Business has been anything but usual since the Ontario government deemed real estate an essential service amid the COVID-19 outbreak. While the decision brought a collective sigh of relief from the industry as it ensured buyers and sellers with a transaction pending or necessary could go through, much has changed.
1. Realtors have reduced and, in many cases, eliminated face-to-face interactions. Communication with prospective and current clients is primarily via written messages (email and text), smartphone technology applications and video conferencing.
2. On the direction of health officials, Realtors are limiting in-person property showings to situations where they are absolutely necessary. Buyers are asked to assess their interest through property photos, floor plans and digital technology like virtual tours and 360-degree walk-throughs. When a buyer has narrowed their search to a single property, a plan may be worked out to safely arrange a physical visit for only those who will be named on the offer; however, this requires the seller and/or tenant’s consent. Alternatively, buyers can make their offer conditional on a satisfactory showing.
3. Many real estate brokerages have set out specific conditions for showing and viewing properties. At Royal LePage, for example, seller clients must agree (in writing) to air out their premises and disinfect and clean all surfaces upon completion of any showings of their property, in addition to other requirements. Conversely, in order to view a property, buyers and their Realtors must sign-off that they have not travelled outside Canada, or been in contact with anyone who has, in the last 14 days; experienced any COVID-19 symptoms; and knowingly come into contact with anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or with a presumptive or confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis, in the last 14 weeks.
4. Public open houses are prohibited. In their place, some Realtors are hosting live stream virtual open houses. You can join agents in real-time as they walk through a property, present its features and answer your questions. Dates and times are searchable on Realtor.ca.
5. Digital documents (and signatures) and electronic funds transfers have largely replaced paper documents and physical certified cheques, respectively.
6. While home inspectors and property appraisers are considered an essential service by the provincial government, some companies like Carson Dunlop have suspended their operations in an effort to control the spread of the virus. Most that continue to offer their services are doing so solo; Realtors and their clients may not enter the premises during a home inspection or property appraisal.
7. Ontario lawyers now have the authority to allow signing of closing documents by virtual means. As long as a lawyer can visually identify the client and watch them sign the documents by video conference like FaceTime, Zoom or Skype, closings can happen remotely.
8. In the event property title cannot be transferred on closing due to delays in the titles/land registry offices, groups like First Canadian Title (FCT) are offering extended gap insurance coverage for up to 30 days at no extra charge. Lawyers are able to transfer funds and provide possession to purchasers, even if title cannot be transferred right away. FCT can also protect against fraud in using remote signings.
9. Short-term rental accommodations (less than 28 days) like Airbnb and VRBO can only be provided to people “who need housing during the state of emergency,” effectively banning rentals for parties and non-essential travel. However, because the province’s language is generic, it seems that hosts of short-term rentals would not be prevented from renting their properties to long-term tenants to generate revenue.
10. Despite financial hardship, tenants are still obliged to continue to pay rent during the pandemic. If a tenant fails to do so, the landlord can issue a notice to terminate the tenancy; however, enforcement of eviction has been suspended to ensure no one loses their home during this time. For each day an eviction order is not enforced, though, landlords are entitled to collect compensation from a tenant. The province is encouraging landlords to establish fair arrangements, including deferring rent or making other payment plans.
11. Revisions to the federal mortgage stress test, which were to come into effect April 6, have been put on hold indefinitely. Under the relaxed rules, Canadians applying for default-insured mortgages — those with less than 20% down payment on a new purchase — would have an easier time qualifying for a loan and perhaps even a bigger amount.
12. This year’s home value assessments by the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. (MPAC) have been postponed due to the economic downturn and financial challenges faced by many residents. As such, 2021 property taxes will be calculated based on homeowners’ 2016 property assessment. This will allow properties that have risen in value over the past five years to continue paying less property tax than they might if properly assessed this year, as per the four-year evaluation cycle.