A sale sign in West Salem on Friday, May 22. Sales dipped in the area in April compared to a year ago. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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Open the door, pull open the kitchen drawers and pull the shower curtain back. Buying a home in Salem is typically a high-touch endeavor.

COVID-19 changed all that.

Oregon didn't mandate an industry shutdown, but local Realtors say their jobs have definitely changed.

It starts with the first client meeting. Handshakes are banned, and face masks cover smiles or frowns.

"There's a psychological element as well as a physical element," said Paula Fordham, a broker with RE/MAX Integrity in Salem. "You don't get the social cues. You don't get facial expressions. Even today, I went on a listing appointment, and I can't reach out and shake hands. And I'm not always sure of what clients look like, because I meet them when they have masks on."

If potential clients choose to visit a house, unusual practices are in place.

"I always wear a mask, I wear gloves, and I give my clients the heads up that they can't touch anything,” Fordham said. “If they want me to open a cupboard or door for them, they must tell me what they want, and I'll be the one to physically touch it with my gloved hand. And at the end of the showing, I throw those gloves away."

Fordham says she gives unprecedented direction to those she takes on tours.

"I have to tell my clients, 'Remember what it was like when you were in kindergarten, and you were on a field trip, and you had to hold your hands behind your back? It's like that. You can look, but you can't touch,'" she said.

The current era also changes how sellers ready their homes.

Hector Garcia, principal broker with John L. Scott Real Estate, advised his clients to prepare their homes for pandemic showings. They should open all doors, including closet doors, and open all cabinets and cupboards. Every light should stay on too.

"It really minimizes the amount that buyers and agents need to touch things in the home," he said. "It may give the impression that the house is a little messy, but everyone understands why the doors and cabinets are open."

Out-of-town buyers continue to visit Salem, Fordham and Garcia said. But their visits are unusual.

"We've still had to maintain social distancing, so we must stay six feet apart. Driving clients around in your car is not acceptable right now," Fordham said.

When she showed Salem homes to a family from California, she talked about the neighborhood either before or after the visit. She told them about the nearby Trader Joe’s, or she pointed to a map to indicate the distance to a nearby park.

"There was less of physical closeness, and much more of pointing to a map," she said.

According to the Willamette Valley MLS, sales were down in April compared to a year ago, with 823 sales compared to 950 in April 2019. The average sales price has been nearly equal to the asking price, and now averages $350,574, compared to $330,887.

Total active listings declined in April, from 2,795 in 2019 to 2,437 last month, a 13% drop.

Garcia worked with Susan and Paul Vitello, a retired couple hoping to move to Salem from Kentucky. The couple found a home they loved through an online search, and Garcia strapped on a mask and gloves for a virtual visit. He filmed his walkthrough on his phone, and he posted the footage to a private YouTube page.

Susan Vitello never expected her Salem buying experience would be quite like this. She'd been planning for two years, and 2020 was her year to move.

"Our plan was to get the house on the market here in Kentucky in April, and we were going to fly out in March for a week and buy a house. And then the virus came along," she said.

The couple had visited Salem before, and they'd researched the neighborhoods they wanted to call home. Susan is a self-admitted "Zillow fanatic," and she made it her mission to search listings every day for the perfect home. But she always expected to come to Salem to see the space herself.

"Without question, this has been the hardest thing to do in the midst of a pandemic," she said.

Last Thursday, the Vitellos put an above-asking-price offer on the house they saw in Garcia's video. And they have an offer on their house in Louisville .

Despite the pandemic, people's lives must go on, Fordham said. People still take new jobs, fall in love with other neighborhoods, or need to make a change.

"We have been deemed an essential service. It's essential that we continue to provide the services we do, so people can get on with their lives," she said.

Garcia said his business was slow in the early weeks of the pandemic. His phone stopped ringing, and he took a few days off.

A client removed a listing due to infection concerns. In his 15 years as a real estate agent, he's never seen anything like this. But he said Salem is poised for a big spring.

"Our numbers are up for the median house sold price, the units on market are coming back up, days on market is 22 percent down compared to this time last year. So, we have a strong seller's market here," he said.

Oregon's real estate market is also seasonal, he said.

"There's more shopping hours in the summer and spring than there is in the winter. You can be showing houses at 8 o'clock in the evening in the middle of summer. And we're entering that," he said.

Fordham took a voluntary step back from work in mid-March. She was concerned about catching the virus and being separated from her young granddaughter.

"That was my overriding concern," she said.

But she's been a Realtor since 2005, and she wanted to keep working. She started tapping into new tools in April, and now she's found something that helps her stay safe while doing her job.

"For me, Zoom has been a massive part of my business. That's what helped to take away the pain of not seeing someone's face. Thank goodness for that, because it would be very difficult otherwise," she said.

Fordham expects to use Zoom throughout the summer, even if rules about masks and gloves ease. And she expects to stay busy.

"Salem's market has really not been that badly affected. Transactions have fallen apart, unfortunately, as people have lost their jobs. So, they're no longer financially able to make that purchase," she said. "We've had some people just take their houses off the market altogether because they don't want the exposure. But Salem's market is still doing really well, so we're expecting a surge."

Vitello agrees that the Salem market is hot right now, and she used that information to persuade her husband to move.

"My husband is really worried about the virus and having people come into the house. He wanted to wait until next year. And I told him we wouldn't be able to afford Salem next year," she said. "And besides, if I have to be in self-isolation, I'd rather be in Oregon than Kentucky."

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