For sale sign.TIF

“This carpet really has to go. Then if you buff out all these hardwood floors, they’re going to look really nice.”

Jennifer Gonda-English didn’t miss a beat.

A Realtor for Howard Hanna Real Estate Services in Indiana, Gonda-English was back on the street Friday, showing homes for sale to prospective buyers for the first time in two months.

“Hmmm. Looks like they had some teenagers in this bedroom here. Shouldn’t be hard to get that covered,” she suggested at a home showing in Indiana’s Fourth Ward.

A week ago when Gov. Tom Wolf signaled that Indiana and a dozen other southwestern Pennsylvania counties would transition from the red to yellow phase of the COVID-19 pandemic safety requirements, some lists made clear what businesses would be allowed to open, and which would remain shut down.

“This huge rhododendron. That should come out and another downspout should go here.” Gonda-English, masked and distant from prospective buyers, remained sharp after the layoff. “Look how big it is, the roots could be pushing the basement wall.”

Last week, the real estate business looked to be in limbo. Gonda-English and others at Indiana-area real estate agencies didn’t know when their livelihoods would be reopened in Pennsylvania, the only state in the U.S. that put complete clamps on appraising, showing and selling property.

Clarity came in the past week, and agents began filling their appointment calendars.

“I don’t think it was any miracle that we were added. I think they had intended to add us as soon as we went to yellow,” Gonda-English said. “But I was surprised. I wasn’t too optimistic that they would allow us to open on the 15th. I thought they’d delay us a bit longer.”

But it was a detail in a little-publicized May 6 order from Wolf that included real estate sales among businesses that could reopen in the yellow phase, said broker Doug Lockard, who is with Howard Hanna.

“He gave a better clarity to what activities were going to be permitted under the yellow status,” Lockard said. “If we’re gong to have in-person contact for any real estate-related services, we have to abide by the regulations of the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. Things such as masks, social distancing, minimizing the number of participants in real estate activities, whether it’s for listing or in-person looking at homes or properties and the process of doing agreements for sale.”

Technology helped Realtors to work remotely, trading information and documents and signatures as needed on sale contracts, mainly those that had been in the works on March 18, the day Wolf idled non-essential activity in the commonwealth.

Lockard said real estate agents were idle for almost six weeks. It wasn’t until a memo came out April 28 when Realtors were allowed to finish up property deals that had been signed before the lockdown.

“That was to allow transactions well into the process to be completed by the professionals necessary — agents, inspectors, appraisers, notaries — all those needed to get a sale and closing,” Lockard said. “His original guidance was less than clear. And then there was confusion last week as to whether the guidance on April 28 was superseded by change from red to yellow.

“There was the impression that it was still in effect but the change from red to yellow changed that. But that lack of clarity, and the confusion surrounding these issues, has been difficult to navigate for professionals and the public.”

It was more than real estate agents and their trade organizations that lobbied the governor’s office for a chance to safely go back to work. The General Assembly advanced legislation that would have pushed real estate back into business over and above Wolf’s criticized and periodically updated lists of what constituted life-sustaining businesses.

House Bill 2412, introduced April 16, sped through committee and won approval on the floor April 28.

The measure directs the secretary of community and economic development to issue a waiver to the governor’s COVID-19 business closure order to “all providers of legal services, and residential and commercial real estate services, including settlement services;” requires local municipalities to issue occupancy permits, directs tax offices and utilities to disclose necessary payment status for properties; and orders everyone involved in the process to “adhere to social distancing practices and other mitigation measures” to stem the spread of coronavirus.

The bill then cleared two Senate committees between May 6 and Tuesday, and was adopted in the chamber Wednesday. The House on Thursday voted again to approve changes made in the Senate and sent it to Wolf for his signature.

“What was interesting was that we achieved a two-thirds vote, which signaled the ability to override a veto,” said Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana. “Five Democratic senators joined the Republican caucus to support that bill.

“The bill received large bipartisan support; there was very little understanding of why real estate transactions could not occur in a safe and common-sense manner, particularly when you consider that we are not forcing people to buy a home or piece of property. Yet there are circumstances where people need a home, obviously, for their own safety and security.

“It was one of those issues where the governor hopefully has seen the judgment of the Legislature is that real estate should be able to operate. Whether he vetoes that bill remains to be seen,” Pittman said.

Thus the segue back to life Friday for property sales in Indiana County.

“We sensed a few weeks ago the idea that restrictions would start to be relaxed,” Lockard said. “It reinvigorated the real estate market and we saw that building up this week. It resulted in quite a few property showings and viewings today and more scheduled for the weekend and beyond.”

Realistically, Lockard said, agents have concerns that the quick restart might be a temporary flare.

“It’s not certain how deep this demand is and how long it will last. Buyers are being impacted as well. Some who previously were qualified (for mortgages) may now drop out of that after using their resources to pay bills during the shutdown,” he said.

At the same time, Lockard said, interest rates have plunged and the inventory of properties for sale has burgeoned since March, making it a good time for house-shopping.

“There was a pent-up demand coming out of the gate and we were happy to see it. People with homes for sale were happy to see it,” he said, and so should people at home improvement supply stores, landscapers, plumbers, electricians and related businesses that could expect a boost in trade as buyers fix up their new houses.

“We hope it will give the industry and local economy a shot in the arm,” Lockard said.