New-home buyers, builders and marketers had big plans this spring. Then COVID-19 struck and things changed. Consumers went into a holding pattern, and developers and sales outfits had to figure out what to do.
For In2ition Realty of Mississauga, Ont., a prominent new home and condo marketing firm, that meant pivoting quickly to online and virtual sales. Founder and CEO Debbie Cosic explains how the company responded – and how she sees the market post-pandemic.
How's the business of marketing and selling new homes and condos during these challenging days?
To say the least, challenging. All of our sales offices are (at press time) currently closed and have converted to online sales. We have been running virtual sales offices across the GTA, and at any given time we have about 20 sites operating.
Fortunately, we're used to this, as we're a pretty tech savvy company. This whole challenge has made us kick everything up a notch. We believe the online new home sales world is definitely here to stay. We've had to change our method of operations.
We're still very busy internally with Zoom and conference calls, with developers a couple times a week on various projects. We had 24 sites to launch in 2020, and just before COVID started we basically got two out of the gate. So that means 22 still to launch. Will they all launch this year? We hope so. None of them have been cancelled. We're hoping that these delays will just toggle things into a fall market, or some of them into the summer market, fall, winter or early next year.
How are consumers responding to virtual sales? Buying a home is obviously a very significant purchase, so to do so without being able to go to the development site…
Even during the shutdown, we have been doing deals consistently. Buyers may be a little slower to consummate the deal, but it always surprises me how technologically savvy everybody is. We're all online with Facebook or LinkedIn or Instagram. Young or old, people are connected to the computer, they're online shopping or reading the news every day. So, if you make it simple, which is what we've done, using Zoom or FaceTime, our team walks them through all the steps, and we have the presentations ready online. Sometimes it may take a little longer, maybe a second or third meeting, but we make it extremely easy for them to be able to navigate.
We all got some good news when the province announced that construction could resume on May 19. How do you think the market will react – will it quickly lead to renewed buyer interest and activity?
It will spur our whole industry to start moving. Everybody's sort of gearing up. We have a master blueprint on how to reopen our sales offices safely when the time comes, such as following the government precautions for social distancing, and otherwise doing things to make them feel safe.
We have regular calls on the status of our developments, to get a pulse on the market and feedback from clientele. Some buyers are pushing us to open, we're getting requests regarding particular projects and we still have people in the pipeline. Do 100 per cent of interested buyers still want to proceed? It's a new normal now, so we just want to get out there and start selling, whether it's 80 per cent volume or 50 or 20... We don't know that yet.
When the restrictions are fully lifted, do you foresee buyers easing their way back into the market, or will there be more of a rush because there might be some pent-up demand?
It may take some time, but I believe things will return to a normal marketplace. In 2019, we had a banner market with 76,500 pre-construction sales in high- and lowrise combined. The first couple of months of 2020, we launched two projects and we basically blew through them, and within a couple of weeks we sold out beyond our construction thresholds. That, we are not expecting, and our brokers are not expecting either. We just believe that we're going to return to a normal balanced market. And we're fine with that. Instead of us selling out a development in a couple of weekends, it may take six or nine months or even a year to get to preconstruction thresholds. We're fine with that.
We're anticipating a new normal, even in the way we conduct sales, in that we're not going to be able to have big groups in our sales offices, and these big events that create a lot of hype. We know that it's going to be a more tempered sale because only smaller groups can come in. As long as you manage expectations, we're all happy to go back to work and start doing some sales. That's the important thing.
How do you think homebuyer intentions may change? Do you foresee people buying smaller homes or buying condos instead of lowrise homes or buying more with friends and family?
I think intentions are going to change differently for different segments of the population. Some buyers may enjoy being closer to family, or they'll prefer a multi-family residence, or a loft upstairs from their parents, or splitting a home with a sibling.
Some experts believe there will be a notable and growing segment of buyers who prefer the bigger homes, larger lots and more space, given everything the pandemic has taught us about being apart from others. Supply and affordability issues in the GTA may preclude that, but areas outside the GTA – Kitchener-Waterloo or Hamilton, for example – may represent opportunities. What are your thoughts?
Definitely. In recent years, areas outside the downtown core have become more desirable…the 905s and some of the 519 areas and even in 705, and that will continue to grow.
I also believe others will migrate back into the city because they will not want to endure public transit, because of concerns over the lack of social distancing.
Do you see any other fundamental changes either for builders or buyers? For example, working from home may become more prevalent, so will home designs further change to accommodate more places people can work separately in the home?
I definitely believe that. Just in my own experience, I have a house with a den, and I have a desk in my bedroom, each of the kids have a desk in their bedrooms, and it's still not enough. They're being schooled from home, I'm working from home, the other adults in my house are working from home... We're all looking for that quiet space, whether it's a room in the basement, a den in their next house, or a flex space or solarium in a larger condo.
There will also be a portion of population that will want to age in place, so we'll have to have housing that can accommodate that.
New home supply in the GTA has long been a very serious issue. During the pandemic, governments have clearly shown that when they want to, they can act quickly. How hopeful are you that such legislative agility – clearing red tape and shortening development approval processes – can extend beyond COVID-19?
I've been preaching for years that a lot of the legacy supply has been sold off, especially in lowrise and midrise homes. But governments really need to look at the way they're allowing approvals to occur – not just the speed, but the type of product they're allowing. They should be allowing more multi-family residences in our subdivisions and communities. I'm not saying we should turn a whole subdivision of 40-ft. lots into triplexes, but you should allow some of these build forms, because they're desirable, affordable and something we really need.
Instead of a 3,000-sq.-ft. home, why not build a 2000-sq.-ft. home with 1,000-sq.- ft. loft or secondary suite? That kind of thing. Some of this is allowed, but I really think it has to be speeded up, and fast, so on a dime, a developer can change a planning application to have these different types of build forms woven into these communities.
And on a personal note ...
If I wasn't in the new home and condo marketing business, I would:
Be working on Wall street as a venture capitalist. I love the energy and challenges of that industry, and I love NYC.
My greatest inspiration in this business is:
My life partner Ralph, who has taught me to believe in the power of the universe and the power of positive thinking. He has the attitude of "some will, some won't, others always do." And if something bad happens, don't fret over it, learn from it and let it go. Something bigger and better is around the corner.
My greatest reward is:
Spending time with my loved ones and surrounding myself with the wonderful group of people who work with us. I'm also grateful this industry has given me not only the financial means but also the time to help people less fortunate than I am. I love and thrive on our charitable endeavours.