Life as a Hertfordshire estate agent during the COVID-19 pandemic
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Between Brexit, the election and COVID-19, estate agents haven’t had it easy. Putterills managing director Mark Shearing, 57, told Jane Howdle what life as an agent in post-lockdown Herts has been like.
How did you manage when the property market was effectively closed back in March?
We furloughed all of the employed staff and four directors kept working - we still had a big bank of sales that were going through and we were trying to hold those together. We couldn’t make appointments, it was just a case of communicating with people and saying, “we’re still here, you can still reach us”.
We started doing virtual valuations, where people would send us a video clip of their house and we’d try and give them a ballpark valuation. Most of our houses have got virtual tours anyway, so at least we could give applicants that wanted to view a look around. Two or three people straight away said they liked particular places, so as soon as we were out of lockdown we booked viewings - in fact our St Albans office booked its first sale within 24-hours of coming out of lockdown because the couple had already done a video tour. It was a busy time.
What’s business been like since the property industry was allowed to reopen?
The bit I absolutely cannot believe is how stunningly busy we are. Our Hitchin and Knebworth offices had their best months ever last month (June). This month they’re still way ahead. St Albans got off to a fabulous start, the problem has just been getting enough instructions - anything they’re getting, they’re selling. There just seems to be a bit of a shortage of instructions in St Albans.
All of our offices have now caught up for the year, so despite the eight-week close down in terms of business we are now at least where we would be in a normal year.
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How did you manage that?
Just before lockdown we were 90 per cent ahead of the previous March. Last year we had Brexit, then we had an election, and the election - irrespective of your politics - was the right result for the property market.
We came into 2020 with a really buzzing marketplace that had effectively got two years of pent up energy behind it. We had a massive surge and then of course it was closed down literally instantly, nobody could do anything. We had two months of lots of people sitting there thinking, “I am going to move”. Perhaps in that first three months they might have sold their house and they were thinking, “what am I going to buy?”
An awful lot of people changed their moving plans. They decided: “I’m going to spend more time working from home. If I’m not going to go to the office every day I could live in the countryside or the perceived countryside.” That’s been a massive feeder. I think that explains June’s surge, it was that pent up energy. July has just continued and effectively been further fed by the stamp duty holiday.
Will this all change when some of the furloughed are made redundant?
Hertfordshire is incredibly diverse, we’ve got pharmaceuticals, teaching hospitals, aerospace - such a range. And before lockdown most of them were struggling to recruit. Whilst some companies might lay off some people, there’s such a skills shortage they’ll find another job relatively quickly. That’s given them the confidence to go ahead and buy. If you look at that, plus the fact that we’ve still got the cheapest money to borrow almost, in historical levels, why wouldn’t you move now?
It’s been such a weird couple of years...
Utterly weird! I’ve never ever known anything like it.
Did many of your pre-lockdown sales fall through?
As soon as we came back there was lots of talk in the media about house prices crashing. Locally, we did have some sales fall through during the lockdown, but I think almost without exception, and again, strangely, particularly in St Albans, we resold every single one, and usually by £20-30,000 more than we’d sold it the previous time.
In St Albans there was the shortage. People were saying: “I almost don’t care what I’m going to pay for it because I’m going to be there for 10 years. I just want to buy the house. If I pay a bit extra for it, does it matter?” Most people are buying a home, not just an investment.
What’s a typical day like now?
It has almost gone back to normal. All of our offices start with a morning meeting, usually at 8.30am, and I think that’s the most important part of the day. We sit down and share what’s gone on the day before; what offers have come in and what levels they are. Often the offers are discussed with the valuer – is that a reasonable offer? What position are the applicants in? We analyse whether that gets recommendations or whether we think there’s more out there.
Each morning we also make sure all feedback from the previous day has been passed on. It’s so easy to forget the houses that aren’t getting interest because you’re so busy with the ones that are. If a house hasn’t had any interest over the last seven days we look at it and try and fathom why. It might be it needs fresh photography, it might be that the price is wrong. We check everything.
How has COVID-19 changed the way you work?
We have a COVID set of guidelines for both sellers and potential applicants. After sellers have given us access, we have to go round the house and physically wipe it down. Even if the seller says, “I’ll do that”, it’s our responsibility. So, whoever’s showing the applicants round will go round afterwards with antiseptic wipes and do all the door handles and surfaces people are likely to have touched, things like that.
There’s a whole procedure which is making appointments take longer. We have to have a buffer between every single appointment where the house has got to be cleaned, and that’s usually a minimum of 15-minutes. If you have six appointments you’ve got somebody out of the office for three hours on one house.
Sounds like a nightmare...
Logistics have been our biggest problem. We keep getting people showing up to viewings from two separate households; you might get a first-time buyer coming round with mum and dad, but they live separately. They’re not allowed to do that. We make that clear but they still do it so we have to cancel the appointment. Then they get frustrated, so there’s a little bit of diplomacy involved, but fundamentally they have been told and we’ve been warned as an industry that if we don’t adhere to the guidelines, they’ll firm the guidelines up further. So we are making sure we do it by the book.
Do people get annoyed with you?
We have had people being shirty. All we can say to them is, “you’ve been pre-advised of the guidelines, they’re not ours, but the Government’s, we’ll happily show you round when you’re willing to comply”.
Is that hard to manage?
It is, but the biggest problem is it’s incredibly time-consuming at a time where we’re already much busier than we were.
Are valuations more challenging too?
Yes absolutely, you’ve got to go through the same process. Also, it’s much harder actually giving a presentation to people after you’ve looked at the house if you’re trying to do it while you’re wearing a mask or having to do it over the telephone after you’ve left the house.
One difficulty was during lockdown itself; people would ring you up and couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t value their house. “Why can’t you come out”, “why can’t you even drive past it?” At the time that was simply breaking the law. There were a couple of people that got quite frustrated about it. But the vast majority of the public are delightful, sympathetic and fully understand.
How do you promote yourselves these days?
The property portals and the agents’ websites are probably the prime sources. I think a lot of people don’t register quickly enough on estate agents’ websites; properties usually go live there a good day or so before they go to the property portals, so if you’re an active house hunter I would set yourself up for alerts with the agents specifically.
I would also get to know your estate agent. They’re human like everyone else, and if you’ve made yourself known to them it’s a great way of getting that priority call.
We also make sure that we do some print advertising as that gets us some good quality results. There is a core group of people who are still very loyal to it and it’s often a way of finding probably your more speculative buyer who is just thumbing through the paper, maybe sees a house they’ve had their eye on for years, and thinks “crikey, I’ll have a look at that”.
How important is it to be ‘proceedable’ in the current climate?
Very; you do need to be in a good position. You need to have your own house at least on the market and ideally sold, otherwise you don’t stand a chance. There are so many people after each property. If you come in and you haven’t even put your house on the market then any agent is going to say to you, “thanks, but until you’ve got a buyer I’m not going to be in a position to recommend an offer from you”.
Even if you offered £20,000 more than anyone else, that’s usually based on your assumption that you’re going to get a certain offer for your house. If you don’t get that figure you might end up chipping that offer and it just ends up leaving a bad taste in people’s mouths.
What’s your own background?
I’ve been an agent since I was 18 - 39 years of agency, always in Hertfordshire. I started my career in St Albans. Since then I’ve moved around a little bit but I’ve been with Putterills since 1993, a year after it opened, and I took over when Tony Putterill retired three years ago.
I’m from Welwyn Garden City originally and I’m now based in Hitchin. I specialise in land and new homes; we advise developers on what to build in specific locations, what would get the best return and what would be the most saleable. It’s a very specialist area of estate agency and we’ve been doing that for 15 years now.
What does the future hold for the local market?
The short answer is it’s very difficult to say. But I think if there is some unemployment after everyone goes back after furlough, in Hertfordshire it will soon be absorbed.
We’re not worried about the market here and I think the stamp duty incentive will override any blip that there might have been.
Next year, we’re all hoping we’ll be back to normal.