How three prairie brokers are dealing with the COVID-19 surge in business

No one predicted summer 2020 would be this busy. A few simple adjustments allowed these three brokers to fully reap the benefits

How three prairie brokers are dealing with the COVID-19 surge in business

When COVID-19 swept over the country in March and April, a real estate boom wasn’t one of the expected outcomes, especially on the prairies, where sales have been slow, and prices soft, since 2014. Since June, however, brokers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta have been dealing with an unprecedented wave of new business.

“It’s been absolutely insane,” says Centum Mortgage Choice Corp’s Naomi Hamm, who started noticing an uptick in inquiries and pre-approval requests in May. In June, the floodgates burst, and she found herself grinding it out until one a.m. nearly every day.

“This is the busiest I’ve ever been,” she says.

Until he was finally able to take a few days off in August, Chris Kolinski of iSask Mortgage Brokers in Saskatoon says he was working 15-hour days, seven days a week for six weeks straight. By the mid-point of August, Kolinski had already closed more deals than in all of 2019.

“Things have been absolutely crazy,” he says.

In Lethbridge, Vittorio Oliverio’s Centum Professional Mortgage Group has also been run off its feet, even with a team of six brokers working to manage the surge.

“It’s been phenomenal,” Oliverio says. “We’ve been swamped.”

While rock bottom interest rates have played an outsized role in driving the demand for refinances and renewals, different factors are driving purchases in each market. In Brandon, Hamm attributes some of the sales activity to the city’s low prices, which are beginning to slowly rise after multiple years of little to no growth. Oliverio feels buyers in Lethbridge benefited from having more COVID-19-triggered downtime to think about their financial situations, which allowed them to not only prepare for purchases but to renovate their properties and refinance them.

“They have time to do things on their homes, and they need money,” he says.

Kolinski feels another factor could be simple boredom. After being cooped-up for five months, buyers may be craving a change of scenery just to save their sanity. It’s a scenario Kolinski says he and his wife have experienced first-hand.

“Now that things are kind of opening up, everyone’s like, ‘We need to get out of here. We need a new place,’” he says.

Keeping up with these unseen levels of demand hasn’t been easy for any of the three. Each one has had to either implement new strategies or double down on some trusted classics in order to reap the rewards of the heightened interest among buyers. 

Write it down

For Hamm and Kolinski, organization is job one. Keeping a list, or as Hamm puts it, “lists upon lists upon lists,” is one way they have been able to keep all the balls they’re juggling in the air.  

“There’s definitely days where I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, where am I and what am I doing?’ But that’s what the lists are for,” Hamm says.

Kolinski’s list is somewhat different. He attaches a deadline for each item on his list, which prevents items from building up and clogging his workflow.

“That is saving me,” he says. 

Get the docs

Kolinski has been requesting every document his lender will need the moment he feels he’s involved in a live deal. It’s not a new method by any means, but fundamentals can sometimes fall by the wayside once business passes a certain insanity threshold.

“It allows me to put together a clear picture,” he says. “And it makes things go a lot smoother with the lenders.”

In overwhelmingly busy times, it can be tempting to give borrowers the benefit of the doubt and hope that they’ll be able to send over their full financial story without being prompted or walked through it. Kolinski says that’s a recipe for wasted time. Even at his busiest, he takes a few minutes to tell his clients exactly what they need to send in.

“After eight years of doing this, I realize that people don’t really know their financial situation as well as they think they do,” he says.

Clear the phones

As COVID-19 settled in and homeowners began to panic, brokers were inundated with calls from clients asking what the play was. Rather than try to focus on closing deals while the phone was ringing off the hook, Oliverio’s team made a concerted effort to answer those questions first.

“We went on the offense,” he says. “We were working eight, ten, twelve hours a day contacting clients, letting them know we’re here.”

That proactive approach not only sent the right signals to the brokerage’s client base, it also ensured that many of the calls coming in would be from informed clients looking for products rather than confused and upset borrowers in need of comfort.

Take a breath

Both Kolinski and Hamm say getting time away from work has been essential to avoiding burnout over the last several weeks of non-stop brokering. 

Hamm uses running and soccer as her main outlets, as well as getting to the lake with her family.

“I took two full days where I did not answer a phone or a text or an email about work,” she says. “It was the first time in a really long time I was able to do that.”

Kolinski says brokers refusing to take time off out of fear that their clients may see them as unavailable need to think about the bigger picture in terms of their overall happiness and ability to power through, day after day.

“Even when you are in those busy times where you’re feeling overwhelmed, you have to take some time, whether that’s a day or a few hours a week, where you just do you,” he says.

Once the wave crests

Just as no one saw the COVID-19 boom coming, no one is expecting it to last much more than a year – maybe another six months of elevated activity followed by next year’s spring and summer markets. Hamm, Kolinski and Oliverio are each preparing for the return to normal, or whatever “normal” will look like in 2021, in their own ways.

Kolinski isn’t planning on altering his approach to clients or lenders. His greatest concern for when business slows is next year’s income level.

“The money I’m making right now, I just want to make sure I’m putting some aside so that when it does slow down, I’ll be prepared for it,” he says.

Oliverio already has a plan in place for his team: concentrating on existing clients.

“While we may not get the purchases, we’ll be busy through refinances and switches,” he says.

Starting in January, Oliverio says his brokers will be contacting every client from the last three years to update their applications – and ask for referrals.

“You get a lot of referrals when you ask for them,” he says.

For Hamm, the future is a little harder to predict. Brandon passed through the first wave of COVID-19 with few infections to show for it. But with cases now on the rise, she isn’t sure what shape the market will take beyond summer and fall. She expects both to be busy, but the current boom should be no match for a Manitoba winter.

“That’ll be when I get caught up on all the paperwork that’s sitting on my desk,” she says.