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WORDS: MARANA BRAND IMAGES: SUPPLIED & SHUTTERSTOCK

In the real estate environment, a practice of physical distancing is not easily adopted. After all, the industry mainly relies on personal engagement with clients and giving individuals tours of homes so they can get a feel for the area, the house and the lifestyle on offer. Yet agencies have pulled out all the stops to keep serving clients and clinching deals, even under the most unfavourable of circumstances.

Herschel Jawitz, CEO of Jawitz Properties, says there’s a growing sense of frustration not only from their agents but even more so from their clients about the current lockdown.

“The frustration is felt by everyone – sellers, buyers, lessors and lessees – about their inability to move especially where there are affordability issues or where actual ownership has already passed from the seller to the buyer. An inability to pay rent puts pressure not only on the lessee but equally on the lessor. Even if the lessor has secured a mortgage repayment holiday, those missed payments still need to be made up at some point.”

“But,” says Tony Clarke, MD, Rawson Property Group, “there’s no doubt that we needed to act quickly to continue to serve our customers in these challenging times. No matter what’s happening in the world, people still need a roof over their heads, which will always mean that they need to be able to keep buying, selling and renting property.”

Digital is the (only) way

He says if the coronavirus pandemic has done anything for the industry, “it has shown us that sellers and landlords will be demanding virtual solutions to ensure that their interaction with the marketplace is as remote as possible to preserve the safety element so desperately required while social distancing is commonplace”.

Samual Seeff, chairman, Seeff Property Group, agrees. “More than anything else, the Covid-19 lockdown has highlighted how technology has become a catalyst in real estate. While physical viewings, bond applications and transfers are delayed, Seeff agents have not been sitting idle. On the contrary, they’ve harnessed the power of proptech to assist sellers and buyers with their property needs.”

He says a digital portfolio has made it possible to provide significantly more information about a property, its location (often geo-mapped), an album of images and a video or virtual tour and immediate access to the respective estate agent. “Mobile and digital calling and video means that agents are available 24/7 and can quickly provide assistance and information. Virtual reality makes it possible for potential buyers or investors to even do a 3D virtual walk-through,” Seeff says.

Already flying the digital flag

Richard Gray, CEO, Harcourts South Africa, says the property industry has to approach its business practices in a way that is conducive to growth while still providing effective services to clients. “At Harcourts we have prioritised digital and technological solutions for many years, introducing innovative strategies to take our business forward.”

They have transitioned all their traditional business practices into a fully-fledged digital offering, functioning as an online agency and providing all the necessary services to clients. “We’re finding sellers are engaging with our agents and prospective buyers on multiple levels. Virtual photographic and video solutions showcasing the home in real time has taken buying and leasing property to a whole new level.”

The value of virtual show houses at the moment is obvious, says Clarke. “It’s going to be some time before any of us will feel comfortable having dozens of strangers visiting our homes, so enabling them to take a live, high-quality, virtual walk-through of our properties, and having an interactive experience with our agents in real time, is essential.”

According to Berry Everitt, CEO of the Chas Everitt International property group, they were already venturing in the digital direction long before lockdown and could switch seamlessly to remotely facilitating their home sales and rentals. It also assists in “greening” the real estate business by moving from paper to electronic transactions.

Relationships are still king

“I think the real measure of our success as an industry is not how well we weather this pandemic, or how fully we adopt virtual solutions, but how well we use the lessons we are learning to make our services more flexible, more resilient and more valuable to our clients moving forward, all the while preserving that invaluable personal touch with an experienced property professional,” Clarke says.

Huizemark CEO, Bryan Biehler, says that, “Although technology and digital transformation has been something Huizemark has kept as a priority during its growth, we’ve never lost sight of the value of the relationships we have – not only with our clients but with our agents and franchisees too. We’ve always focussed on providing a property solution, not simply selling a house.” He believes staying in touch and communicating with their communities are key. Even during lockdown, franchisees and agents have been making up to 30 calls per day.

Adds Everitt, “We’ve remained customer-centric in our approach, so that we’re able to serve homebuyers, sellers, investors and tenants wherever they physically are or ‘meet’ them virtually on any communication platform they’re using – from SMS and email to WhatsApp, Instagram and any video calling or conferencing app they prefer.” Their technology now covers end-to-end property sale and rental transactions, which means that all agents are able to work completely remotely, just using a laptop or a cellphone, which they have been encouraged to do for several years.

What’s next?

Going forward, Biehler believes that estate agents will see big changes in the way show days are conducted. As people continue practising social distancing, a property viewing will no longer fulfil a “viewing” purpose, but rather an opportunity to inspect a property, after considerable digital engagement has taken place.

Clarke adds that allowing buyers to tour a property virtually could also become a major service differentiator moving forward. “Not only are live, interactive virtual tours a massive time-saver for buyers narrowing down their property search, they also make it dramatically easier to purchase property from a distance – when relocating or buying an investment property, for example.”

From the seller’s perspective, virtual tours and showhouses would also minimise the number of times they’d need to prep and vacate their homes for show days, removing one of the most common pain points of the sales experience.

Biehler also believes that buyers will soon need to be financially “pre-qualified”. “In a negative economic environment and due to the potential risks involved, sellers are going to want to know what the financial position of potential buyers is before agreeing to access.”

As for virtual valuations, Clarke says these offer homeowners an important opportunity to get an immediate indication of market-related pricing and eliminates the need to wait for the lockdown to be lifted. This could be just the head-start sellers and landlords need to be able to grab the attention of the many buyers and tenants who are currently surfing the portals.

“Additionally, virtual valuations could help homeowners reassess things like insurance coverage to cut unnecessary expenses at a time when finances are under serious pressure.”

And agents?

There are things real estate professionals can do to minimise the downsides of this situation, Adrian Goslett, regional director and CEO of RE/MAX of Southern Africa, believes. “Agents should still be following up with clients via virtual tours and video conversations, trying to line up as many sales as possible. To protect buyers who purchase homes at this time, agents can draft OTPs with a suspensive condition that stipulates that the purchase will only go ahead once the home has passed a physical home inspection after the lockdown has been lifted.”

Biehler foresees an increase in the pressure on agents to up-skill and on real estate agencies to provide relevant, remotely accessible training that takes cognisance of the changes in the real estate arena. “The industry as a whole will have to get used to learning new skills on an ongoing basis or face becoming redundant.”

For clients

“For sellers, it’s an ideal time for home maintenance, garden upkeep and decluttering, which greatly improves the aesthetic appeal of your property. By using this time to improve the presentation of your property, you can ensure that, once the lockdown is over, your home is beautifully presentable to the buyer pool,” says Andrew Golding, CEO, Pam Golding Group.

Buyers are also advised to be focussed and not to take a scattered approach to area and type of property. “Deal with an area specialist and fine tune your requirements so that the agent can guide you to the right property in the right location to suit your needs, including lifestyle and budget.”