‘NOT BUSINESS AS USUAL’: HOW HOME GROUP REALTY IS FOCUSING ON SAFETY IN THE AGE OF COVID
WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘In the past fifteen years I’ve completed ten Ironman triathlons’ Paul Fitzpatrick, Broker of Record at Guelph’s Home Group Realty, tells me. ‘And yet,’ he emphasizes, ‘I’ve never worked harder than I have this year.’ While I let this observation sink in, Paul leans back in his chair and lets out a long exhale through the mask he wears around the office these days, adding: ‘It’s certainly been a year.’
It’s mid-August, late morning, and Paul and I are conversing at the main boardroom table in Home Group’s lovely Guelph headquarters. Located in Granite Homes’ recently-completed commercial development in the Royal City’s amazingly eclectic Junction neighbourhood (just a block from the hood’s darling Fixed Gear Brewing Co), the office is a fantastic mix of factory brutalism, urban minimalism, and corporate chic. And today it’s oh so quiet.
When we get up to tour around the place, I am quick to notice the number of vacant offices. Unoccupied cubicles. Empty dog beds. ‘A sign of the times,’ Paul remarks as he sees me scanning the space for life. ‘Most of our team works from home nowadays,’ he adds, ‘and those who remain – mostly administrative staff – take the utmost precautions.’ As if on cue, I spot Home Group’s Marketing Coordinator, Dani, dart across a hallway and into her office to take a call – mask firmly in place.
A sign of the times, to be sure.
While no sector’s been left unaffected by this global pandemic, 2020 has been an especially wild ride forthe real estate world. ‘When the pandemic first hit southwestern Ontario, we saw the entire industry turned upside down,’ Paul remarks. ‘Buyers and sellers were consumed with fear and anxiety. Open houses were banned. And listings dried up almost immediately.’ Brokerages have been left scrambling to make sense of it all. For Paul and Home Group, this has meant fundamentally re-thinking how they do business.
As Paul notes: ‘For decades, the real estate industry has been all about social interactions. From open houses to private viewings to preparing and signing documents, agents and clients have always relied on meeting together to get things done. Since March, we’ve been trying to figure out how to work with clients – buyers and sellers – virtually. Seamlessy. Safely. To be sure,’ he adds, looking down at the table, ‘it certainly hasn’t been business as usual.’
To further supplant in-person property showings the brokerage is also prioritizing, with each listing, fantastic photography and videography. ‘While we’ve always viewed photo and video work as important aspects of featuring a client’s home,’ Paul remarks, ‘we’re now including many more detail shots of the houses our agents are selling. More close-ups. More shots of appliances, closets, finishes. And more video too.’ All this on top of the unique client services that this brokerage is already known for – including custom lawn signs that feature detailed descriptions of each listed Home Group property. ‘As it continues to prove so difficult to get inside a home for viewing,’ Paul notes, ‘these signs have become an even more effective marketing tool for agents and their clients.’
A few other things Home Group has implemented in the name of safety? The brokerage is conducting business electronically through digital signatures and electronic funds transfer, for example, and communicating with clients through email or by phone. And, to dissuade ‘tire kickers’ from undermining the safety of agents and clients, the brokerage will work only with buyers who’ve been pre-qualified and have signed their exclusive Buyer Representation Agreement. ‘And we’re encouraging agents and clients to use the secure mailbox outside our office, too,’ notes Paul, ‘for contactless drop off.’
While he explains the brokerage’s safety regulations, my eyes dance around the space. It’s a sight to behold, to be sure. The boardroom table, for instance, is massive. Live edge. Just gorgeous. Above us is a custom chandelier built from an old railway tie wrapped with Edison bulbs. Just outside the boardroom, on the other side of a large glass wall, I spot an exposed brick wall with Home Group’s logo – the silhouette of Guelph’s iconic Church of Our Lady with the slogan ‘Fiercely Local’ – emblazoned on it. So good.
When I ask Paul to describe what this motto and slogan mean to him, he’s quick to reply. ‘I chose the silhouette of the church because it’s so recognizably Guelph. And, I suppose,’ he chuckles, ‘it represents the best real estate in town.’ He continues: ‘I chose the slogan ‘Fiercely Local’ because everything about Home Group is about this community. The team. Our clients. Even this office is all about putting local first.’
When I ask him to elaborate, he raps the boardroom table with his knuckles, noting: ‘Take this table, for instance. We had it made locally – at Artefacts in St Jacobs – from a walnut tree that was felled locally. The base of the table is made from a former Waterloo bridge trestle. The railway tie chandelier is also local.’ He continues: ‘Our front desk reception area, also crafted at Artefacts, is derived from former stall dividers from the Royal Winter Fair. And the glass dividers we hung at reception to keep staff safe are from a century home in Hamilton. And,’ he adds, exuberantly, ‘in our kitchen, we offer locally-brewed coffee from Guelph’s Planet Bean coffee roasters and local beer in the fridge – from Fixed Gear down the street or Elora Brewing or Wellington.’ All local. Heck, even the hand sanitizer at the front entrance was made here in Guelph by one of our Royal City craft distilleries.
It’s jarring, actually, to see this once-bustling office so quiet in the middle of a workday. And yet it’s also re- assuring: evidence of the deliberate safety measures this brokerage has implemented to keep their team of almost fifty realtors and seven staff safe. And to keep their clients safe too. As we wrap up our conversation, I can only imagine the amount of work that’s been done here at Home Group to transform its entire business model. I look at Paul – sitting across from me with his mask firmly secured. He leans back in his chair, exhales, and proclaims once more: ‘It’s certainly been a year.’