Having endured seven weeks of working from their own homes, estate agents in England can finally return to other people’s.
The UK housing market is grinding back into action, after almost all activity was stopped because of coronavirus in March. But despite the government’s decision this week to allow people to once again sell their homes, view properties and move, industry professionals have warned the frozen market will not thaw quickly.
Estate agents are being told to arrive at property viewings equipped with their own disinfectant, open doors using their elbows, turn on light switches using their knuckles and arrange visits outside of rush hour. “Don’t shake hands!,” they are urged in draft guidance drawn up by industry bodies and seen by the Financial Times.
Some agents are being advised to hold viewings in silence and only discuss property details on the doorstep, to limit the risk of spreading coronavirus orally.
The guidance stipulated that buyers would be unable to view properties without an agent, and only two clients could visit at one time. Agents will question potential buyers on their recent health before viewings and encourage occupants to vacate their property. If the seller is high-risk, they will be obliged to leave.
“It might be best for families to be in the garden or on a walk to safeguard all involved,” suggested the government’s guidance. A bigger challenge could be following advice that “pets be contained in one room and if not possible, they must keep 2m distance.”
Jeff Doble, chief executive of Dexters, the London-focused estate agency that announced it would reopen its 70 branches on Wednesday, said: “Gone are the days when you just open the door of a property and 15 people have a waltz around.
“If we’re showing properties that are lived in we can’t let people run loose: you’ve got to slow everything down a bit and be methodical about the way you function — much as you’re doing in the supermarket,” he added.
Most estate agents have been operating at skeleton capacity since the lockdown was introduced and were caught unaware by the reopening.
The pandemic had forced them to shut branches and battered share prices across the sector. Foxtons, the London-focused agent, raised £22m in April to see off the possibility of running out of cash. Its share price has declined almost 60 per cent from a late February high of 95p to 39.6p.
Countrywide, one of the UK’s largest listed agents, has been even worse hit by the crisis. From a late February peak of £3.40, its shares have shed more than 80 per cent of their value to trade at 62p.
Trade bodies covering housebuilding, removals, surveying and estate agencies have been busy devising protocols for safe working. The new rules they are putting in place helped to enable the reopening of the market but will add complexity and cost to the homemoving process.
This week’s announcement from the government provided a brief fillip for shares in the estate agents rather than a sustained rally, with investors anticipating that the emergence from lockdown will be a slow one.
With little sales evidence from the past two months, finding an agreeable price will be the first challenge as the market returns.
“Anyone trying to chip the price by 10 per cent is seeing it blow up, but 5 per cent [off the asking price] is something most sellers can make peace with,” said Jo Eccles, founder of SP Property Group, a London-based buying agency and property manager.
Ms Eccles took her first viewing since the reopening of the market on Thursday. “The clients turned up in masks and the agent stayed on the balcony,” she said.
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Roarie Scarisbrick, a buying agent at Property Vision, added: “It’s going to take a bit of courage to be among the first transactions through the system.
“The world of estate agency is euphoric and talking of a tidal wave of demand. But I’m not aware of thousands of doors being opened and people going round London houses,” he said.
Many estate agent’s branches will open only ‘on appointment’, and some are likely to remain closed.
“I would ask: do you need to be open? There’s not going to be many people wandering the high street,” said David Cox, chief executive of ARLA Propertymark, the trade body for letting agents.
A survey of the residential market by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, published on Thursday, poured more cold water on hopes of a quick recovery.
It showed that 93 per cent of respondents reported that buyer enquiries had fallen in April, and 96 per cent said the number of sellers asking for their properties to be marketed had dropped — the most since records began in 1999.