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While Minnesotans are being told to socially distance to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kath Hammerseng and other Twin Cities real estate agents are taking a hands-off approach with buyers and sellers — literally.

Many are asking sellers to leave all doors open and light switches on in their properties to reduce the need to touch surfaces, and they are avoiding open houses for now, limiting showings to serious buyers. Overlapping showings are out. Complimentary food or drinks are no longer being left out for would-be buyers and their agents.

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“When we do decide to show we Purell in — touch nothing — and Purell out,” Hammerseng said. “We drive in separate cars and keep our distance.”

For the real estate industry in the Twin Cities, the strategy is aimed at keeping one of the busiest spring housing markets alive.

Though first-time buyers are still outbidding one another and some brokerages say sales have been on the rise even in recent days, recent data from the Minneapolis Area Realtors (MAR) is sending mixed messages. A preliminary tally of house showings — the earliest indication of buyer interest — declined during the week ending March 17, but pending sales, or signed purchase agreements, increased.

According to the showing report, first-time buyers are active as ever — showings of houses priced from $250,000 to $350,000 increased 4% from the previous week. However, many move-up buyers stayed home. Showings on properties priced at more than $350,000 fell double-digits, with a 33% decline in showings for properties priced at more than $1 million.

“The upper markets seem to be holding their breath,” said Hammerseng.”

During February, pending sales in the Twin Cities metro increased 23% compared with last year, according to MAR, an unusually strong gain due in part to last year’s unseasonably cold weather that dampened sales in 2019. Still, by every other measure the market this spring was poised to be one of the best on record until COVID-19.

“We’re taking it day by day,” said Linda Rogers, MAR president and branch vice president for Coldwell Banker Realty Minnesota-Wisconsin.

Pent-up demand for entry-level houses will help buoy sales even if some buyers step away from the market in the coming months, she said, but for now agents and brokers are focused on making sure buyers and sellers feel safe in an industry that relies on handshakes and house tours.

“With things changing by the hour, we’re updating our recommendations based on what we hear from the CDC, NAR, state and local governments,” said Sharry Schmid, president of Edina Realty, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Association of Realtors. “Our agents are experiencing clients with emotions on either end of the spectrum — some want to be conservative and some want to proceed as normal.”

On Monday, the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, which serves 23 counties in Washington state, essentially banned open houses by disabling features in its online home-listing database that allow brokers to post open-house information.

That’s not yet happening in the Twin Cities. John Mosey, president and CEO of the NorthstarMLS, which manages listings in the metro, said the organization is monitoring the coronavirus outbreak and has relaxed showing rules so that listings can remain active even when showings are not allowed.

That decision, he said, was based on guidance from the Minnesota Association of Realtors and the NAR that encourages people to use best judgment and limit exposure, but there is no talk about restricting open houses at this time.

“We have no authority as an association or MLS to mandate or dictate the business practices of brokers between their agents and clients,” he said. “We can, however, continue our outward messaging encouraging people to use best judgment and adopt internal company rules that limit risk and exposure during this time.”

Hammerseng, a veteran agent with Edina Realty, said the strategy seems to be working so far. This week she received an offer on one of her listings and has two new listings coming online.

She also had three closings this week — all on schedule, though she participated from her car via a video call.

Economists said the fate of the housing market is a wild card in what’s become an unprecedented downturn.

Until recently the real estate industry has been riding a robust economy with historically low unemployment and rock bottom mortgage rates. That was before a virus flipped the switch across the globe.

“We’ve never seen a recession start this way before,” said Jeff Tucker, an economist with Zillow.

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376