It came as a surprise to some Seattle-area real estate brokers when Gov. Jay Inslee on Saturday modified his statewide stay-at-home order to allow most real estate activity to continue unhindered — even in-person showings, provided proper social distance is maintained.
“When I saw the order, I was flabbergasted. I was really upset,” said Windermere broker Sol Villarreal. “When I think of essential business, I think of something that’s going to keep people alive right now. Real estate to me is not in that category.”
The change came as the result of a weeklong lobbying campaign by Washington Realtors, a statewide industry group with clout in Olympia, which told members that “our staff has been meeting two to three times a day with the governor’s liaison to plead our case.”
The new order says in-person showings can go ahead as long as no more than two people are touring a home at once, and it clarifies that home inspections, appraisals and final walk-throughs are allowed to proceed.
Open houses are still a no-no. But the new order significantly loosens the rules from Inslee’s initial March 23 edict, which local industry groups interpreted to mean real estate agents were not allowed to conduct any business in person, according to emails sent to members.
A day after Inslee announced the stay-at-home order, the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWMLS), which coordinates residential property sales across 23 Western Washington counties, emailed its 32,000 members that “any person who violates the Governor’s order not only puts himself/herself and his/her family at great personal risk, but also puts the real estate firm and his/her clients at risk.”
In an email Sunday, NWMLS general counsel Justin Haag said that was “still true today – even taking into consideration the modifications to the Governor’s order.”
Simultaneously, the statewide real estate group was pushing for looser regulations. A March 24 document arguing for an exemption drafted by one of the group’s Olympia lobbyists, Bill Clark, contained language that was ultimately included verbatim in the governor’s order.
Almost as soon as Inslee’s new mandate arrived in brokers’ inboxes Saturday, enthusiasm abounded to restart a real estate market that for the previous week had been in a state of suspended animation.
“Real estate is not completely back to normal yet of course, but showings and inspections are allowed now. Let’s go look at homes!” wrote Katherine Persinger, a Keller Williams agent in King and Snohomish counties, on her Instagram account.
Anticipating he wouldn’t be allowed to show homes after last Wednesday, John L. Scott agent Paul Mackay Jr. last week bought four new lockboxes to replace the lockboxes provided by the NWMLS, which can only be opened by an agent, so clients could enter homes without him.
Now, he won’t need to use them. The new order is “perfect,” he said.
“There’s a balance between a safe working environment and some of the restrictions on real estate sales,” he said. “I have seven sellers who if they do not sell their homes right now, they are going to have economic hardship in the future.”
Realtors made a similar point in their lobbying pitch to Inslee’s office.
“There are about 18,000 (residential property) transactions statewide in progress,” said Nathan Gorton, the group’s government affairs director. “A lot of those people, if those transactions don’t close, will be homeless.”
Inslee’s Saturday clarification also noted that “significant legal liability and displacement (if not homelessness), could occur if these transactions do not close,” language lifted directly from the lobbying pitch.
It’s unclear, though, how many people among those pending sales were actually at risk of experiencing homelessness.
The NWMLS’s interpretation of the original stay-at-home edict was that most transactions would have been able to close, according to the March 24 email.
And until Inslee’s new order was amended Monday evening to allow movers to operate, people who just bought a home would have found it next to impossible to move their belongings in — or to clear the old owners’ possessions out.
Saturday evening, the lobbying group issued a video message warning brokers not to go outside the strictures of the new order.
“In the very short time since Gov. Inslee’s order was released, we’ve already seen brokers acting like coronavirus was cured, like we must not be in a pandemic any more,” said Annie Fitzsimmons, an attorney affiliated with the Realtors, in the video.
While a fuller picture of coronavirus’s effect on the local real estate market will come April 6, when the NWMLS releases March home sales data, brokers said some buyers and sellers have recently seemed less eager to list homes and make offers.
Persinger showed one home Sunday, but said most of her clients were “hesitant” to reenter a market that had been white-hot almost up until the day Inslee issued his stay-at-home order.
“Some buyers and some sellers have had to decide — do I just jump back in?” she said. “Do I need to buy that badly, that I’m leaving my house and putting myself and others at risk?”
This article was updated to reflect new guidance on moving companies issued by the governor’s office after the article published.