At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly three years ago, real estate agents across the country began preparing for the worst.
“When COVID first started I thought we would all be sitting around doing nothing,” Katie French, a Hartford, Connecticut-based Coldwell Banker agent, said. “I thought it was going to come to a screeching halt.”
Instead, the exact opposite happened.
“After maybe one or two weeks of quiet, all of a sudden everything just went crazy,” French said. “I can’t say that I’ve ever seen anything like that before and I don’t think we will see anything like it again.”
As homebuyers and investors flooded the housing market, spurred on by cheap loans, real estate agents had to figure out not only how to meet this surge in demand, but also keep themselves and their clients safe and healthy in a world suddenly full of uncertainty.
Real estate agents “had to become the eyes and ears of the homebuyers,” Gretchen Pearson, the broker-owner of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Drysdale Properties, said. “They would get on FaceTime and go, ‘Ok, we are pulling into the neighborhood now and this is your neighbor on the right and on the left and across the street. And this is your walkway.’ Basically taking them through the house step by step. In California, for a while buyers were prohibited from seeing a home until it was in escrow, so we were doing this for a while.”
Although Pearson said FaceTime and live video home tours have largely disappeared, other practices that real estate agents, brokers, and brokerages adopted at the start of the pandemic have endured.
In addition to using video conferencing tools for virtual showings, real estate agents and brokerages began using platforms such as Zoom and Skype to host company-wide meetings and give pitches to potential clients at the start of the pandemic. Those practices have remained in place.
“We were able to get people involved in different niches across the company connected through weekly Zooms,” Pearson said. “I started a weekly ‘Hitters Huddle’ and a Zoom call for agents who really focus on social media. This connectivity of people with similar interests really got to scale and the agents got different insights from people in other parts of the company. We are super connected now”
According to the National Association of Realtors Adopt to Adapt survey, 22% of the study’s 3,557 agent and broker-owner respondents noted increased attendance after the adoption of hybrid meetings, while 20% said hybrid meetings have expanded the diversity and involvement of those who attend.
“Right at the beginning of COVID we had to figure out ways to keep our people connected in a virtual environment, so the first Tuesday of every month I do a company-wide broadcast sales meeting,” Andy Camp, the president of Cutler Real Estate, said. “At first it was all virtual, but now each of our offices host watch parties. But it gives me the opportunity to be in front of every one of our Realtors.”
According to Camp, attendance for the monthly sales meetings typically hovers around 80%-85%, up from 20%-25% pre-pandemic.
Although meetings may appear to be better attended, Meghan McCormick, a Northampton, Massachusetts-based Delap Real Estate agent, questions how meaningful some participants’ engagement is.
“So many people do the meetings with their video and audio off, so are they really listening?” McCormick questioned. “Sometimes our broker will ask a question and there will be no answer. People are logging in, but it is hard to tell if they are really paying attention.”
With more real estate agents choosing to work remotely and turning to video conferencing tools, many brokers have decided to scale back or reimagine office space. According to NAR, 67% of survey respondents have made adjustments to their office space, with 10% reporting that they no longer have a brick-and-mortar office and 11% have moved to a smaller office.
“Since COVID our office seems so much quieter,” McCormick said. “I live two minutes away, so I go in everyday, but I miss that community feel, as a lot of our agents choose to work from home because they live farther away. Now instead of having a bunch of private offices, we have opened up the space and have a community desk area so agents who work part-time or in a more hybrid set up have a place to land when they come in.”
Over at Cutler Real Estate, Camp said he and his firm are still working out how best to reshape and cut down office space after building out web portals for several different departments since the start of the pandemic.
“We did an education portal and a marketing portal, which was huge because our marketing department is very broad,” Camp said. “The portal is a hub for everyone to do their design ordering and download any digital materials for social media.”
Camp said the marketing team has remained working in a remote, virtual environment. No longer do real estate agents go to a central office to have physical meetings with the marketing team at the central office. Meetings are now virtual or at agents’ offices.
According to NAR, 39% of survey respondents adjusted their marketing strategy by using new technology tools.
For some real estate agents, this has resulted in developing a bigger social media presence.
“I started making a lot more video content and taking some of the conversations I would normally have in person with clients and making video content out of them for my social media feed,” McCormick said. “I have continued doing video series for people to follow and to educate clients and they have been huge.”
McCormick during the pandemic also turned to Matterport and drone photography, both of which she continues to use.
“Virtual tours and Matterport became huge because people didn’t have to physically go into someone else’s home,” McCormick said. “I have continued to use Matterport tours and drone footage because it allows people to get a feel for the area and the home before they come look at it in person so they can see if it could potentially be a fit for them.”
Overall, NAR reported that 14% of agents and brokers surveyed have increased the minimum standard on photo and video marketing material since the start of the pandemic.
For Bianca D’Alessio, a New York-based broker and team leader of The Masters Division at Nest Seekers International, the biggest adjustment to the marketing has been geographical targeting.
“We started really tracking where buyers were moving to and coming from and we were seeing buyers coming from the Upper East Side exploring neighborhoods from Downtown all the way through Brooklyn,” D’Alessio said. “We have really studied buyer preferences and it has changed the way we market because we aren’t just competing for clients in a five square block radius anymore. We are competing with firms across the boroughs and within every inventory type. Our market is no longer local.”
D’Alessio said this has led to her firm running marketing campaigns outside of the New York City, Westchester County, Long Island and New Jersey markets, and even partnering with other, out-of-state agents.
In addition to tech tools for marketing, agents and brokers adopted tech tools for overall business operations. Adopt to Adapt survey respondents reported that e-documents was the most impactful tool that agents and brokers started using during the pandemic that they continue to use, with 44% of respondents choosing this tool.
Despite NAR’s survey results, all of the agents and brokers who spoke with RealTrends said they have started using e-documents several years prior to the onset of the pandemic.
“I am a DotLoop person and I have been for almost my entire 10 year career,” McCormick said.
However, McCormick said she felt the pandemic helped increase the pace of adoption of e-documents among agents who were holding out.
“There was a learning curve for a lot of people,” she said. “I think agents were forced into it due to their brokerage and the pandemic. It was a struggle at first for some, but e-document platforms just expanded during the pandemic, and I think it will stay that way forever because it is so much easier for everyone.”
But while agents and brokers acknowledge that many changes currently in place came about when they did due to the pandemic, they feel many of the modifications were on their way.
“Being less dependent on paper, using social media, more video, all of those things had started to trend before the pandemic, but COVID really accelerated things and our agents really jumped on these trends,” Camp said. “We have just had to figure out how best to support them in these different avenues.”