The national lockdown, triggered by Boris Johnson’s announcement on 23 March, was a disruption of varying degrees to businesses up and down the country. Some were more prepared than others in the build-up but, regardless of preparedness, many had to completely change their day-to-day, with a remote-first approach becoming the norm. So what can you expect from a localised lockdown?
Nicol Nightingale, Director at Leicester-based estate agency Fothergill Wyatt, has first-hand experience of a regional lockdown - and her initial impressions were of confused messaging from the government.
“It took about a week to receive specific guidance,” she says. “We interpreted the local lockdown on the basis that any non-essential shops that had opened on 15 June had to shut. We'd been given permission by the government to reopen on 13 May and we were quite confident that we were following all the guidelines so we carried on business as usual until we heard otherwise.”
Understanding the important role of lettings and house moves gave Fothergill Wyatt confidence that they were taking the right approach. “We are an essential service because it's literally putting a roof over people's heads,” Nightingale says. “People only move because they have a genuine reason, whether a change of circumstances in their family life or whether they’re relocating with work.”
Arch Living had a similar experience. Also based in Leicester, and with mainly student tenants, Prab Singh said that they were initially unsure if they were classed as one of the “key workers” who could remain working. “We were at a point where all of our students were leaving and we had to do the checkout process. We couldn't stop that. So we made the decision to carry on.”
Some students who had left to stay with families were hesitant to return to a city still in lockdown to collect their belongings and allow others to move in - but Singh says Arch Living found a solution. “We just extended their stay,” says Singh. “We told the new tenants the situation and they understood completely. We allowed them an extra week to get things done because a lot of people were shielding family members.”
Luckily, the government guidance, when it came, was in agreement with the approach of the two agencies, allowing estate agencies to remain open, as long as they followed the regulations already in place. “The way we’ve dealt with it was the right way,” Nightingale says. “In the future, it would be nice to have clearer guidance coming down from the local government or central government. You don't want to put anybody at risk, but you also don't want to find you’re being fined for doing what you think is the right thing.”
Nightingale says: “Make sure you’ve got everything in place for working remotely but also a safe working environment ready for you to come back into the office where that’s required.”
ARLA UK highlights the government advice for those in local lockdowns, issued as further restrictions were tightened in the North: “Agents must continue to strictly follow current Government guidance, and it has been stressed that all viewings should be conducted as virtual and online in the first instance.”
“We told our clients that we were continuing to operate business as usual until we heard otherwise and explained our reasons for taking that course of action - that we were confident we were taking all the necessary precautions,” says Nightingale.
Singh had a similar approach. “A lot of things need to be communicated by email so it's in writing, but I think the best thing we did was make sure that all phone calls are being answered.” He also encourages the use of social media. “We've actually employed someone to solely work on social media. He is worth more than every single employee - and I’m talking about myself here as well - he's been so valuable.”
“Make sure you're utilising technology to provide a quality service,” says Nightingale. “We just go in with our mobile phones to take video tours. We've had quite a few lets that have gone ahead, just on the basis of that.”
Singh agrees that video tours are essential, with Arch Living investing in a 360 degree tech solution. “The 360 degree tours are a must,” says Singh. “I think that is a really big thing that if all agents did that, it would save a lot of time and effort.”
Technology doesn’t just have to apply to viewings. “All our systems are online now,” says Singh. “Goodlord has taken over one of the biggest headaches with the paperwork side, so that was all easy to deal with.”
Nightingale is positive about the future of the property market. “The first thing is just not to panic. It's not like in 2008 when we had a crash because mortgages were given out that people couldn’t afford - everything just stalled for a couple of months.”
“We haven't seen any real impact on our prices or the desire to move. Normally the summer’s a quiet period with everyone on holiday, but we've done more in July than we normally would in COVID-free times because fewer people are going away and moving plans had been delayed, so they're now trying to get everything moving again.”
This is backed up by Goodlord’s July Rental Index, which shows a healthy growth in rent prices across the North of England, and a greatly reduced average void period of 10 days in the North East. Although the student market has been slower overall, with uncertainty on the format that courses will take as well as disruption of a second lockdown, Singh says “we're hoping that this summer picks up a little bit, as people get a little bit more confident. “For the local lockdown, we received the guidelines and we knew that people would still move in. I know that it was a bigger risk but it honestly felt more or less like normal.”
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