May 11, 2020

 By: Eva Hatzenbihler


The debate between what makes a business essential or non-essential continues as the COVID-19 pandemic has the U.S. economy in a tailspin.

As many state governors shift to fewer restrictions under "safer-at-home" guidelines, what does this mean for how real estate businesses can operate? 

Some states classified real estate leasing, buying, and selling as an essential service. In other states, real estate activities became "non-essential" to how local economies would function in the short term. And in some areas, real estate fell into a category considered essential but limited. 

"Essential" as defined by the federal government

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) offers an advisory list that identifies essential workers as:

"… workers who conduct a range of operations and services that are typically essential to continue critical infrastructure viability, including staffing operations centers, maintaining and repairing critical infrastructure, operating call centers, working construction, and performing operational functions, among others. It also includes workers who support crucial supply chains and enable functions for critical infrastructure. The industries they support, represent but are not limited to, medical and healthcare, telecommunications, information technology systems, defense, food and agriculture, transportation and logistics, energy, water and wastewater, law enforcement, and public works."

Read more on their PDF here.

In parts of the country where the real estate industry could still operate, guidelines asked businesses to implement social distancing guidelines in their brokerages and offices as much as possible. In most states, this meant no in-person open houses to show a property, although an agent could go on-site to present a virtual open house. Like other essential businesses, real estate businesses shifted to have staffers work from home, avoid in-person meetings, and use virtual meetings and teleconferencing.

How did the real estate industry function over the past 45 days? And what practices will change as some "safer-at-home" regulations remain in place, while others are lifted?

Essential real estate

As of April 15th, these states classified real estate as an essential business, free to operate under social distancing guidelines that include no grouping, no face-to-face meetings:
























New Hampshire

New Mexico

North Carolina

North Dakota



South Carolina



West Virginia



Limited essential real estate

These states consider real estate essential but place more limitations on operations –no showings, no open houses, no face-to-face meetings, and conduct business virtually as much as possible. Staff should work from home and use technology wherever possible to reduce in-person contact:



New Hampshire

New Jersey

New York




Non-essential real estate

In states that classified real estate as non-essential, real estate businesses must conduct business virtually while following stay-at-home orders. These states include: 





No real estate mandates

A few states did not impose any restrictions on real estate activities: 



South Dakota


Rhode Island was the only state that did not put real estate under any category affected by stay-at-home orders. 

Beginning on May 1st, many states started lifting stay-at-home restrictions.

Are the states where real estate was considered "limited and non-essential" loosening the reins? 

Of the states with limitations, Colorado now allows companies to staff on-site at 50% but still encourage working from home wherever possible. Unfortunately, the other states that classified real estate as "limited" have been hit hard by the virus. These states have extended stay-at-home orders until they can conduct mass testing, with target dates for such testing set for May 15th – or, in some cases, as late as June 10th.

In states where real estate is non-essential, officials are tightening the reins to extend stay-at-home orders. In states with no real estate mandates, the business continues as usual. 

Pandemic effects

With all the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 virus and its broad economic impact, the only safe observation is that real estate functions will continue to change. Real estate is an industry where many agents, brokerages, and property management companies have the infrastructure in place to work from home effectively. Many businesses have long had tools in place to sign documents securely, show houses virtually, and accept payments through online platforms. 

While property showings may be down slightly on the retail and commercial leasing side, people continue to buy, sell, and rent homes. The residential side of the real estate industry still relies on largely antiquated systems. Every point in a transaction, from the initial showing, setting up a listing, filling out an offer, or leasing agreement, typically takes place in-person. Overall, real estate is a highly relational and in-person industry. However, it's worth watching to see how the industry reacts, adapts, and overcomes obstacles magnified by the pandemic to embrace more efficiency in the future. 

The future of the real estate industry

Real estate investing has been a lucrative business since 3200 B.C. when agrarian societies began, and people settled in one place and claimed the land as their own. Over time towns and cities grew, along with the opportunity to sell and rent property to others. While much has changed, the essential truth remains that people need and want a home to call their own. For some, this means ownership; others rent, and still, others invest in supporting the system as a whole. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a significant need for better technology in the real estate industry. That's the opportunity RE tech and prop tech innovators have been pursuing for years. Today, real estate businesses have no choice but to adapt. COVID-19 pushed the real estate industry into the deep end; those who embrace new technology will be the ones who swim out successfully. 

With tools like online document signing, payment processing, virtual showings, rental valuation calculators, and loan closings being virtual with secured docs, real estate businesses can serve their clients effectively and keep transactions flowing. These innovations bring excitement and hope to real estate's future. 

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