A series of polls taken by Estate Agent Today suggest substantial numbers of agents remain uncomfortable about returning to trading even with safety measures in place.
A poll earlier this week – just before lockdown was lifted on the house sales and lettings sector – asked: Is it right to re-open a High Street branch now?
The response, on over 800 individual votes, was a clear 66 per cent against opening now and only 34 per cent in favour.
EAT also undertook a poll yesterday (24 hours after the industry lockdown was lifted, but effectively the first day of trading for most agents that chose to open).
This poll related to Dexters estate agency chain in London, which had its branches open but felt obliged to let people know that local managers were taking the temperatures of staff in a bid to ensure the workforce and customers alike felt safe.
The poll asked: “If an agency has to check staff temperatures, is it right it should be open at all?”
Some 57 per cent voted for the option: “No, it’s too early to open”.
Once lockdown was lifted, many agents took to EAT to comment that they were concerned at the move.
Gavin Scott-Brooker of Cheshire surveyors’ firm Brooker and Co wrote: “We are surveyors…. we are deeply concerned about the release of the market…. it’s just too soon, and there is insufficient data to prove it is safe to operate. A number of our colleagues share the same view. We have elected to stay closed until June at the very earliest.”
Removals operator Matthew Lock commented: “Removals companies and estate agent share the feeling if not safe to see own family, then it’s not safe to go and see someone else’s. Councils still not open. So why should removals firms and estate agents be the guinea pigs?”
One agent said: “I’ve been emailing and calling clients and asking if they are OK to take viewings and the overwhelming majority are saying no. We’ve been working from home mostly and will continue to do so with only opening a couple of hours a day and then only because we are responding to what others in the town are doing.”
Notwithstanding the reservations of some agents, there appears a strong appetite amongst the public for a resumption of business.
Dominic Agace, chief executive of Winkworth estate agents – which has 60 offices in London as part of a 100-branch nationwide network – reported a significant uplift in interest on Wednesday, when the industry was allowed to return to trading.
Compared to the same day the previous week sales instructions were up 255 per cent, sales applicants up by 73 per cent, lettings applications were 61 per cent up, and valuations were 244 per cent up.
“Offices had lawyers getting in touch to pick up on frozen transactions to move them forward again. It was our second highest day for valuations so far this year. We also had a 35 per cent increase in traffic to the Winkworth website on the previous day” says Agace.
On Wednesday OnTheMarket saw traffic and leads up as much as 30 per cent against the previous day; these reached levels not seen since before the COVID-19 restrictions.
Meanwhile Carter Jonas says it saw email enquiries surge 116 per cent, telephone enquiries rise 72 per cent and viewing requests increase 40 per cent.
There’s been a very significant increase in the number of listings carrying virtual viewings, accelerating during the period of the Coronavirus crisis and lockdown.
An analysis of Rightmove listings conducted by virtual tour provider Made Snappy shows that the pandemic has expedited agents’ uptake of visual aids in portal listings.
Between mid-November 2019 and mid-May 2020 the number of lettings adverts on Rightmove with virtual tours increased by 179 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of lettings listings with videos increased by 280 per cent during the same period.
Between mid-April (when lockdown measures were at their most severe) and mid-May (when market activity started to resume) the number of lettings listings with virtual tours increased by 44 per cent, rising by 63 per cent when it comes to listings with videos.
On the sales side, the number of property listings on Rightmove with virtual tours increased by 77 per cent between mid-November and mid-May, while the number of adverts with videos increased by 50 per cent over this six-month period.
Over the past four weeks the number of sales adverts with virtual tours has increased by 19 per cent alongside those with videos increasing by 26 per cent.
“The lockdown has understandably forced more agents to embrace virtual tours, particularly on the lettings side. Our analysis also reflects the quicker restart of the lettings market compared to sales, which will be much slower to get started” says Mark McCorrie, software director at Made Snappy.
“With the market now up and running, we expect the number of portal listings with virtual tours to increase even further as more agents will be operating at full capacity over the coming weeks.”
The government, in its official guidance on the resumption of the housing market, says: “We encourage people to do the majority of their property searching online … To support this agents may ask home occupiers to conduct virtual viewings.”
And in relation to new-build property sales it advises: “Where possible, developers should promote virtual viewings.”
Made Snappy says it anticipates a 75 per cent reduction in physical lettings viewings while social distance measures remain in place.
“We know of letting agents who have used virtual tours to filter down applicants, subsequently achieving a 100 per cent success rate on the physical viewings – we expect this trend to become the norm” says McCorrie.
A large majority of property professionals polled by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors say a stamp duty holiday would be an effective way of kick-starting the housing market.
RICS has welcomed the re-opening of agents’, conveyancers, surveyors and removal company offices but it warning that the government must do more to bolster demand and house building.
Some 62 per cent of those responding suggest a stamp duty holiday would help the market recover post-pandemic, by lifting sales and leaving prices relatively unchanged.
On average, respondents anticipate sales would rebound to their previous levels in around nine months.
In its monthly snapshot of housing market activity for April, RICS says that – unsurprisingly – a net balance of 93 per cent of respondents reported a decline in new buyer enquiries over the course of the month, dipping further from a net balance of 76 per cent in March.
New instructions also continued to fall, with 96 per cent of contributors reporting a drop rather than rise in new properties being listed for sale. This is the weakest net balance reading since the inception of the RICS measurement in 1999.
As far as prices are concerned, following a run of three successive months of positive readings, the RICS headline house price balance fell into negative territory with a net balance of 21 per cent noting a decline in prices.
Some 35 per cent of the survey participants believe that when the market reopens, prices could be left up to four per cent while around four in 10 take the view that prices could in fact fall by more.
They suggest that a recovery in prices could take a little while longer than sales levels, with respondents suggesting, on average, prices will recover in 11 months.
“Not surprisingly, the latest survey shows that housing activity indicators collapsed in April reflecting the impact of the lockdown. Looking further out, there is a little more optimism but the numbers still suggest that it will be a struggle to get confidence back to where it was as recently as February. Moreover, whether this can be realised will largely depend on how the pandemic pans out and what this means for the macroeconomic environment” explains Simon Rubinsohn, RICS’ chief economist.
“There are, of course, other options available to government as they reopen the market, notwithstanding stamp duty options such as reducing or removing stamp duty for downsizers that would kickstart market fluidity, and we look forward to continuing conversations as the market starts to move again.”
An estate agency is running a series of five webinars aimed at helping agent discover new business strategies for the post-Covid era.
The series – called Re-imagining Your Business and run by Fine & Country’s Nicky Stevenson – is open to all agents.
In the first session today business guru Pete Wilkinson will be sharing his so-called 1-3-5 Action Plan to focus agents’ priorities.
Subsequent events will involve Josh Phegan, described by Fine & Country as a “coach for high performance agents.”
Jon Cooke, chief executive of epropertyservices – parent company of Fine & Country and the Guild of Property Professionals – will outline his thoughts on what it takes to be a strong leader and why now, more than ever, it is incredibly important in driving forward successful estate agency businesses.
The remaining webinars will be led by Peter Loverdos, former board level executive at Romans, who is now a business consultant; and Jennifer Scott-Reid on maintaining self-belief and confidence in challenging times.
“Whilst physical interaction with buyers and sellers have been on hold, we have all evolved our way of working and embraced virtual viewings, valuations and learning” explains Nicky Stevenson.
“Many have also evolved their thinking and used lockdown as an opportunity to re-imagine what estate agency will look like going forwards.
“As we now all prepare for lockdown restrictions to be eased, over this five-part series we will be reviewing essential topics enabling agents to thrive in a post lockdown world.”
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick is expected to announce tomorrow that the housing market in England can resume with estate and letting agents returning to work.
Previously it was the travelling to and from properties for “non-essential purposes” that was the key factor in restricting activity.
But an amendment to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations 2020 published this evening means travelling can be undertaken for a range of purposes including, explicitly, dealing in property. The precise wording reads:
in sub-paragraph (f), omit the words “travel for the purposes of”;
(v) for sub-paragraph (l), substitute—
“(l) to undertake any of the following activities in connection with the purchase, sale, letting or rental of a residential property—
(i) visiting estate or letting agents, developer sales offices or show homes;
(ii) viewing residential properties to look for a property to buy or rent;
(iii) preparing a residential property to move in;
(iv) moving home;(v) visiting a residential property to undertake any activities required for the rental or sale of that property;”;
A joint statement this evening from David Cox, chief executive of ARLA and Mark Hayward, chief executive of NAEA Propertymark reads: “It’s great news for consumers and the industry that the housing market is being opened up and people can let, rent, buy and sell properties again. The new regulations provide clarity to agents and will allow them to deal with pent up demand from consumers. It’s also a step to reinvigorating the housing market and will be a boost to the economy. Safety of course will be paramount, and we would encourage everyone to ensure that they follow Government guidelines closely to protect others and themselves.”
The chief executive of NAEA Propertymark says he expects specific government guidance later this week for estate agents to return to work safely.
This follows the shock of yesterday’s 50-plus page document on return to work guidance which failed to address any agency-related issue.
“I was disappointed that the Prime Minister’s announcement didn’t contain any answers for estate agents” Hayward tells Knight Frank in an interview for the agency.
“We are in daily contact with the government and I am cautiously hopeful that there will be some sector-specific guidance this week. We are hopefully moving closer to something that resembles a functioning marketplace.”
Hayward says he expects the guidance, which will come from the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government, will answer questions that many in the industry have.
“People are confused. If tradespeople are now allowed into the property, why not estate agents? The government is telling people to go to work if they need to, does that include doing market appraisals?”
He hopes there will be “some sort of slackening” of the rules and said leaked details from last week would hopefully form the basis of any announcement.
Measures under consideration included masks, hand sanitiser and alcohol wipes being required during viewings, which could be limited to two people plus the agent.
Other measures under discussion could mean owners or tenants are asked to vacate the building and those viewing would be asked not to touch surfaces. Also under discussion was the banning of open house events and limiting viewings to 20 minutes.
John Rockel, Head of Strategy and Operations at Knight Frank, says that while the resumption of business under social distancing restrictions would be challenging “it can be done safely for staff and customers and we’re ready for it”.
There’s been a surge in buyers wanting to view properties – but agents must sit on their hands and wait for government clearance.
That’s the advice from NAEA Propertymark overnight as it responds to the frustrating government guidance issued yesterday on how businesses emerge from lockdown.
To the disappointment of some in the industry, the government’s 60-page document which was released yesterday utterly ignored the housing market and agency sector.
Most analysts felt the nearest business category defined in the document was “non-essential retail” which may open sometime after June 1 so long as safe processes can be agreed. However at the same time the guidance suggests domestic cleaners can visit a home with immediate effect – which could be a loophole for agents to exploit.
A statement from Propertymark last evening says: “Consumers’ demand for viewings has increased today with potential buyers across the UK contacting members.”
But it warns that the guidance first set out by the government on March 26 – and explicitly ruling out physical viewings – remains in force and must be adhered to.
There is evidence that the lockdown is being circumnavigated by some agents; within minutes of the government document being publish yesterday afternoon, Estate Agent Today was told of a London agency chain allegedly showing viewers around properties surreptitiously; and in Devon, one agent told EAT that he had allowed a buyer to view a property after the owner stepped out.
However, the NAEA – although clearly frustrated that recent discussions with government have not led to any date for lifting agents’ lockdown – says the guidance set out over six weeks ago still holds.
“Consumers that are demanding viewings are leads to be nurtured until the point at which a face to face viewing – if that is the final hurdle – can once again be executed safely. This nurturing can involve video viewings and vendors conducting a more amateur viewing by phone around the house, where 360-degree software is not available” continues the association.
And NAEA Propertymark states: “It remains the case that where staff can carry out work from home this is Public Health England’s preference, freeing up space on public transport for those who cannot work remotely. When the time comes, agencies may choose to return staff to branches on a rotational basis combining branch and home-based work to accommodate re-opening with the required social distancing.
“Although Propertymark does not yet know exactly when the Government will allow estate and letting agency premises and auction houses to re-open, business managers must make appropriate preparations within the information that is available now.
“This will vary across premises and companies but key common areas are: arranging sufficient stocks of personal protective equipment and easy to access cleaning products and sanitiser but also considering whether there is sufficient space between work stations and preparation for minimising the hazards of frequently touched areas such as door handles, taps, kitchens, and toilets.”
Meanwhile another omission from the government document has been picked up by the Winkworth franchise chain.
“The key to keeping the second-hand and new build homes markets active is for banks to allow valuers to go back to work to allow mortgages to progress. This could be done with strict social distancing, hygiene and wearing of masks and other protective clothing rules in place. The government needs to consider this as a priority” explains Dominic Agace, chief executive of Winkworth.
Domestic cleaners can now re-enter private homes under new Coronavirus return-to-work guidelines – the very guidelines which appear to stop estate agents doing the same thing.
The new safety guidance for cleaners suggests that they obviously need to notify their clients in advance of their arrival at the home. They should also wear gloves and face masks as appropriate.
When they come in they should wash their hands for the stipulated 20 seconds, and do so again if necessary during the visit – especially if they cough, sneeze or blow their nose.
They must maintain a safe distance of two metres or more from occupants remaining in the property during the visit and ensure good ventilation by opening windows as appropriate.
Property expert Russell Quirk has raised the question on social media as to why an estate agent, surveyor or other property professional can’t visit properties under similar conditions.
The Financial Conduct Authority is reported to be considering offering homeowners up to 12 month’s mortgage holidays.
Currently 1.2m mortgage payment holidays have been offered by lenders to customers impacted by the Coronavirus crisis – that’s equivalent to one in every nine mortgages.
These were expected to be short term.
However The Times this morning says the holidays could be for up to 12 months in a bid to avoid widespread arrears and eventually repossession.
The number of payment holidays currently in place more than tripled in the two weeks between March 25 and April 8 with an average of some 61,000 being granted each day.
For the average mortgage holder, the payment holiday amounts to £260 per month of suspended interest payments, with many benefitting from the option of extending the scheme for up to three months.
Now it appears a longer holiday is on the cards as the virus crisis has further impact on jobs.
There’s been a furious response to the agent who appears to have breached government rules by opening his branch to the public – believed to be the first agent to do so.
Yesterday we revealed that Liddington Bone Property, a single-office sales and lettings agency in Gloucester, opened its doors and adopted a ‘one in, one out’ policy. Extensive social distancing measures were implemented.
However, a poll of over 600 readers of Estate Agent Today showed a strong 66 per cent against the move, and none of the 21 strongly-worded comments left on EAT, all by known agents, backed the company.
Last evening the company’s telephone was not being answered and its Facebook page appeared to have been taken down; it is not known if it will repeat the opening today.
Yesterday evening NAEA Propertymark’s chief executive Mark Hayward told EAT: “Estate agents are still termed a non-essential business and should therefore be obeying the government’s guidance. Agents should continue working from home and utilise virtual viewings. Offers are still being accepted virtually, and agents are agreeing to sales, subject to contract and a physical viewing once lockdown measures are eased.”
And Paul Offley, compliance officer for The Guild of Property Professionals, told EAT: “While The Guild has been lobbying the government to consider estate and lettings agents to be among the first sectors to open, and we have been issued government-back guidelines to our nembers on safely returning to work, our advice to our network remains work from home unless you are unable to do so.
“If the government and health experts’ advice and guidelines are not adhered to, we run the risk of a prolonged lockdown, a possible second wave of infections and far greater damage to the economy and our sector.
“The advice is, if you can work remotely, do so … We will continue to follow government guidance until such time as any restrictions are lifted.”
Arguably the most relaxed response came from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Late last evening it gave Estate Agent Today a statement saying: “The single most important action we can all take, in fighting coronavirus, is to stay at home in order to protect the NHS and save lives. When we reduce our day-to-day contact with other people, we will reduce the spread of the infection.
“To reduce social contact, the Government has ordered certain businesses and venues to close to members of the public. The government has agreed the list of closures in line with advice from medical professionals. In England, Environmental Health and Trading Standards officers will monitor compliance with these regulations.”