On Sunday, Boris Johnson revealed the UK government’s “lockdown easing plan”. Some things will be changing from tomorrow, but how will this affect the property sector?
Boris Johnson’s speech at the weekend was unsurprisingly met with a range of reactions from members of parliament, business leaders and members of the public. Much of the criticism pointed to a lack of clarity in the plans, with a number of gaps and uncertainties in the new information. However, the government has stated that more details will soon follow.
On Monday, the government released a paper, titled ‘OUR PLAN TO REBUILD: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy‘. The document covers what lockdown restrictions will be lifted and when, although it does not go into specifics for many industries. The housing sector, like many others, is awaiting more clarity on how it can continue to operate. Here’s what we know so far.
Will the market reopen on 1st June?
In the government’s new plan, it states that ‘Step Two’ will see a number of changes taking place “no earlier than Monday 1 June”. The changes at this point include reopening “non-essential retail”.
According to Chris Pincher, many aspects of the property sector – such as those related to buying and selling – are included under the definition of retail. We can expect the government to reveal more details on this at a later date, according to its latest statement. However, it seems this could be a key date to note, which is just three weeks away.
Last week, NAEA Propertymark’s chief executive, Mark Hayward, also revealed his predictions on the property market reopening in June.
“The government is working on how and when to get our sector back up and running,” he said. “We’ve been working with MHCLG and BEIS and also conveyancers and removals firms to achieve this once the lockdown has eased.”
Boris Johnson did mention the construction industry directly in his proposals, providing an added degree of clarity to the sector.
“We said that you should work from home if you can, and only go to work if you must,” said Johnson. “We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work.”
While the sector had not been directly told to close, many sites did due to distancing restrictions and worker safety issues. Some also ceased operations due to supply problems caused by the wider coronavirus pandemic.
In recent weeks, many housebuilders had already begun to find ways to reopen their sites safely. This includes both large and small construction companies, and many more should now begin to resume work, which is great news for the industry.
Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation, said: “The industry sustains hundreds of thousands of people in numerous roles and associated sectors, boosting local economies across the country. A resumption of work will play a major part in helping the economy recover as well as delivering the homes the country needs.”
The latest announcement made no specific mention of changes to property viewings during lockdown. This means that, for the time being, the vast majority will take place remotely, using video technology. Those who are keen to get on with planned purchases can still use this option to “view” properties in advance. The same applies for prospective tenants, where possible.
In Mark Hayward’s seminar on reopening the housing market, he set out a number of likely measures for viewings. This includes viewings lasting no longer than 15 minutes, and PPE being worn at all times. Sellers will also need to wear PPE and disinfect the property before the viewing. Only two adults will be able to view, and open days will not be possible.
However, according to The Negotiator, it is possible that new-build viewings could take place sooner. This is presumably because no one is living in them so it could be done with very minimal human interaction. Again, this could be good news for the construction industry as properties being built can get sales underway.
If a house move can happen while maintaining social distancing rules, then it can technically go ahead. The same rules apply as before, although the government is due to follow up on this.
That means buyers should only proceed with purchases if moving into an empty property. However, people should only go ahead if the move can’t be delayed. Also, “critical” home moves can proceed if absolutely necessary, but everyone must stick to social distancing rules. Home removal firms can honour existing agreements if it is safe and necessary, too.
However, some in the industry argue it is definitely possible to move house while sticking to lockdown rules.
Ed Mead from Viewber says: “Common sense is obviously going to be necessary. Empty properties don’t present a problem and occupied properties can be turned in to empty ones for the duration of a viewing. If sensible social distancing and PPE guidelines are followed there shouldn’t be an issue.
“From Viewber’s perspective the ability for an agent to have a single local Viewber as key holder and doing the viewings has been understandably popular and minimises risk of infection to staff and applicants alike.”
Estate agents and letting agents
Agents fall under the non-essential retail category, according to the guidelines. While they can continue to carry out business remotely at present, they must also stick to social distancing measures. Many are operating on reduced staff numbers, speaking with clients via phone, email and other means.
However, as mentioned above, this sector is likely to fall under the ‘Step Two’ bracket. This means changes could be on their way from 1st June. The government is due to announce which non-essential retailers will be first to reopen when the day comes. Of course, many in the industry are calling for estate agents to be a priority.
“This is not the green light everyone was hoping for,” says Russell Quirk, director at Keller Williams. “It’s more like an amber light signalling things may change soon but not now – I’m afraid agents are going to have to be patient.”
“I think Boris has had a change of heart on several fronts, including allowing the property sector to open before other high street businesses.”
Getting back on track
Recent reports from the property market show that most people within the sector are keen to get things moving. House viewings online have climbed steeply in recent weeks, while property investors are still making enquiries and finalising plans. As builders get back on site and more firms find ways to operate safely, the cogs are certainly already beginning to turn.
There are many positives in the UK property market right now, too. Lenders have begun to bring back some products, and rates are extremely low. This applies to both homeowner and buy-to-let mortgages. Technology is also becoming more widely accessible. Valuers are doing more valuations remotely, while conveyancers are adapting to digital processes, which will hopefully continue after the lockdown.
Those in the industry will continue to await further guidance from the government. What’s more, many are calling on the government to prioritise housing, which will likely form a major part of the plan to begin rebuilding the economy.