LACONIA — Last summer, Patrick Clausen’s family converted their small cottage colony on the shore of Paugus Bay into condominiums so they could sell them and get out of the hospitality business. Offers were coming in steadily, more than half sold, and then came concern about coronavirus.
Clausen said he thought that fears about COVID-19 might put the brakes on the condo sales, but his real estate agent, Kara Chase, had other ideas.
“I thought it would be very hard to get people to come into the units, because they really shouldn’t be coming out," Clausen said. "Kara had a great idea of doing virtual tours, virtual walk-throughs, to take the anxiety out of it, which I thought was really cool.”
By leveraging telecommunications technologies, Chase, other real estate professionals, and entrepreneurs in other industries have found ways to keep doing business even in a time when the government is urging people to stay home and limit in-person interactions with people outside of their family.
Chase, who works for Keller Williams Lakes and Mountains Realty in Meredith, said agents have found ways to replace every step of a real estate transaction with a virtual experience. Initial interviews between prospective clients and agents can be done with Facetime or other virtual meeting applications, which can also be used by agents showing a property to a client. Facebook Live allows agents to host a virtual open house, including the ability to answer questions from people watching from their own home. Negotiations can occur remotely, private meetings between clients and agents happen virtually, and, once a deal is struck, paperwork can be signed digitally.
If needed, the purchase-and-sales agreement can be made contingent upon the buyer seeing the property in person by a specific date.
Sound like a crazy way to make one of life’s most significant purchases? Not to everyone. Chase’s colleague, Corilyn Tessier, recently helped a client come to an agreement with Clausen on one of the cottages. The buyer, a woman from Pennsylvania, has an underlying health condition that makes it imperative that she limit her possible exposure to coronavirus. Thanks to modern accommodations, she was still able to buy the vacation home she was looking for.
“At this time, we all need to make adjustments as to how we do business,” Chase said.
In Sandwich, Lobin Frizzell, owner of 603 Property Group, said the local real estate market remains strong.
“The reason why it’s so strong is because we’ve had a housing shortage for a while, anyone who needs a house is still looking, and the interest rates have dropped, so that’s a bonus for them,” Frizzell said. Meanwhile, stock market volatility only furthers demand, as people look to move investments stocks into what is considered a safer long-term investment, and people who own an investment property might look to liquidate to set themselves up for retirement.
“Historically, whenever the stock market is going down, the real estate market is going up,” Frizzell said. “To quote a million people, they don’t make land anymore.”
She said she had 15 properties under contract when coronavirus concerns reached New England, and all of those deals are still in place, “and they all could have bailed.”
The longer directives to self-isolate remain in place, the better Lakes Region real estate is going to look, Frizzell said, especially to a buyer coming from a densely developed market.
“I feel super fortunate that I live in New Hampshire at this time, because we can go outside, we can self-sustain in New Hampshire. If I lived in downtown New York City, by day 10 I would be a mental case,” Frizzell said.
Like others in real estate, Frizzell had already begun leveraging tools such as Facetime and virtual showings to market properties. Now that coronavirus is here, she said she already has all the tools necessary to stay busy.
“I probably couldn’t have done this three years ago,” she said. “There’s a lot of ways for me to keep working.”
Sci-fi becomes reality
“This is sci-fi movie stuff,” said Kale Poland, a fitness trainer and co-owner of Yoga Jaya and Jaya Fit, both located in Moultonborough.
Those endeavors were built upon face-to-face meetings with either individual clients or groups, and he said he and his business partner have had to rethink everything they do.
In place of group yoga classes, his partner, Christina Alexa, is now offering instruction via Facebook Live. They’re selling an unlimited pass – for a monthly fee, clients can check in to as many virtual yoga classes as they want.
“The response has been bigger than I thought,” Poland said.
His side of the business, training high-performance athletes for activities such as marathons, isn’t so amenable to an online platform, he said.
“I’m still seeing people, however, I am scheduling time in between clients to clean,” he said. So far, he hasn’t lost any clients over fears of coronavirus. He is worried, however, about what will happen if the self-isolation period lasts for months instead of weeks. For example, he is hoping to host an event at Gunstock on June 21, called the Ascension Challenge – race up the mountain, take the chairlift down, and repeat as many times as you can in a given time period – and he’s not sure if that’s going to be a viable event.
“The thing that worries me is, if we’re back to normal, people aren’t going to spend money for a really long time,” Poland said. “Even if the race did go on, are people going to come? It's just strange and unprecedented. I’ll just have to play the waiting game.”
Poland said he wouldn’t be surprised if his business model changes permanently as a result of this disruption.
“It may give us an opportunity to restructure our business, we’ll see,” he said. “It’s almost a free pass to do whatever you want with the business, you just have to throw your hands up, and what are you going to do?”
Readers drop paper for screens
As more and more Lakes Region residents are choosing to stay home, they are finding that everything they look for in the Laconia Daily Sun can be found at www.laconiadailysun.com.
Metrics show that unique visitors to the paper's website on March 17 of 2018 – 4,426 – were triple that on the same date last year, then doubled again – to 27,736 – on Monday of this week.
A similar, though not as dramatic, increase has been seen in the newspaper’s “e-edition,” which allows readers to view the newspaper on their computer or device screen in the same format as the paper version. On March 18, 2019, the e-edition was accessed by 2,648 different users, on Wednesday of last week it was read by 3,349.
The Daily Sun office is now closed to walk-ins, and personnel are transitioning to working from home. Classified ad sales are being processed through the website, or by calling 603-737-2020. Anyone looking to pick up past issues, speak with the news department, place an obituary, pay a bill or order home delivery, is also asked to conduct that business over the phone.
Everything but a tire to kick
Auto dealers had already learned that offering remote sales can reach new customers who might not want to spend the time to visit a showroom. Now, those same skills are allowing them to sell a car to someone worried about infection.
“Business has been good in both sales and service, especially given the circumstances,” said Chris Irwin, owner of Irwin Automotive Group in Laconia. “We are open and plan to be open to serve our customers and keep our employees employed.”
Keeping the sales staff busy are unusually aggressive offers, both in terms of rebates and incentives, as well as long-term, zero-percent financing, in some cases with no payments due for the first several months.
Though it might look like business as usual, Irwin said there are many steps that have been taken at the dealership to protect the well-being of employees and customers. Those include sanitizing public areas, extra precautions for service employees, a liberal deployment of hand sanitizer stations, and the elimination of one of the hallmarks of the business: the handshake.
If those aren’t enough to persuade customers to visit, Irwin said his sales staff can conduct everything from the first “hello” to the delivery of the new vehicle, remotely.
“We can accommodate if people don’t wish to visit the dealership,” Irwin said.
Similar safety measures are in place at AutoServ in Tilton, said Dennis Gaudet and Donna Hosmer, part of the family that owns the dealership. They also have worked hard in recent years to expand the dealership’s ability to complete remote sales. Those kinds of transactions have grown in recent years, though they haven’t seen a spike in remote deals as a result of the coronavirus.
“That’s not having the desired effect that we had hoped, but we are still selling cars,” said Gaudet. “They are braving the environment because the deals are absolutely incredible, and then there’s the need side of it – people need a reliable car to go to the grocery store or to go to the pharmacy.”
Great deals aside, AutoServ has seen a negative and worsening sales trend since fears of the virus arrived in the Lakes Region. Sales are off by about 50%, and service is down by about 30%, with the latter work only being sought by customers who require a critical repair.
Gaudet said industry advocates are trying to get service technicians included on the list of “essential workers,” should a shelter-in-place order be made by the governor. Technicians will serve an important role in preserving the ability of other essential workers to safely get to their job, whether it’s at the supermarket, pharmacy or hospital.
“All in all, we at AutoServ are just trying to do the best that we can to support our neighbors, our community members,” Gaudet said.
Time to breathe
Not every business can be conducted solely via telecom, though. Jim Daubenspeck, of Daub’s Cobbler Shop in downtown Laconia, said 2020 had been his best year yet – “until last week,” when it was like someone shut off a spigot.
“And when I say shut off, I mean shut off,” Daubenspeck said. He is using the dramatic drop in foot traffic to get caught up on orders that had been piling up. If new work stops coming in, he said he’ll close the shop and wait until things return to normal before he reopens. After all, open-water fishing season starts on April 1.
“We’ve got a lot to be thankful for, and we can take this time to be neighborly, to take care of our yard, to sit back and think about these things,” Daubenspeck said. “You know what, (it’s) time for people to breathe.”