A downtown Toronto condo unit that had undergone a massive renovation went up for listing in mid-May when Toronto Realty Group Broker Daniel Fleming received a notice from property management saying he couldn’t show the unit in-person, at least, not until the provincial emergency order was lifted. After a series of back-and-forth emails, he was finally granted access.
“I understand if it’s a building down by the waterfront with an aging population at the height of the pandemic, but now, almost every condo I know is allowing showings and people are wearing masks and being safe,” he says, adding that a handful of condos still ban viewings.
The pandemic is creating a different real estate experience for many—realtors, their clients, owners, residents, and managers who field complaints and requests on all matters. As Ontario reopens the province, the odds of a condo corporation preventing in-person showings are likely low. But with the potential for a second wave and an uncertain trajectory for the virus keeping many on their toes, the go-see-a-condo, move-in, move-out process is not as simple anymore.
Like many realtors, Ryan Wykes, senior vice-president of sales at condos.ca, found it impossible to move units in buildings that shut down in-person showings back in March and April. That turned for the better after phase one of reopening, but tenanted units have recently caused a bit of unpredictability. Such was the case with a pregnant tenant who wouldn’t allow anyone inside the unit, despite ramped up safety protocols. “We couldn’t start showing the place until they were out; now my client is sitting with a vacant condo even though he knew for sixty days they were going to be leaving,” he says.
Tenants are not allowed to prevent their landlords, or the agent if showing the unit, from entering, as long as reasonable notice is provided and it is in accordance with the lease, says condo lawyer Denise Lash. And if a tenant refuses access, a condo corporation is advised to not get involved in an owner-tenant dispute, unless it affects the corporation, she notes.
“Of course if there are health risks, a landlord should be accommodating that tenant,” she says. “That does not mean that they cannot enter the unit to show it. It just means that steps will need to be taken to ensure the tenant is not placed at risk.”
Outside the city, showings started smoothing out for Ashley Lamb, sales representative at Keller Williams Experience Realty in Barrie. Up until June, one “hiccup” she found was not being able to access a lock-box; some condos wouldn’t allow them on the premises. Now that offices have opened up again in phase three, some property managers are allowing lock-boxes as a short-term solution and the process isn’t as daunting.
Meanwhile, when someone moves into a unit, that brings a whole set of other complications. Eric Plant, director of Brilliant Property Management, is overseeing elevator modernization projects that started in two separate buildings pre-pandemic. “Whenever someone moves, we have no elevator at all,” he says. “To cope, we have had to have them bring everything off the truck and into the lobby, and only put the elevator on service to load it, bring it upstairs, and unload it. After each use, the super would clean the elevator while the movers unload, and then repeat the process as many times as necessary to get all of their stuff moved.”
Aside from ensuring additional cleaning of the lobby and elevators, he says the biggest challenge is managing residents’ concerns. “Many people are rightfully fearful of getting sick, and seeing movers, furniture, and new people coming and going through their lobby can lead to a lot of anxiety,” he says. “We have found that giving notice in advance to residents has helped a great deal, as people can avoid the area if they are concerned.”
Fortunately, more buyers are searching for multi-residential homes compared to April. “Buyer confidence is coming back, but the condo market is soft,” says Fleming. “I haven’t seen it this soft in a long time.”
Same goes for Wykes. “There are more people looking to move and buy and sell again, but there are more people selling than buying,” he says. “We’ve definitely seen a bounce back in the rental market in the number of transactions, but the number of inventory keeps going up and up and up.”
With bylaws on short-term rentals and travel restrictions in place, more long-term rentals are sitting empty in Toronto. A report from Urbanation found that the number of furnished condo rental listings offered for 12-month leases rose 52 per cent in Q2 to 1,877 units. This represented 12 per cent of all condo rental listings in the GTA during the quarter and 21 per cent of the growth in total condo rental listings compared to last year. “If owners can’t afford to let rentals sit empty and mortgage deferrals run out, that’s just going to get pushed to the resale market,” says Wykes. “But we don’t know what will happen with phase three of reopening and how much that will drive consumer confidence and the economy.”
An Ipsos survey the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board commissioned in May shows home ownership intentions remain healthy, which suggests buyers may be looking to satisfy pent-up demand when normalcy is restored. This is already the case, to some degree, in Barrie where housing is more affordable (a 1,460 square-foot, three-bedroom condo goes for $500,000). Condo sales in that market were down in April, when Lamb says everything seemed to “just pause.” Since then, condo sales have doubled every month. She saw confidence come back after stage two of reopening. “I think a lot of first-time buyers are trying to take advantage of the low interest rates now,” she says. “We’re getting multiple offers on any condo under $400,000. It’s definitely strong.”
Virtual Condo Showings, Open Houses
To keep business moving forward, more real estate professionals are hosting 3D virtual showings so homebuyers can explore every angle of a new unit through the realtor’s eyes, asking questions in real-time via FaceTime, Facebook or Zoom. In Barrie, Lamb is seeing virtual showings quickly die off. “There was definitely hype back in April, but once the economy opens up, this virtual alternative will be obsolete,” she says. “We didn’t dive into that.”
The immersive 3D-modeling technology she already had in place proved helpful enough that she hasn’t had to conduct any virtual showings yet. Virtual property tours have existed in various forms over the years—many realtors have stepped up these “dollhouse” versions in the past few months. On the higher end, users can walk through a unit and get a 360-degree perspective by clicking on various points in the rooms. Some programs offer measurement tools and floor plans and the ability to zoom in closely. “When you’re buying a condo, you’re not buying a unit; you’re buying into the whole complex and lifestyle,” says Lamb, who pays for a drone to capture an aerial view of the condo. A potential buyer can fly into the building through the lobby, walk onto the elevators, down the hallway and into the unit.
Even though in-person showings have resumed, people are doing more research ahead of time and “being more prudent about which properties they want to go see,” Wykes says. Instead of viewing six properties in person, virtual tours are cutting that number in half. “People are being a lot more selective. Online marketing with 3D virtual tours is of the utmost importance for our future success.”
They might also clamp down on open houses, which can resume during phase three of reopening. Condo corporations can still restrict them if there is a valid reason for doing so, says Lash. She adds that individual showings are fine if proper protocols are in place—mask-wearing, physical distancing, no touching.
“We are not recommending banning showings, since a showing is similar to visitors entering to visit with owners—as long as these are not open houses that create a lot of activity and could pose health risks by doing so,” she says. “It also depends on whether the condo has a vulnerable population, which may require more stringent and restrictive measures be taken.”
Pre-COVID, many condos didn’t allow open houses due to security risks; Wykes thinks many more will prohibit them going forward.
“Open houses are a dated practice and an old school way of generating leads,” he says. “They were needed way back in the days when the internet didn’t exist. People didn’t have phones; they didn’t have 3D virtual walk-throughs; work plans weren’t online at their fingertips.”
As more serious buyers schedule private viewings, protocols are in place to thwart virus transmission—for instance, leaving light switches on and keeping touching to a minimum. Many condos have already implemented a policy for mask usage in common areas such as elevators, lobbies and hallways. In Toronto, this is now mandatory. Some agents, like Lamb, do extra by asking clients to sanitize hands before touching elevators and upon entering a unit. Wykes keeps a box of masks and gloves in his car in case clients show up without them. Even with protocols in place ahead of a potential second wave, there are always gaps.
“There are a lot of smaller condos that don’t have commercial hand sanitizers right when you walk into the lobby, and there are a lot of people, especially agents, that unfortunately don’t care and will walk in with no hand sanitizer,” Lamb cautions.
It is, however, usually the agent who will make sure protocols are in place during showings, says Lash, who advises that condo corporations not get involved with visitors or units being shown to potential buyers. “It is the unit owners’ responsibility to ensure their visitors and others do not pose a risk to others in their community and the condominium corporation continues to be responsible for keeping the common element areas as safe as reasonably possible.”
If a second wave does arrive, with certain measures in place and new habits formed, it will be more about reimplementing many real estate procedures learned during the lockdown, says Lamb.
“Before it was oh my gosh what do we do,” she says. “Now, we already know what to do—I think people are going to build on that. I have certain habits now I didn’t have back in March, which makes it a lot easier.”
This article appeared in print in the July/August 2020 issue of CondoBusiness magazine.