Challenging times for buyers and renters in Hertfordshire as housing market freezes

House hunting has become an online-only activity. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

House hunting has become an online-only activity. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Covid-19 has hit the Hertfordshire property market hard. Richard Burton found out how local movers and agents are coping.

Many homes remain for sale, but it's now not possible to view them in person. Picture: Getty Images/

Many homes remain for sale, but it's now not possible to view them in person. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It’ll come as little comfort to those who days ago were considering their dream move, but behind the pandemic-fuelled property pause many leading estate agents have described as totally unprecedented, lies a savage irony.

Only a few weeks ago, all property professionals – agents and lenders alike – were celebrating the so-called ‘Boris bounce’, a post-election surge that saw a month-on-month increase in prices after a year of uncertainty bordering, at times, on market chaos.

It was one that translated, according to property portal Rightmove, into a 3.5 per cent annual rise nationally. That was echoed by the equally influential Zoopla who were insisting that the housing market had the strongest start for four years. Then, in one single week, they were reporting a startling 40 per cent drop in buyer demand.

The rate of the change is hard to overstate. As recently as the end of February, I had one conversation with an agent about demand for first-time buys and was assured that end of the market would remain stable “despite this blip”. Two weeks later, I ribbed him with “You never saw this one coming then?” He replied simply: “Did you?”

As the crisis deepened, two very clear schools of thought emerged. One suggested that the market would suffer badly as potential sellers decided to hunker down and stay put and buyers would hold off. The other was that, after a year of unparalleled confusion, sheer frustration alone would drive buyers and sellers to brazen it out.

Agents quickly began adjusting their stride, assessing potential buyers and quizzing vendors on their state of health before viewings and even, where possible, rapidly adding video elements as virtual viewings.

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But even that wasn’t enough. While some agents were reporting positive responses from some sellers, others were telling them they were uncomfortable with even having them in their homes for a lengthy shoot.

As late as two weeks last Friday, Knight Frank were telling me that viewing levels had fallen quickly in response to the government guidance on social distancing and that both buyers and sellers were “understandably cautious”.

All week leading up to that, many had been bullishly reporting an increase in people registering with them.

Some agents are using the internet to offer virtual viewings. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Some agents are using the internet to offer virtual viewings. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

For most other agents, the situation was the same. Lawrence Henry of Statons reported that business was still reasonably brisk, a view backed by a surge in mortgage applications to 70,900, the highest since 2016.

“Properties are still coming on to the market and people are still buying and selling so we’re not seeing any real change,” he said.

“We are doing all we can to make sure we know who’s coming and talking to them in advance about their state of health, where they’ve been et cetera. But we find people are being sensible.”

Similarly, Nick Doyle, senior property consultant at Cassidy & Tate was reporting a “trickle” of cancellations of appointments from vendors and buyers who were feeling unwell or being cautious.

Henry was ahead of the game in one respect. He spoke of an unexpected advantage of what was then a potential lockdown. “If we know people are at home, we can speak to them easily - and they’re online a lot more so in a way, we have a captive audience.”

A week later, agents nationwide were reporting a surge in online viewings as millions began making the most of their time at home by browsing property portals, which served well the likes of Strutt & Parker and Winkworth who had embraced fully the latest 3D virtual walk-through technology.

James Morris-Manuel, vice-president of Matterport, the 3D virtual viewing company whose technology is used by many agents said requests for its property scanning service soared more than sevenfold in a single week.

Strutt & Parker were quick to point out the advantages, estimating that it can take up to 25 viewings to sell a home, not including the time it takes to present it for each visit.

Simon Roberts, who runs their Gerards Cross office, said potential buyers who view in this way tend to “make a much more informed decision about what to do next. It also means less disruption for the seller, with the potential to filter out less committed viewings”.

That made sense until the distancing measures were hardened, ruling out the critical closing visit, not to mention the issues of getting people together to physically sign contracts.

And even before the Government effectively shut down the entire market, questions were being asked about the logistics of having a removal gang cross the threshold 50-plus times. Tenants, the ones who weren’t staying put, found end of contract cleaners a scarcity. And letting agents were unable to do inventory checks, with the most determined insisting they would only consider entering empty properties.

Steve Walker of Collinson Hall explained: “Everything was so sudden. To be honest, we had been gearing up for this, trying to help with virtual tours and the like but then the rug was literally pulled from under us with the Government’s lockdown.

“A big problem for us now is trying to understand what’s coming next so we can plan. Two weekends ago we had 11 viewings on an empty property and were cautiously inviting them in and keeping our distance. Now we couldn’t even dream of doing that.”

He added: “There is still a market out there with people wanting to buy and sell but they’re just not able to do so at the moment. It’s the same with the rental market. We’re not renting and people aren’t vacating. But they’ll be there once this has cleared – and it will.”

Henry agreed there is still a strong, if dormant, market: “There are a lot of buyers who just want to get on with it and get in somewhere, buying or renting. There are still a lot of first-time buyers out there.”

One buyer caught in the ensuing limbo was public relations executive Susie Wyeth. She found herself at the point of leaving the second floor rental flat she shares with her two children and moving to a house with garden in St Albans. She had even set a date for exchange and completion.

But her removals firm dropped the bombshell that it would have to push back their date by more than 10 days. The earliest they could be with her was two days after the lease on her flat expired.

“I’m currently in a two-bed second floor flat with no private outdoor space. The move would be to my own house with a garden for my kids to play in. I cannot afford to pay rent and a mortgage, but at the moment I don’t know if I am allowed to move,” she said.

This was not lost on St Albans MP Daisy Cooper who was using her Facebook page to reiterate new laws that enforced delays on landlords evicting tenants. And luckily, Susie managed to find a removals firm to agree to do it on the day, even if it did come with a caveat.

Susie, a director of London’s tech-focused Babel PR, added: “Originally I had booked a pack-and-move, but they won’t do the pack now, which is understandable.”

As for the immediate future, Steve Walker summed up what a lot of agents were saying privately: “Nothing comes close to this in terms of the scale of fear and tension in the market at the moment. And the sense that everything is totally out of control. But, as I said, that will change.”