Tom Landry is standing in front of a brick building at 316 Congress St. in Portland. He’s wearing a high-filtration respirator and saying what has become an understatement for many business owners today.

“This is clearly unprecedented,” he says. “But we’re still trying to do the best we can for our clients.”

Landry is the owner of Benchmark Real Estate in Portland. He has canceled all open houses, in a month when his firm normally conducts dozens. So now he’s hosting a Facebook Live virtual property tour of the seven-unit building, recently listed for $1.2 million. The property is valued at $1.7 million, he says, but $1.2 million is a “realistic” price in today’s market.

Inside, wearing his mask and gloves, Landry shows off one of the apartments. After the walk-through, he’ll sanitize all the surfaces he touched, he says.

This is how some Maine Realtors are coping, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Getting an accurate statewide read on the impact of coronavirus on home sales activity is impossible at the moment, because events are changing daily, and most of the available market data relates to activity that occurred before the outbreak. The process of selling a home takes weeks or months.

Still, southern Maine real estate professionals say virus fears and social distancing restrictions already are having an obvious chilling effect on the housing market.

Their profession became even more challenged on Tuesday, when Gov. Janet Mills ordered the shutdown of nonessential public-facing businesses, and Portland, Bangor and Brunswick enacted emergency stay-at-home orders.

Tom Landry of Benchmark Real Estate takes viewers upstairs during a Facebook Live tour of a condo for sale in Portland’s East End. Landry has canceled all open houses, so he’s turned to virtual showings. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

But on Wednesday, the industry also got some relief.

The Maine Department of Economic and Community Development determined that real estate is an essential business. That means while open houses are prohibited, as well as gatherings of more than 10 people, business can go on in accordance with government guidelines around social distancing and other precautions. The determination, however, doesn’t supersede more restrictive local orders, such as those in Portland and South Portland.

BRACING FOR IMPACT

The fast-moving series of events is coming at a bad time for the industry.

Last year was a record-breaker for Maine’s residential real estate market, with sales up over 1 percent from 2018 and median prices up more than 4 percent, to $225,000.

With historically low interest rates and unemployment, a rising stock market and a mild winter, everything was in place for a robust 2020 spring home-selling season.

“This year was shaping up to be our best year ever, by a long shot,” Landry said.

The Maine Association of Realtors won’t release complete home sales and median sales price figures for March until around April 20, in coordination with its national parent group.

Tom Landry holds his phone up to the window to show prospective buyers the view from a condo for sale in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The most recent Maine Listings data show statewide listings of single-family and multi-unit properties remained strong through March 24 – with 1,632 listings on the market compared with 1,495 in February. But home sales were down, at 888 sales through the period, compared with 1,064 in February.

Now the real estate market has plunged into uncertainty, hit by the combined forces of social distancing, sudden and anticipated jobs losses and ravaged investment portfolios.

As personal interactions become more restrictive, agents across Maine are pivoting to remote and online strategies, including virtual live chat tours in which an agent can show a property to a potential buyer and answer questions in real time. Despite the chaos and unprecedented restrictions, some people still have reasons to move. That means buying and selling houses – somehow.

Landry said his firm is encouraging some sellers to cancel their home listings and wait. Others are choosing to keep their properties listed and rely on digital marketing. Nationally, a growing number of sales are happening sight unseen, especially among tech-savvy buyers. That trend is starting to be noticed in Portland.

In recent years, southern Maine’s tight housing market has created an atmosphere of urgency. Brokers now may have to counsel patience and perspective.

“If we have to wait two weeks, two months or 12 months that is OK,” Landry said. “Once we come out of this, no matter the season, we can list and sell or look and buy. Our spring selling season will be when we all emerge again and get back to a new normal – even if that’s in November.”

ABSENTEE CLOSINGS

The health of Maine’s real estate industry isn’t just a concern for agents and brokers.

The combined residential and commercial sectors account for nearly 19 percent of Maine’s economic activity, according to the Association of Realtors, employing 5,400 Mainers and providing spin-off jobs that range from plumbers to bankers to home goods retailers.

Tom Landry, broker and owner of Benchmark Real Estate, shows a condo’s kitchen during a Facebook Live tour Monday. After the walk-through, he’ll sanitize every surface he touched.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

After being deemed an essential business in the state, the group also is looking to Maine’s congressional delegation for help with another issue – online closings. Maine is one of 23 states that doesn’t allow remote notarization, according to Tom Cole, the association’s president. There’s a bill pending that could change that.

In the meantime, title companies are limiting the number of people in the closing room and using distancing and sanitation guidelines. And Cole, who is managing broker at Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate The Masiello Group in Brunswick, had a closing last week at which neither the buyer nor seller was in the room. An attorney performed the task with documents shipped via FedEx.

Using another technique, Cole recently listed a three-bedroom ranch home in Brunswick for $250,000. No open houses. The online listing has a calendar for potential buyers to set up an appointment for a showing. More than a dozen people have signed up and there will be a one-week window for anyone interested in submitting an offer.

A home in that price range will attract first-time buyers. But the broader market depends heavily on selling one property to buy another. When that dynamic falters, it creates a damaging ripple effect.

PLANS ON HOLD

A case in point is the dilemma of Ken and Cotton Carlson.

The couple owns a waterfront home in Harrington, a small community south of Machias in Washington County. Now in their 70s, they’d like to move closer to services and were looking to buy a property in the Midcoast. They planned to use money from savings to put a deposit on a new house, take out a short-term mortgage and sell the Harrington property.

Now that plan is on hold. A waterfront house in Washington County is a second-home investment for most people, Ken Carlson reasons. It’s too big of a risk to deplete his cash reserves at a time when potential buyers have lost so much value in stocks and are fearful of a recession.

“My lack of confidence in the economy is No. 1,” he said. “If the economy stinks, who is going to be looking for a second home in Downeast Maine?”

Contract cancellations are picking up at Legacy Properties Sotheby’s International Realty in Portland. Worry about financial markets is an increasing reason, said Chris Lynch, the agency’s owner. Another is travel – some out-of-state buyers either can’t or won’t get on a plane.

But even so, pending contracts are up 30 percent from last year at this time, Lynch said. And because inventory remains so tight in southern Maine, many deals that fall through are being picked up by new buyers.

Lynch and his associates also are moving to digital tours that feature the immersive Matterport 3D images. They present a buyer with zoom-in “dollhouse” views of a home’s interior.

WILL CONDOS FALL?

Uncertain times also may slow the pace of development in Portland’s white-hot condominium market.

Lynch said he’s expecting only a slight slowdown. Portland has a national profile today, he said, and the inventory is small enough that demand will soak up supply.

Landry said that, despite perceptions, roughly seven out of 10 new condos are owner-occupied by people who have relocated here or locals who sold big homes in the suburbs. He expects sales at big condo projects to slow, but not die.

Benchmark is moving ahead with Solaris, a nine-unit “eco-luxury” project with a large-scale solar installation. Prices range from $795,000 to $1.79 million, and two units are under contract.

But because the impacts of coronavirus on the economy are happening in such a rapid, unpredictable fashion, it raises the question of whether real estate agents and brokers are being overly optimistic.

Landry said unless or until movement and travel really shut down, his industry will seek a way forward.

“I do think you have to be wired that way in sales,” he said. “If you feed the negative, you can’t do what I do.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.