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Realtors: Home sales are essential

Businesses around the state are awaiting the green light to safely get back to work. Maybe among the most anxious to return to their craft are real estate agents, who argue that the lack of ability to buy and sell homes is creating a hardship for many Pennsylvanians.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced on May 1 that a ban remains on in-person real estate transactions in the majority of the state because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Real estate services are being conducted safely in nearly every state across the country, yet Pennsylvanians are being denied the ability to purchase shelter where they want to live,” said Jack Gross, president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Realtors, which covers Lehigh, Northampton and Carbon counties. “Bordering states have all adopted safe procedures to ensure that their citizens are able to work with real estate professionals to buy and sell property.”

There are two bipartisan bills currently in the state House and Senate that would allow real estate services to open in Pennsylvania.

“I’m proud to be a prime sponsor of that legislation in the Senate,” state Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe/Northampton, said. “Things like this bother me because there is a tremendous revenue here. The transfer tax generates around $700 million for the state. That is money that is going away right now.”

Cass Chies, broker/owner of Diamond 1st Real Estate in Palmerton, said while she has had several listings go under contract quickly since the mid-March COVID-19 shutdown, it’s still frustrating to not be able to have potential buyers go through a home.

“It’s a huge risk to the buyer when they can’t physically tour the home and get that touch and feel for it,” Chies said. “We’ve had to get more creative with our marketing techniques. We had virtual tours before, but now they’ve taken on a new importance.”

With Michigan opening back up real estate businesses, Pennsylvania now remains the only holdout. Chies questioned where Wolf is getting his information to rationalize his decision.

“He keeps saying we congregate too much, but when we have a showing there is one or two people going through the home with an agent,” she said. “Even for an open house, in Carbon County if we get three or four couples in a three-hour period, that’s a really good day. I just think Carbon is being held hostage because of how close we are to the Lehigh Valley and Monroe County, where the case numbers are high.”

Over in the state House, Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Berks/Carbon/Schuylkill, co-sponsored House Bill 2412.

“Forty-nine states already are allowing real estate-related transactions to be conducted safely,” Knowles said. “There is no consistency. Citizens in the commonwealth need to be able to find housing.”

Both bills in Harrisburg would allow real estate operations to continue by following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“There is nobody else in these houses being looked at but the real estate agent and possible buyers,” Scavello said. “They can have their masks on. There is no reason these sales can’t continue.”

Chies signed a petition started by Lehigh County Realtor Sean LaSalle. It has over 1,500 signatures, well on its way to the goal of 2,500.

“Thousands of Pennsylvanians are being forced to pay two mortgages because they purchased a new home and now cannot sell their existing home because of the governor’s order that real estate is nonessential,” LaSalle said. “Pennsylvanians are becoming homeless due to the inability to find suitable housing because of Gov. Wolf’s order of the real estate industry being nonessential.”

Like Chies, Gross said Realtors are not suggesting a “return to normal.”

“We recognize that the environment has changed, and real estate professionals are ready to adapt to make these changes,” he said. “Every Pennsylvania Realtor has stories of clients who’ve endured hardships because the state’s shutdown has severely curtailed the practice of real estate.”