our heads a little bit—and not in a bad way,” she says.

AREA expected sales growth following the initial lockdown, “but not as quickly as it happened and not to the extent,” says Lurie. “We are more balanced today than we were at the beginning of the year.”

It’s perhaps even more surprising, because the energy sector took another hit with more layoffs during the pandemic and the province has some of the highest unemployment numbers in the country.

But, unlike other parts of the country where housing prices are on the rise, prices are lower relative to two years ago, so a combination of lower rates and lower pricing has encouraged some buyers to get into the market while they can.

In Atlantic Canada, the trends were just as surprising. Heading into 2020, Nova Scotia was projected to have another strong year in real estate. But everything came to an abrupt halt on March 13, recalls Chris Peters, president of the Nova Scotia Association of REALTORS® (NSAR), “the day before our kids go into March Break.”

“For me the word to sum up the year is ‘intense,’” he says. “The other word is ‘change.’ We all had to embrace some level of change, whether professionally or personally with our families.”

As for his personal business, Peters had already moved away from open houses prior to the pandemic, so he increased his focus on making the digital experience more engaging, such as through virtual staging and 3D tours.

But that wasn’t an easy switch for a self-declared people-person—which is the case for a lot of REALTORS®.

“I’m a touchy-feely kind of guy, I will drive that extra mile to get the signature [in person],” he says. “So it meant finding more online tools that I can share with my clients and getting a full-fledged Zoom account [instead of the free version with time constraints] … because half an hour is not going to cut it.”

NSAR has always offered mental health supports to its members through a REALTOR® assistance plan, but it’s re-emphasized that since the start of the pandemic, offering webinars to help members understand the supports available to them — and their families. NSAR has also turned to virtual training and sales licensing via Zoom.

For the first few weeks of the initial lockdown, most brokerages ceased open houses. But by mid-April business started to pick up again—faster than the rest of the country. And that’s when things got interesting. Prior to COVID-19, multiple offers weren’t common in Atlantic Canada, “but we started to see that pick up in April, and in May and June we saw that happening on a regular basis,” says Peters.

Sellers were still uneasy with the prospect of strangers coming into their home. “Then June happened,” he says. “We kind of got our groove back. We had a better understanding of what was happening.”

Like elsewhere, a focus on health and safety protocols (such as physical distancing and wearing masks), better availability of PPE and a broad range of new virtual services made sellers more comfortable with the process. By August, “our listing numbers were exceeding what we did in 2019,” says Peters. “That trend is still continuing now.”

With sales outpacing new listings, REALTORS® are now holding offers, which “this time last year was pretty much unheard of,” he says. REALTORS® are also using different technology platforms to communicate with clients and run virtual open houses. “You’re seeing a greater use and uptake in technology,” he says. “I think a lot of those platforms are going to see a lot more continued activity.”

Prior to the pandemic, some REALTORS® were already moving parts of their business online, and the pandemic simply accelerated that.

“REALTORS® are incredibly adaptive—it’s part of our job. We have to be. We have to be fluid in a transaction. So we have that built-in skill,” says Morrison, adding “we can move into a digital space quite comfortably.”

How did COVID-19 affect your life or business? Tell us in the Comments below.

Sarah Doktor brings her experience as a small-town journalist and national online editor to the Canadian Real Estate Association as a Communications Advisor. Sarah helps facilitate conversations between CREA and our members, boards, associations and the public via our online communities. She also helps coordinate the content presented to you here on the CREA Café. In her spare time, Sarah can be found at the gym, running on a trail or watching Netflix with her cat, Libby.

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