Coronavirus: how estate agencies adapt in South Africa
MAIN IMAGE: Tony Clarke, managing director Rawson Property Group; Craig Hutchison, CEO of Engel&Völkers; Yael Geffen, CEO Lew Geffen Sothebys International Realty; Matseleng Mogodi, principal Snooks Estates.
In the wake of the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) declared a national disaster in South Africa, there is little chance of business as usual for anyone. However, people still need homes, so local estate agencies have to find creative ways to provide the services their clients need.
No-one could have foreseen that a national disaster would be declared just little more than two weeks after the first coronavirus infection was confirmed in South Africa. However, people still need homes to buy or rent and local estate agencies are quickly adapting to find creative ways to still provide a service to their clients without placing anyone at an unnecessary risk of infection. Besides the expected focus on hygiene and minimizing social and physical contact, there is also emerging a strong drive towards greater use of digital and online communication tools to conduct everything from meetings, virtual tours of properties and even the signing of legal documents.
On Sunday President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster in South Africa with certain restrictions effective immediately such as a ban on all public meetings of 100+ people, closing of schools and a request that all businesses ensure all measures are taken to intensify hygiene control.
In the past few weeks there has been a worldwide panic reaction with shops in highly affected countries running out of basic supplies – this was also the case in South Africa from Monday. Meanwhile there is still a lot of uncertainty how long this viral infection will continue. On a daily basis newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections are still reported in countries in Europe and in the US and also increasingly in Africa, the only continent relatively unaffected by the viral infection up until a few weeks ago. Only two weeks ago South Africa had it’s first confirmed case but the number of cases has since increased rapidly to 116 by Wednesday and it is expected to continue rising in the weeks to come.
“Never before in the history of our democracy have we been confronted by such a severe situation,” president Ramaphosa said Sunday evening and he is right.
COVID-19 and SA’s real estate sector
Initially the real estate sector didn’t appear that concerned about the virus but following the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic last week as well as the rapid increase in local infections this perception changed fast. Last Friday the Estate Agency Affairs Board (EAAB) evacuated their Johannesburg offices after an employee reported that her partner had been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The staff will only return to work on Monday 23 March* after the premises were sanitized. Both the employee and her partner are receiving tests.
Following the President’s ban on large public gatherings Private Property’s annual The Property Show this coming weekend in Cape Town had to be postponed. Real estate organisations and estate agencies have also cancelled awards functions and the National Association of Managing Agents (NAMA) cancelled their training sessions till further notice.
The Property Show Cape Town 2020 has been postponed because of the coronavirus crisis.
These uncertainties understandably have estate agents worried. Phumzile Makhosana, principal of Linomtha Properties in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, says people don’t know the duration of this crises and whether the country will have a lockdown or not (such as is the case in Italy and more countries in Europe are following suit). “In case we have a lockdown, how will they service their bonds and will they still be employed because some companies might close down? So, there’s a lot on uncertainty about the future impact of this virus hence buyers might think twice to financially commit themselves to long term debt,” says Mkhosana.
“Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has undoubtedly influenced economies and business practices worldwide and the real estate industry is no different,” admits Richard Gray, CEO of Harcourts SA.
However, he says he sees real estate companies nationwide acting decisively cancelling conferences etc. as well as advising their agents to take precautions.
“This medical pandemic is influencing the globe and it is difficult to predict the effect on markets and agent activities. We are taking it day by day, yet at the same time developing plans to mitigate the worst effects. Our first priority is the safety of our industry staff and clients, and we are dedicated to ensuring they are protected at all times. However, we also would caution against panic and believe that if everyone acts responsibly and does whatever they can do to limit the impact of the disease, that it will pass in time,” he ends.
Taking on the challenge
Tony Clarke, managing director of Rawson Property Group, says in light of President’s declaration of the situation as a national disaster, they believe it’s their responsibility to keep themselves and the people around them safe in terms of managing the spread of COVID-19, as well as to continue providing value-adding property services to the clients they serve. Rawsons have implemented the following:
Health and hygiene:
- Refrain to meet with any client that has entered or re-entered the country for a period of 14 days from entry. Same applies to agents and team members that have travelled.
- Team are discouraged to embark on any non-essential air travel.
- Agents are not to interact with clients or team members with cold- or flu symptoms, until the necessary medical steps have been taken.
Meeting clients, attending a viewing or show house:
- Avoid all personal contact and keep 1m distance
- All equipped with sanitizers
- Request clients visiting a seller or landlord’s property to make use of sanitizing products upon entering the property and not to touch anything.
Craig Hutchison, CEO of Engel&Völkers, says it is important that all play their part to prevent the further spreading of this disease. “Although the majority of people who contract the disease make a 100% recovery without feeling very ill, we must be careful not to be blasé about the disease, thinking our bodies can fight it off, and putting the elderly or people with compromised immune systems who are particularly vulnerable at risk,” he says and adds that it is crucial to remain calm and to be careful to minimize social and physical contact for a while until the crisis is over. E&V instituted the following precautions:
- During person-to-person meetings agents take every precaution they are not contagious and practice social distancing and good hygiene.
- Alternatives are in place conference calling, Google hangouts or face-time.
- All clients will be pre-screened in terms of recent travels and possible exposure to the virus to determine the likelihood of possible infections.
- Agents know which questions to ask or symptoms to look for.
- Clients have to sign declaration form with the checklist of possible contamination factors.
- Smaller, private viewings instead of groups will be held by appointment only. Agents will be conducting viewings with only one party at a time and enforcing the prevention methods of social distancing, touching etc. This all eliminates the need for additional risk of exposure for buyers and sellers.
- Sellers are strongly advised to consider exclusive mandates as it will control the number and way in which individuals are shown through the property.
- No touching – Clients will be asked to sterilise their hands or to wear surgical gloves before going through a property without touching items in the house.
- No handshaking – give the elbow, or just nod and wave.
- Virtual home tours are regularly provided. Agents can assist with remote video walk-through appointments.
- Agents are equipped with a full suite of tools constituting a virtual office so that they do not come into contact with more possible contamination sources than what is required.
Yael Geffen, CEO of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty, says: “In real estate, agents deal with the public on a daily basis, meeting many new people in any given week so it’s essential that we all put precautionary steps in place now while infection rates in SA are still low – for our own protection as well as our clients. Their agency have also implemented various measures which include some of the following:
- Alternative communication – If the agent or clients are sick, rather arrange a zoom/facetime/whatsapp video/Microsoft teams call.
- Sanitise hands – All team members have to sanitise hands upon every entry to the premises – even if they’ve just popped out for a minute to buy a sandwich or have a puff.
- Work remotely – Is encouraged, especially if someone in the agent’s or team member’s household is sick.
- Digitise – There are now many apps for digital signatures to sign legal documents remotely. Use trusted software providers that provide authentication and audit logs, among other features. The most popular are: PanaDoc, DocuSign, Adobe Sign and HelloSign.
- Stay home if sick – All team members should not come to office if feeling sick but see a doctor soonest and please keep the office appraised of developments.
“If we all begin taking a few very simple precautions from the get-go, we can significantly reduce the risk of infection and the spread of the virus and thereby minimize the impact on our lives and businesses,” says Geffen.
Smaller agencies have also risen to the challenge. Matseleng Mogodi, principal of Snooks Estates in Gauteng, says they have started to minimize the number of agents’ meetings. There are sanitizers in their offices and agents are encouraged to have them on them.
She says it will not help to panic, so she decided to rather look at the blessings coming with the current situation.
“Yes, it might sound odd, but we are all getting to think differently, we are starting to care and appreciate our relationships, both personally and in business. Businesses are forced to think outside the box, creativity will increase. Parents will get an opportunity to bond and look after their children. We will lose money yes, but the benefits in the long run far outweigh the financial losses we are going to experience now. We are being blessed with an opportunity to rebuild society by working together and seeing that we are all as humans on the same side in this life journey.
“As the gurus say, there is always a blessing in every crisis. Let us look at what opportunities this disaster is affording us, because desperation will make us falter,” she ends.
*(Initial communication from the EAAB stated that they would be back in office by Wednesday 18 March – this date has since been extended to Monday 23 March 2020. The EAAB Board has also apparently been instructed by the health ministry to draw up a coronavirus policy – we are following up on that. Ed.)