March is typically when the real estate industry comes back to life after long winter hibernation. Like crocuses popping their heads through the spring soil, “For Sale” signs appear on front lawns, signaling a long-awaited thaw in the market.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit this year and Gov. Tom Wolf shut down the state, in-person real estate showings were included among non-essential activities. Like a sudden deep freeze that hits overnight, the market shriveled up and died before it ever had a chance to take root.
Thousands of people who depend on selling real estate – everyone from agents to inspectors to closing clerks – have been idled. Buyers and sellers have been caught in limbo.
“It’s been devastating to the public,” said Tom Skiffington, owner of ReMax440, one of the largest real estate agencies in the area. “It has really affected many families. It amazes me the most life-essential items are food and shelter but shelter has been declared by our governor non-essential.”
State legislator Todd Polinchock (R-144) hopes to change that. He is the prime sponsor of HB 2412, which would allow in-person showings to resume as long as proper precautions are followed. The bill has bipartisan support among its 40-co-sponsors, including upper Bucks reps Wendy Ullman (D-143) and Craig Staats (R-145).
Polichock’s bill would require the Secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development to issue a waiver to the Governor’s Business Closure Order to all real estate-related activities that can adhere to social distancing practices and other mitigation measures defined by the Centers for Disease Control to protect workers and mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Deeming the ability to purchase housing as non-essential “doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“Pennsylvania is the only state to shut down all real estate activities while issuing some selective waivers on an ad hoc basis,” said Polinchock. “There is no consistency. While governors in New Jersey, California, Illinois and New York have issued shelter-in-place orders, they have all included exemptions for real estate.”
Skiffington said he has clients facing homelessness within the next month because of the shutdown. They sold their houses and gave notice to move or relocate but now can’t find anything to buy or rent because realtors can’t show houses, even if they are vacant, he said. On the flip side, he also has people who have bought properties but now can’t sell because they’re not allowed to show.
Some people have become so desperate they have purchased or leased houses sight unseen with no inspections, he said, depending only on photos and virtual tours, a scary proposition for such an important decision.
Some states are allowing Realtors to show properties one person at a time, with face masks and gloves required, said Skiffington. They use hand sanitizer before and after showings and nothing in the house is touched, except by the Realtor but opening and closing doors, he said.
The is no reason Pennsylvania couldn’t do the same, he said.
“It is much less risky than going to the gas station or grocery store,” said Skiffington. “We never should have been shut down in the first place.”