SALEM — Two vehicles pull up next to each other in a parking lot off Route 114 on a weekday morning, and the drivers make an exchange. 

No, it’s not a line from a police report. It’s what Salem attorney Scott Grover did on Tuesday morning for a real estate closing. 

“The other attorney didn’t want visitors coming to her office,” Grover, of the firm Tinti and Navins, said Tuesday. 

It’s one of the many adaptations closing attorneys, real estate brokers and bankers are making as they deal with the coronavirus pandemic — and with historically low interest rates that are driving interest in refinancing and new mortgages. 

Some real estate brokers had been using “social distancing” during open houses, but with Monday’s order from Gov. Charlie Baker that all non-essential businesses close, even that’s not possible now.

Phyllis Sagan, of Swampscott’s Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty, said her agents are now using 3D “virtual tours” and is aware of two recent sales that took place without buyers seeing the property in person.

Betsy Merry, president of Salem’s MerryFox Realty, did a walkthrough Monday evening with buyers — using Facetime. Her office is also using Matterport to build 3D virtual tours of properties. 

“There’s no guidance telling us what to do in a situation like this,” said Merry. “We’re using our own judgment.” 

But not every aspect of a real estate transaction can be handled remotely. The state, as of Tuesday, still bars the use of electronic signatures, so at some point in the process, there has to be some human interaction. Some measures have been taken to allow buyers and sellers to insert language in documents agreeing to postpone smoke detector certificates, final water and sewer bills, or other inspections until those services are available again. 

Grover said his firm is handling closings by employing social distancing at long conference tables, and providing customers with fresh pens; each conference room is cleaned after a closing, he said. 

“We’re dealing with a lot of new challenges,” he said. “These are usually pretty routine transactions, and this is adding a lot of complications.” 

Merry said the near-shutdown is also affecting some deals. One customer, a restaurant owner, learned that after he had to shut down his business, his lender pressed the pause button on his financing, said Merry. They were able to delay the closing by a couple of months in anticipation of re-opening. 

Other customers have just learned of furloughs or layoffs and want to put their property on the market, a consequence of shutdowns. 

“It’s taken a lot of joy out of the business,” said Merry.

Salem Five’s Joe Riley said that two weeks ago, right around the time the Federal Reserve made its rate cut, the bank saw “a tremendous influx of new business,” including, somewhat surprisingly, home equity line applications. 

Since then, “mortgage rates have bounced around a bit,” said Riley, executive vice president of retail banking. “It’s been kind of a roller coaster.” 

With residential mortgage lending representing such a large part of the bank’s business, they invested heavily in technology a couple of years ago.

That technology, said Riley, “is serving us well.” Employees have been able to work remotely throughout the crisis. 

“We haven’t skipped a beat,” he said. The bank has, so far, been able to maintain 30-day windows for closings. 

Rick Bettencourt, of Caliber Home Loans in Danvers, said the demand for refinancing and new mortgages was, for a time, outpacing the availability of workers to process them, which led to some fluctuation in rates.

“It’s a crazy time,” said Bettencourt. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve never seen anything like this.” 

But when things start getting back to normal, there will be some deals to be had. 

“I think there will be a window of opportunity,” said Sagan.  

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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