There is an old English saying that goes: it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. If we look for the good, even in a bad situation we can usually find some. We can look for some lessons we learned in our recent foray into house arrest and isolation – and there are some things we have learned and are learning as we move forward. Some of them are changing the face and needs of society and the places where we live.
Keeping In Touch
While some of this technology has been with us for years, recent events have brought it to the forefront with some nice refinements. Many years ago I worked for a utility company in Richmond VA and we would periodically have visits from a facility in Connecticut... among other places. This would involve one or two people spending a day or two, accumulating travel expenses and being away from their regular duties.
When we began using teleconferencing, we could get whole teams from Virginia and Connecticut together to discuss common situations – and it only took an hour or two out of our day, with no travel time or expense. Zoom, and similar products, have given us this capability on steroids. The transportation and hospitalilty industry losses have become software and hardware suppliers gains.
This is not just a corporate gain, but many real estate investor groups have taken to meeting online when face to face gatherings were forbidden. What may have been intended to be a roadblock just became a minor annoyance.
Abandoning the Cube Farm
With the ability to communicate came the ability to actually work from home with no need to head on into the office to get much of the work done. For some this has been a blessing and for some, it has been a curse. For commercial real estate, it has shown a decrease in the need for high priced office space – and this is a lesson that will be carried into the future.
It has also reduced the need to live near the urban business centers and resulted in higher residential vacancy rates in these areas. I once knew several people who, because of real estate prices and quality of life issues lived in eastern Pennsylvania and car pooled on Rt 80 all the way across New Jersey to their jobs in New York City. To me, this was madness, but it was their choice. Today, that sort of thing is no longer necessary.
Becoming More Self Reliant
Since many of the places that made our lives more pleasant, or bearable, were deemed by our betters as being non-essential, we have found other ways to meet our needs. For instance, we used to eat out frequently, but for a time, dining in was forbidden. This provided the opportunity for meal delivery services that was not there before and will continue to some degree into the future.
Fortunately, for those of us who live in a free state, this activity has been restored months ago... and, in some ways is more pleasant as the restaurants are not as crowded, both by decree and because many people are still hiding out in fear of the plague.
I have read that many people have forsaken their gym memberships – in places where they are available. I see gym owners in many of the highly controlled states are fighting for the ability just to resume their business. We will see how many are left when the dust clears.
For myself, prior to the lockdown, I would be there three days a week. When they closed down, I, like many found ways to exercise at home. When, at last, they were given the green light to proceed, I went out there once and did the temperature check and wiped down the equipment before and after each use. But the second time when I pulled into the parking lot, all I saw were two ServPro trucks and workers unloading their equipment. Someone had snuck, or is it sneaked, the virus into the building and it had to be eradicated.
I went home and back to my own routine and haven't been back since. It looks like I am not alone and I have to wonder about the viability of so many similar businesses – and the implications for the use of some commercial space.
Pictures and Videos
Realtors and investors have been getting more creative in ways to buy and sell properties. Some still do door knocking, but many people are not happy about letting others into their homes. This also applies to showing the houses. I see some open houses, but not many, even though we are living in a free state. Reliance on photographs and videos has increased along with the sophistication of these items. However there is still no substitute for an in-person visit.
Lessons of Limitations
How many times has a house looked simply wonderful on the internet but turned out simply awful in reality? As an old photographer, I can say it is not difficult to make most anything look good by selecting your shots and post production editing. Pictures are great for initial screening, but not for final decisions. They don't show the twenty-five year old car up on blocks in the neighbors yard or the spongy floors in the bathroom.
While we can see and hear each other over our laptops, it does not give us as good a feel for the conversations we are having. If we know the person well on the other end, it is not so bad. However it is not a perfect substitute for meeting face to face and the impression of the grip on a handshake. For the time being it is what we have and we need to make the best of it, but accepting it as a “new normal” will only let is become used to the isolation it breeds.
The cloud meetings work relatively well in the corporate and organizational world, but in the real estate world we are working with individual home owners and buyers who may not have this communication capability. One solution is to adopt some kind of technology like my doctors office uses. He sends me a link on my cell phone and I give it permission to access my camera and microphone and we can see and hear each other. This works fairly well, but he can't take my temperature and check by blood pressure. Again, it is better than nothing but far from ideal.
Human Factor – Rejecting the New Normal
We as human beings are not meant to live in isolation, we are social beings. While some in the medical community are crowing about reduced infection rates, they ignore the increase in depression and, its ultimate expression, suicide. Some of this is simply from being alone with our negative thoughts, which are stoked by daily servings of television news, or by economic ruin brought about by the closure of “non-essential” businesses. Our GDP took a tremendous hit by closing down the economy, but the human toll goes on, unmeasured and generally unreported