By Cher Wollard

There are still no open houses, no broker’s tours, but prospective buyers can now view properties and order inspections. Sellers can hire photographers, contractors and stagers necessary to showcase their homes in the best light.

Real estate was deemed an “essential business” in March, and thus allowed to operate despite the statewide shelter-in-place rules put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the terms under which it operates have varied over time and between counties.

As of May 4, potential buyers may now view occupied properties in Bay Area counties under certain circumstances.

Stagers and contractors, including painters and others who provide services to home sellers, are now permitted to do their work, providing they practice social distancing and wear protective gear.

These are significant changes.

Until this week, sellers had few options for improving their properties before offering them for sale. Only those services deemed essential for health and safety – roof repairs, for example – were permitted.

For most of March, buyers could only view homes virtually in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. That meant they had to decide whether to make an offer on a home based on photographs and virtual tours. Few chose to proceed.

By April 1, the rules were modified to allow some in-person showings of vacant homes, provided all parties practiced mandated safety procedures, including social distancing. But occupied homes could not be shown.

Realtors upped their games, purchasing more sophisticated virtual-tour software and 3-D photography, and hosting “viewings’ via Facetime or Zoom.

Some sellers made arrangements to vacate their properties early. Those who could bought new homes first and moved into them before putting their old homes on the market.

Others went to vacation homes, moved in with relatives, rented houses or apartments, moved into extended stay hotels -- basically whatever they could to make sure buyers would be able to view their homes in person.

Under the new rules, viewings of all properties should still be virtual, unless in-person viewings are considered necessary. For many that means buyers will view most properties virtually and only visit those properties they are seriously considering buying.

In-person viewings of vacant or occupied properties can involve one agent and no more than two prospective buyers who live together.

Sellers are expected to disinfect all doorknobs and other surfaces before and after each visit. Agents are expected to wipe down keys and lockboxes.

Anyone who enters any property must wear appropriate personal protective gear – masks, disposable gloves, booties – and practice social distancing.

Listing agents may ask sellers, buyers and their agents, inspectors and other contractors to sign forms acknowledging the dangers of COVID-19, and affirming that they are not exhibiting any symptoms, such as coughs or fevers, nor have they been in contact with anyone infected with the coronavirus.

This should make it easier for buyers to buy and sellers to sell.

Other aspects of real estate have also been impacted by the pandemic, including rules regarding mortgages and rent.

Those applying for mortgages – whether to purchase property or to refinance a current loan – may find it is harder to qualify. Investors are skittish about the economy, so they have tightened guidelines to qualify for some home loans.

If you are thinking about buying or refinancing, contact a trusted loan officer today. If you do not know anyone, ask your Realtor to refer you.

Those who have mortgages and are struggling to make payments may know that recently enacted legislation, known as the CARES Act, directs lenders holding federally backed mortgages to allow borrowers to suspend payments for up to 12 months if they have lost their income because of the coronavirus.

In addition, you will not be charged late fees or reported to credit bureaus.

Pandemic-related hardship may include job loss, loss of work hours, closure of a business, a substantial decrease in business income due to reduced hours or decreased public demand, missing work to care for homebound children or other relatives, or prolonged sickness or medical expenses related to COVID-19 treatment.

Similar rules apply to renters who cannot pay their rent.

Evictions will be suspended for at least 60 days, but that will not absolve you of your debts. Landlords will expect you to make up the back rent within an agreed-upon time frame. If you expect to miss rent payments, give your landlord written notice that you will be missing payments due to Covid-19 and will make them up by a certain date.

Lenders will also require mortgage holders to catch up within a certain period of time, perhaps through a balloon payment.

If you can, negotiate extending the terms of your loan by however many months you expect to miss payments. For example, if you still owe on your mortgage for another 120 months, the new mortgage end date might be pushed out to 126 months from now. This will cost you in added interest over time, but it will save you from the worry of having to make up missed payments while you are trying to get back on your feet.

The rules and guidelines for buyers, sellers, homeowners, renters, landlords and Realtors are constantly changing, so it’s important to stay current. If you have questions about how the shelter-in-place rules affect real estate, or are thinking about buying or selling, contact your local Realtor today.

Cher Wollard is a Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Drysdale Properties in Livermore.