The Rules For Real Estate Agents During Lockdown Prove Just How Fkd It Is To Be A Renter

Contributor: Melissa Mason

I moved house this week. Moving out during a COVID outbreak is scary enough – dealing with removalists, buying stuff on Facebook Marketplace, all those touchpoints where you come into contact with people at a time where contact is like, the devil. What I didn’t anticipate was the particular hell we would be put through as our home was prepared to be rented again – and the worst part was, it was all legal.

I live in Sydney, where this week, we had just under 10,000 cases of COVID infections. We’re in strict lockdown – people living in my suburb can’t travel further than 5km from home, and up until today, we could only see one other person outside of our household for recreation each day. In a lot of ways, restrictions are very tight. Except, apparently, when it comes to real estate.

In preparing for potential renters to inspect the place, I spent hours tidying the house, moving boxes into neat piles against the wall, WEEDING THE ‘GARDEN’ for fuck’s sake – a garden we had grown for the owners, because when we moved in the yard was this hellscape of dried dirt and one sad, half-dead pot plant. The instructions were that inspections would take place between 4 and 5pm on a Wednesday, with COVID-safety restrictions in place.

I read on the ABC that the Tenants’ Union had outlined “that under Sydney lockdown restrictions, real estate agents were only allowed to show homes to one person a day and could only do that twice a week.”

However, the NSW Health website has far more vague restrictions in place. It says that auctions for real estate “must not take place” in Greater Sydney, where I live, except “inspections may be conducted by private appointment for one person only.” What does that mean? Well, who the fuck knows. I actually called up the Services NSW hotline for COVID to ask, and was just read out that paragraph.

“So does that mean a real estate agent can let like, 20 or 30 people go through my house, as long as they’re going in one-by-one?” I asked. “Uhh, yeah,” was the response.

However, Leo Patterson Ross, CEO of Tenants’ Union of NSW, told me otherwise. In an email, he said: “For inspections for sale or lease, the Public Health Orders require inspections by appointment only and one person per inspection. The Residential Tenancy Agreement allows two inspections per week, one per day.”

“This means that there can only be one person shown the property in a day, twice a week,” he added.

I raised this with my real estate agent. “That is not actually the public health order,” they responded, copy/pasting the NSW Health vague guideline and adding “below is the link we can show more than one per a day provided they are not looking at the same time. I have also confirmed this with Fair Trading.”

So I called Fair Trading, duh. They were vague, too – essentially just repeating the NSW Health guideline and saying if I felt my real estate was acting outside of health protocols, I could contact CrimeStoppers.

At this point I gave up. It was clear that the NSW Health guidelines were vague, therefore the cops weren’t going to fine my real estate agent as long as they weren’t ushering in like, 20 people in one hit. My only other option was to take this shit to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, and even if I did, I’d still have all these people traipsing through my house in a few hours’ time anyway.

Like any young renter in Sydney (hell, in Australia), I’m used to this kind of “the real estate agent is always right” bullshit. We’ve all had some sort of fucked experience with a landlord or agent rocking up to our rented property unannounced, ignoring calls and emails to fix mould or plumbing problems, or jacking up rents after just a year of renting a place. The rental industry leans heavily toward landlords and agencies, not renters. It’s like we should be grateful to even have a roof over our heads, even though we’re paying hundreds to have it.

But right now, what we’re talking about isn’t a lack of privacy or our living experience. It’s literally about our health. I’m fully vaccinated, but I still would like to avoid catching COVID. With 1,000+ cases daily the week my property was being inspected, I think it was pretty understandable I was concerned about a bunch of people walking through my apartment. The chances of one of them carrying the virus are significantly higher than, say, a few months ago, when we had barely any community transmission.

Even if all COVID-safety precautions were taken, and the real estate agent vigilantly watched to ensure those inspecting didn’t, say, drop their mask once inside, touch anything, ignore the hand sanitiser, it is still concerning to have eight different people – who could be from anywhere in Sydney including restricted LGAs – inside my home. Yep, even people currently living within a restricted LGA where the majority of COVID cases are currently being transmitted can head out to inspect my home – as long as they have a “genuine intention” to possibly move there.

My concern isn’t actually with the people inspecting. I do believe that most people are good, try to do the right thing to the best of their ability, and aren’t out here willingly wanting to transmit COVID or lick all the surfaces in my home. It’s actually not even with my real estate agent – of course they’re keen as hell to rent my property before they lose money! No one wants to lose money, right?

It’s with these stupidly vague health rules. How are we at 1,000+ cases per day in NSW but we still have confusing, half-baked guidelines around areas of high concern, like home inspections? How is there no limit in place as to the number of people an agent can let into someone’s home while they still live there?

I understand businesses need to survive this COVID chaos, too. I get that having absolutely no rental inspections would impact agents and landlords financially.

But what about us? We live in these houses. These are our homes. For most of us, it’s our only sanctuary where we can feel safe from COVID. We’re doing everything right: going for masked-up walks, avoiding people on the street when we go for a run. We should be allowed to feel safe in our own homes – after all, we’re still paying through the nose for it.

What I want is this: a government that makes CLEAR RULES that benefit the health and safety of residents, not the pockets of landlords and real estate agents. Limit inspections to a specific number per day, and to a limited amount of days per week. Stand on the side of the people who live in your state – we’re happy to compromise, just not when we feel our health and safety is being sold off to the highest bidder.

Melissa Mason is a freelance writer based in Sydney. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.