The government has outlined proposals to unfreeze and kick-start the housing market, covering every step of the letting and sales process across England. (The Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh markets remain frozen for now.)

The announcement, of course, follows seven weeks of gridlock due to Covid-19, during which agents could not list new properties, and the official guidance was against all house moves that weren’t absolutely essential.

However, the latest advice now is that:

  • Conveyancers can return to work
  • Removal firms are allowed to resume operations
  • Estate agents can open their doors once again

At the same time, a number of measures have been introduced to restart the house-building industry.

What could this mean for the market?

This is bound to be welcome news, not least for the estimated 450,000 renters and buyers who have reportedly had to shelve their moving plans. And, clearly, the housing sector is of vital importance to the UK’s economy.

So there could be a flurry of completions, which is what happened in New Zealand after the market was reopened over there. And it’s been reported that few sellers have taken their properties off the market, despite the pandemic, although it is too early to tell whether initial interest could peter out.

But this is a key first step which should spark confidence in engaging with the housing market once again, while boosting the economy. And the fact that, during lockdown, traffic to some property portals has risen by up to 20% shows the potential for reengagement and strong demand.

The caveats

Unsurprisingly, the government has stressed that the new rules are subject to everything being done in accordance within strict safety and social distancing guidelines.

The announcement from housing secretary Robert Jenrick does mean open for business again rather than business as usual. Few expect the market to be in the same place as it was pre-lockdown. Finances may still be uncertain or tight for many, and some in the industry predict prices will fall.

Virtual viewing may well remain popular for a while; indeed new government guidelines recommend initial online viewings. Equally, those involved in letting or selling may need to be prepared for some haggling before a price is agreed.

It’s impossible to know at this stage what the long-term impact on prices will be, although we do know there will be a close link with employment stats.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the current advice could change again, and at speed, should that be necessary in order to help control the spread of the virus.

But at least, as Jenrick said: “Those who’ve been waiting patiently to move can now do so.”

Rics guidance on viewings

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) has issued its own industry guidelines for in-person viewings:

  • Only the agent and two people from the buyer’ s household should attend viewings – and the agent must, of course, remain at 2m from the viewers at all times
  • Sellers will need to switch on lights and open doors before a viewing, before waiting somewhere outside while it takes place
  • Those viewing a property clearly won’t be allowed to touch anything
  • Door handles and other surfaces should be cleaned before the appointment and afterwards
  • Cancel viewings if any member of either household is showing any Covid-19 symptoms
  • Those viewing should have their own hand gel with them
  • No ‘open house’ viewings will be permitted

How might the government help?

Some estate agents are calling for a holiday for or reduction in stamp duty. Meanwhile, Rics is calling for tax cuts to help stimulate the market.

But an extension to the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, due for reform next spring and to be wound down completely in 2023, could be more likely. In effect, deals currently being negotiated under the scheme will have to be finalised by the end of the year to meet the April 2021 deadline.

How we can help

At Oakfield, we’re delighted at the reopening of the market, and confident it will be perfectly possible to complete every stage in of the moving process in safety. We’ve drawn up our own guidelines on conducting and attending viewings here in line with Rics guidance.

Chief executive Neil Newstead commented: “We will always be guided by government advice and would never do anything which could be even potentially unsafe, either for our team or customers. So of course we would respond swiftly to any revised advice. But we’re really looking forward to getting things – and people! – moving once again.

“This is the biggest step yet towards some kind of normality, even if things won’t be exactly the same as they were pre-lockdown, so clearly we welcome it.

“Over the last couple of months, we’ve been working hard behind the scenes, mainly from home, and we’ve taken a lot of calls from those wanting to view properties across Bexhill, Hastings and Eastbourne. We expect that to increase in the weeks and months ahead.

“We’ll be opening our offices from Monday but with a reduced amount of staff in the offices, and other staff will remain working from home.

“Get in touch with us by calling or emailing in the first instance, and remember you can also use our online quick valuation tool, and do as many virtual viewings as you like while waiting for an in-person viewing.”