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.”