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On May 13, the welcome news came that the property market could reopen, with buyers, sellers, tenants and landlords able to engage in home-moving activity again and estate agents able to return to work.
However, it wasn’t a case of returning to normal, or ‘as you were’. It was a return to that often-used new phrase, the ‘new normal’.
That’s because the current home buying process looks very different, with necessary steps taken to limit the threat of Covid-19 spreading including social distancing measures and stricter hygiene protocols.
While some of these may be an inconvenience, a pain and a hassle, other steps may be here to stay for the long-term - even once social distancing becomes a distant memory – and could ultimately transform the property industry in a positive way, for the better.
Here, we outline what the new buying process looks like, and which of the innovative new processes could be here to stay for good.
Virtual viewings, social distancing and no car sharing
When allowing the property market to reopen, the government issued clear and robust advice on how this should be done in a safe and sensible way.
Where possible, to minimise public health risks, buyers should use virtual viewings as the first port of call, to ensure they are serious about the home before they potentially view it in-person. Virtual viewings are now readily available on the portals and from a large number of estate agents, who – if they didn’t have or prioritise this technology before – are now doing so.
Virtual or video viewings have been around for some time, but their value has only really become apparent since lockdown measures were introduced and physical viewings were banned.
As was already the case before the pandemic, people are being encouraged to do their property searching online, with progression to a physical viewing only occurring when buyers are seriously considering making an offer.
For many years now, the vast majority of buyers have been turning first to portals such as Rightmove, Zoopla and OnTheMarket to carry out their property search – so there will be little to no adjustment required here. Virtual viewings may be more difficult for buyers to get their head around, but given the wonders of modern tech virtual viewings really can make you feel like you are there. While they might not replicate entirely the in-person viewing experience, with the sights and smells that includes, they are an excellent replacement.
Once buyers are sure they are serious about a home, viewings must only take place by appointment and only involve members of a single household. In other words, if you’re a First Time Buyer, you can’t invite your mum, dad or best friend along if they don’t live with you.
If any member of either the household being viewed, or those doing the viewing, is self-isolating or showing symptoms of coronavirus, the viewing should be delayed. No open house viewings are currently allowed, as the government seeks to minimise scenarios where a large number of people from different households all gather in the same confined space.
When viewing a property in person, the seller should have opened all the internal doors prior to the viewing, as well as allowing easy access to handwashing facilities and ideally separate towels/paper towels. The seller is typically being asked to vacate the property for the duration of the viewing to minimise unnecessary contact.
All parties on a viewing – which is likely to include the buyer/buyers and their agent - should wash their hands upon entry and exit and avoid touching surfaces where possible. Your agent will ask you to limit the number of people accompanying you on a viewing so that social distancing can be maintained, and only those in your immediate household should be there.
Agents accompanying clients on a viewing should follow social distancing rules wherever possible. “Where viewings are unaccompanied, agents should make sure viewers and homeowners understand how they should conduct themselves,” the government guidance says.
Furthermore, buyers should not travel in their agent’s car to a viewing – as may have been the case before – to further minimise close contact in a confined space. Buyers should make their own travel arrangements to and from the property.
Offers, surveys and agreeing to move
Buyers can make offers and reserve properties as normal, but there is a greater risk at present of house moves being delayed if someone is self-isolating or starts to show symptoms of coronavirus and must therefore do the same. If this is the case, you should work with your agent and conveyancer to ensure that any contracts you sign as are as flexible as possible to accommodate this greater risk.
Buyers may want to visit a property again, even after they’ve agreed a sale, to measure up. Where this is agreed to, the above rules on social distancing, hygiene, mitigating contact and prioritising virtual visits all still apply.
You may also wish to send in tradespeople to carry out inspections. This is now also allowed again, but these visits should be carried out in line with government guidance on safe working, and should be scheduled with only one person visiting the property at any time where possible. No tradesperson should enter a property where a member of the household is self-isolating or showing symptoms.
Conveyancers should now be able to conduct property searches online to progress your transaction, while surveyors can undertake surveys on the property you’re looking to buy.
“Surveyors should not enter a property where a member of the household is showing symptoms of coronavirus or self-isolating,” the guidance states. “Where possible we encourage inspections to take place by appointment only, with one person visiting the property at any time. Surveyors should follow government guidance for professionals working in other people’s homes
and guidance on social distancing
Once you have exchanged contracts, you have of course entered a legally binding agreement to purchase the home. But, unless the house move is absolutely critical, buyers and sellers are advised to be as flexible as possible over this period, being prepared to delay moves if necessary. This includes when someone becomes ill with Covid-19 during the moving process or has to self-isolate for another reason, perhaps because they’ve been contacted by the government’s Test and Trace programme. You should not expect to move into any home where people are ill or self-isolating.
Your conveyancer should be able to help you make sure that any contract you enter into has sufficient flexibility to allow the purchase to be delayed in the event that an individual in one of the parties contracts coronavirus or has to self-isolate, the government advice adds.
Once you have completed and are ready to move into your new home, it’s time to move your belongings. Removal firms are able to operate, albeit they may need to adjust their usual ways of working to adhere to current guidelines and ensure that a house move happens safely.
Buyers are urged to contact removal firms well in advance of their move, while also doing as much of the packing themselves as possible. Belongings should also be cleaned, with standard domestic cleaning products, before they are handled by others, including removal firms.
You should ensure any internal doors are open and seek to minimise contact with the crew when removal firms are in your home, maintaining a distance of at least two metres where possible. All parties should wash their hands and avoid touching surfaces where possible to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus.
The government advises that you should not provide refreshments, but you should ensure they have access to handwashing facilities, using separate towels or paper towels, which should then be washed or disposed of safely afterwards.
A digital revolution?
To ensure that social distancing is adhered to, and to make life easier for all parties in a transaction, there has been an increasing move towards digital identity checks rather than face-to-face ones.
Recent guidance for the legal sector issued by the Legal Sector Affinity Group
said: “As an alternative to face-to face documentary verification, legal practices and practitioners may adopt or further utilise electronic means of ID&V [identity and verification] where appropriate to the risks present in the client/transaction.”
The Land Registry has also been working alongside the Law Society, the Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC) and the Chartered Institute for Legal Executives (CILEx), to find alternative ways of verifying an applicant’s identity while to the need to maintain social distancing remains in place.
The four organisations, alongside representatives from across the conveyancing industry, have sought to come up with solutions to help the property market during the coronavirus crisis.
Land Registry says the current crisis has highlighted the immediate need for an easy-to-use, modestly-priced, remote and digitally secure way for conveyancers to securely identify the buyers and sellers of a property.
This is part of a longer-term project by the non-ministerial government body to improve and speed up the homebuying and selling process by making it more digital and tech-led.
This, and the continued use of virtual viewings as a first port of all, are likely to be legacies of the coronavirus crisis. Equally, as we ward against a second wave or further pandemics, stricter hygiene protocols on viewings and a greater move towards remote/digital solutions may become a fact of life for buyers and sellers.