Property matters: How the Hertfordshire housing market is managing during lockdown
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As life in lockdown rumbles on, Richard Burton looks at how the local housing market has been managing the changes imposed on it.
Among the first doors to reopen alongside the chemists and supermarkets in our high streets will be estate agents, we’re told.
There may not be quite the queues we’ve been seeing outside Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, but that’s because we don’t buy houses with the frequency that we do a pint of milk.
It certainly won’t mean a lack of interest. It’ll probably have more to do with the fact that we’ve got used to thinking about house buying in a different way. And think about it, we have.
Zoopla was reporting in the first weeks of the restrictions that sales were continuing, albeit at lower levels, and more importantly as the week progressed, they noticed that sellers were not taking their homes off the market, something their CEO Charlie Bright saw as a silver lining.
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He estimated that, on one day in the middle of the month, the number of homes for sale was only one per cent lower than the previous month.
Moving on from that, the main issue has been new listings. While sellers have not been removing theirs, very few have been offering them up. One piece of analysis found that there were 65,531 posted on Rightmove between March 8 and April 11 – a massive drop from the 112,570 that went on between March 10 and April 6 last year.
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So while sales have obviously not been going through – a fall of 70 per cent in the first weeks alone – the fact that sellers have not withdrawn is significant. When the market does restart in earnest, an abundance of stock will be vital to facilitate any sort of bounce-back.
And when I said we’d certainly been thinking about them, that’s because many experts have been telling me they’ve seen a rise in interest during lockdown, even though that’s obviously been online.
Propertymark board member Martyn Baum, told estate agents in a webinar “not to put their head in the sand and wait for this to blow over like an ostrich but rise from the fire and be ready to flourish like a phoenix”.
But local agents were already on the case. Many, such as Putterills, Cassidy & Tate, William H Brown and Wrights of Hatfield have been making good use of live chats on their websites, for example. Haart of Stevenage have even been posting details of the latest houses they’ve sold - 22 in one recent week - and assuring buyers and sellers they’re still open remotely with the message: “We are staying safe, make sure you do too.”
Connells have been particularly thorough in their approach, with a detailed Covid-19 FAQ section displayed prominently online.Ashtons have a similar Q&A, but have gone further by keeping their news section updated with additions such as tips and advice – and are posting fittingly up-to-date customer reviews.
Savills, unsurprisingly given their data-driven ethos, had probably the best news section, giving timely advice on everything from the current mortgage situation to how to engage with virtual viewing and even reflective pieces such as how the UK behaves in downturns. Others such as Bradford & Howley have been working hard to keep previously agreed sales moving, while accepting requests for new viewings to take place once lockdown is lifted.
More and more agents are exploring opportunities afforded by the latest viewing technology. Collinson Hall, Putterills and Strutt & Parker have been encouraging movers to make appointments online and join them on virtual tours.
Purple Bricks have been more specific, boasting “a plethora of video technology, such as WhatsApp, FaceTime, Zoom, Duo and Hangouts” to conduct all viewings and valuations.
The important thing is, in the face of unprecedented barriers, moves have been going ahead, even though the vast majority involved transactions where contracts had already - or were about to - exchange when the lockdown was introduced on March 23.
It helped that three days later the Government clarified what was a confusing situation by advising movers there was no need to pull out of transactions, particularly where properties were vacant, as long as people followed distancing guidelines.
And while there was a general assumption that the market was officially closed, the government’s advice was, again, clear: offers can continue to be made and accepted on properties. And while the advice was to delay a move in most cases, “there is an exemption for critical home moves, in the event that a new date is unable to be agreed”.
The issues are more to do with practicalities. Even if anyone did agree to buy on the basis of online viewing – and they do occasionally – they may not be able to get a survey, it’s the luck of the draw as to whether the relevant local authority is carrying out local searches, and removals firms are being urged to operate under similar restrictions.
According to UK Finance, which represents 250 banking institutions, all their mortgage lenders are working to find ways to allow those who have exchanged contracts to extend their mortgage offers for up to three months.
And even given all that, the government appears on the face of it committed to helping those who find themselves in difficulty after that period; if a buyer loses their job, for example, and is struggling to complete.
The HomeOwners Alliance note that activity has dwindled but they too are encouraged that sellers don’t appear to have withdrawn homes from the market in any great number. They estimate available stock is currently down by a mere 2.6 per cent.
As for construction work, unlike Scotland which has shut down all building sites, many of the biggest house builders are now getting back to business.
Persimmon and Vistry resumed work on Monday, with Taylor Wimpey announcing plans to do the same next week.
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick said on Friday: “I welcome developers reopening sites following careful consideration of public-health guidance. Building the homes the country needs is vitally important. Work in construction can and should continue.”
But there’s been work going on locally throughout lockdown, judging by those traditional early-start trucks I see on my 7am run which is surprising, given that they were supposed to be limited to “essential repairs and maintenance”.
None of that seemed to apply to any of the ten sites I jogged past in Harpenden’s Wood End, Roundwood, the poets’ area and the Avenues last week, where teams were actively involved in everything from garden clearance to plastering and scaffolding.
Needs must, perhaps, but the Federation of Master Builders has been urging its members to stick to the “essential” line and were reporting at the end of March that more than half had already stopped work on more than 75 per cent of their projects.
Joseph Daniels, founder of offsite eco developer Project Etopia, drew my attention to an irony in ONS statistics on housebuilding - the house building sector actually finished more homes in England last year than at any time since the financial crash.
“Last year’s 178,790 new homes beats the previous high set in 2007 when the industry completed 176,640 new builds. The statistics show that things were improving before coronavirus stopped the industry’s momentum in its tracks.”
So what sort of market will we eventually wake up to?
I’ve been writing stories for the past two weeks on how so many more of us will be adjusting our lives to work from home. And having spent so much time stuck in them, it’ll make sense many will want to change theirs.
Needing an office will join needing more space and just needing to get away in the top tier of reasons for wanting to go on the market at the earliest opportunity. Divorce is another one of course, but let’s stay positive.
Putterills’ latest newsletter advised readers to “use these weeks ahead to take a step back and try to see your property through a future buyer’s eyes”, and extoled the virtues of their virtual viewing services by suggesting sellers think less about kerb appeal and more about screen appeal.
But in the most poignant message I’ve read of late, they conclude: “If this period of isolation from our families, friends and familiar routines has taught us anything, it has taught us about the value of home. No matter how big or small our homes have kept us safe.”