Lack of open houses brings COVID casualties

Viewing hundreds of properties is out, hyper-targeted online searching is in


We’re sitting in my living room with our Realtors, discussing upcoming sales strategy for our home. It’s been on the market for two weeks. No buyers. Barely any lookers, even, which has me concerned that I’m on the verge of becoming that most rare and unique type of San Franciscan: the guy who couldn’t sell his house. Someone call Dr. Phil.

The house is gorgeous — really. Every room has been remodeled and the backyard deck is glorious. The location is fantastic. The problem? No parking. Which wouldn’t be a problem at all in an up market. It wasn’t a problem 20 years ago, when we bought it … in an up market.

But the market is good, explains our agent; it’s just “different.” The problem isn’t no garage; the problem is the zero in the field reading “parking” on the MLS. When you set your parameters to “one-plus” for parking, we don’t show up.

It shouldn’t matter, right? San Francisco is a transit-first city. We encourage new developments to have a parking-to-unit ratio that is less than one-to-one. And in the past, a home lacking parking could almost always overcome this handicap by being turn-key (which ours is), updated (ditto), maybe with a view (yes) and some nice outdoor space (see above). The problem is that in 2020, prospective buyers have to jump through the required hygienic hoops, mask-up, douse themselves in hand sanitizer before they can even see the property.

Thanks, COVID.

Back in March, when every ruling body that had a say suspended all open houses, the industry shifted to its only available lane: technology. Technology had to replace open houses — and all in-person viewings, for several months — and in doing so, it unintentionally changed buyers’ strategies. Spending months going to open houses, viewing hundreds of properties is out; hyper-targeted online searching is in.

Also out are the traditional Tuesday “brokers open” tours, in which agents visit homes that check a few of their clients’ boxes but not all, homes with specific strengths that might overcome those empty boxes, homes that aren’t what their clients had imagined but turned out to be what they wanted. That’s gone now. COVID buyers choose their parameters and hit send.

And despite quantum advancements in online viewing, one agent told me, “It’s really hard to convey the mojo of a property (online), even with the best photos.”

About those agents. They’re being forced to rethink their jobs on the fly. Yes, technology has removed a lot of the legwork from the job, but here’s an insider tip: Networking is an enormous part of selling real estate. Sunday open houses aren’t just about selling houses; they’re about networking and generating leads. Tuesday tour was an opportunity to display the “mojo” you can’t see online, but it was also a time to meet casually with colleagues, share marketing strategies, discuss the market and talk up your latest listing. One agent told me that weekly Zoom meetings are filling in a little bit of the empty networking space, but those are limited to invitees. Heaven help the new agent whose career began last March.

On the other hand, an agent on the Peninsula told me, cutting out Sunday open houses also removes all of the time Realtors spend talking to non-buyers. “Having no open houses,” he said, “Hugely eliminates the tire-kickers and nosy neighbors.” Those time-,wasters, once memorably characterized in 1980s Century 21 ads as “lookie-loos,” now spend their time on real estate sites, safely removed from the actual buying process. The process has streamlined, and buyers, another agent said, “are more in charge than they have been” in the past.

Regardless, you can bet that once this all ends — if it all ends — open houses will return. For all of the non-crucial noise they create for buyers, sellers and real estate agents, they do provide a level of shopping detail buyers simply can’t get from Redfin. They allow buyers to cast a wide net, into which they may snare some pleasant surprises they would have otherwise missed.

As for us, we’ve decided that our best option in the age of the verboten open house is to find a leased parking spot somewhere close to our house. That way we can check to correct box on the MLS and — hopefully — get back on buyers’ short lists of homes they’re willing to mask up and actually see in person. I found a spot that’s a block-and-a-half from the house… which is further away than I’ve ever had to park in 20 years.

Wish us luck.

Larry Rosen is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, podcaster and recovering former Realtor. He is a guest columnist and his viewpoint is not necessarily that of the Examiner. The Market Musings real estate column appears every other week.

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