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Coronavirus: Moving home allowed as curbs lift on estate agents in England

Couple looking in estate agents window

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The government has set out plans to restart England’s housing market, which has been in deep freeze since the coronavirus lockdown.

From Wednesday, estate agents can open, viewings can be carried out and removal firms and conveyancers can restart operations.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said the changes must be carried out under social distancing and safety rules.

It is estimated there are 450,000 buyers and renters with plans on hold.

“Our clear plan will enable people to move home safely, covering each aspect of the sales and letting process, from viewings to removals,” Mr Jenrick said.

“This critical industry can now safely move forward, and those waiting patiently to move can now do so.”

Meanwhile, the property markets in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland remain shut.

Home viewings are not permitted under lockdown regulations and their land registries are either running a reduced service or are not registering transactions.

Alistair Elliott, chairman and senior partner at estate agents Knight Frank, told the BBC’s Today programme the measures were “a major first step”.

“We believe the public will have confidence to re-engage with the housing market,” he said.

He added that Knight Frank was implementing “firm-wide plans” to adapt all its premises to conform to social distancing rules and that government guidance would be followed “every step of the way”.

In another move to unlock the housing market, Mr Jenrick announced a series of measures for the house building sector, including:

  • Allowing builders to agree more flexible working hours with their local council, such as staggering arrival times to ease pressure on public transport
  • Enabling local councils and developers to publicise planning applications through social media, instead of having to rely on posters and leaflets
  • Providing support for smaller developers by allowing them to defer payments to local councils to ease cash flow

Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation, said: “A resumption of work will play a major part in helping the economy recover, as well as delivering the homes the country needs.

“It should also provide the supply chain with the confidence it needs to accelerate its own restart.”

Mr Jenrick said guidance from Public Health England must continue to be followed. For example, anyone advised to self-isolate should continue to do so and not move home.

This announcement will test the housing sector’s hope, and belief, that a wave of pent-up demand amongst buyers and renters is ready to be released.

Yet, the reality is that many people’s finances are now less secure than they were just a few months ago when they were preparing to move.

Expect a lot more haggling over price from both sides who have yet to have formally agreed what they will pay or accept, especially if getting a mortgage is harder.

Estate agent Savills has already suggested that people who still have money to look for somewhere new, may now be rethinking their priorities.

A spare room and good Wi-Fi may suddenly have become more appealing when working from home, and a large garden may be even more of a golden ticket for anyone with children.

The new guidance includes the permission for trades people to operate in homes, providing they follow social distancing advice.

But Jonathan Hopper, chief executive of real estate consultants Garrington Property Finders, thinks there is still demand from buyers for new properties.

“The lockdown may have halted conventional viewings, but there are plenty of signs that some would-be buyers have used the past six weeks to window shop in earnest,” he said.

“Few things are more likely to make people want to move than being cooped up in the same four walls for weeks on end, and property portals have seen traffic increase by up to a fifth. “

Lockdown impact on housing

Property website Zoopla previously estimated that about 373,000 property sales had been put on hold during lockdown – with a total value of £82bn.

Agreed sales were running at a 10th of the normal level for the time of year, and were akin to the activity seen in late December, it said.

Spring is usually a busy time for the housing and mortgage markets.

Buyers deserted the housing market for obvious reasons just before and after the introduction of virus restrictions, which began on 23 March.

This led to a 70% drop in buyer demand over the course of a few weeks.

Meanwhile, rental demand is 42% down since the start of March, according to Zoopla.


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