Trade bodies such as NAEA Propertymark had been in talks over how to safely restart work, and were not anticipating the change would come so soon and so suddenly. It was only expecting to sign off proposed guidelines for reopening at the end of May, while many estate agents were preparing to reopen in June or July.
Now, the industry must creak back into action from a standing start. Agents report huge pent-up demand, with Andrews, a south London estate agency, receiving 226 calls in the first hour of business.
Chestertons, a London estate agent chain, received around 35 offers for properties in the first morning of being open for business, mostly from buyers who pulled out of deals or were put off when lockdown measures came in.
Zoopla, the property portal, says that consumer demand is up 130pc compared to the last four weeks, while Jonathan Cunliffe, who sells dream beachfront homes in the priciest areas of Cornwall, says that inquiries have been rising for the last three weeks. The Government has calculated that the moves of 450,000 buyers and renters were interrupted by lockdown.
But the industry – which enjoys little regulation or oversight and a reputation for rogue operators – will have to balance the huge demand that has built up since lockdown began with the need for safety.
It’s a unique sector because staff go into people’s homes, an intimate space that has become a battleground for an invisible virus. Agents will have to police themselves, as well as all parties involved – something that perhaps does not come naturally to an industry with little barrier to entry.
“I understand the government’s position in reopening, but now we have to rely on the competence of agents, and put people over profit, protecting the health and safety of staff,” says Becky Fatemi of luxury London estate agency Rokstone. She has been doing essential viewings during lockdown wearing full PPE, including a face visor. “I’m excited we have opened up; there’s a backlog, but it’s a real social responsibility.”
The worry is that the desperate need for commission and clients will force beleaguered estate agents to break the rules. “I hope some agents don’t go all gung-ho and promise the client everything,” adds Fatemi. As a case in point, she had spent the morning on the phone arguing with a potential buyer who had insisted that she had to take them on a viewing.
The sudden nature of the opening of the market means that many agents are unprepared for both installing safety measures in their offices, and getting hold of crucial PPE needed for viewings. Among the biggest estate agency chains, most are opening and booking in viewings for the next few days, rather than straight away.
Agents will also have to train staff for the new socially distanced world, including wearing masks and gloves, preparing vendors to wait outside during the 15-minute tours, providing paper towels for the buyer to clean their hands with, and even the physical act of cleaning the keys after each viewing.
Some of the guidelines are open to interpretation too, including the stipulation that the property has to be cleaned between each viewing, but not to what extent.
In some cases, clients are demanding that potential buyers sign a waiver confirming that they are not ill when they view the property. “In the same way that we have to comply with money laundering checks, we do a financial health check and now a physical health check,” says Fatemi.
While there is anxiety among some agents, others are ready to get on with the job in hand. “With common sense, estate agency isn’t something that should be too tricky,” says Cunliffe. “Ten years ago this might have been difficult when we operated from a shop front, but in the last decade most inquiries are online or by telephone.” He will hold his first viewings on Friday, but will restrict them to buyers who are serious and financially viable.
While government guidance demands buyers use online viewings in the first instance before physically touring the property, Cunliffe says his vendors are uncomfortable with 360-degree virtual tours for security reasons.
It also underlines how the new rules for socially distanced viewings will be easier in some places than others, with two metre distance more easily kept in vast country piles than small city flats. Letting agents may face even more problems, with the potential conflict when shepherding out unwilling tenants for viewings.
But the initial surge of demand may be very short-lived. While many of the deals that were frozen during lockdown will get moving, Capital Economics reckons that at least a quarter of sales currently in progress will be cancelled. This is partly because a good chunk of the paused transactions will be among the 7.5 million people furloughed.
With the pool of prospective buyers having shrunk significantly, estate agents may be tempted to bend the rules amid increased competition. And any progress in the market will be tied to that of the virus: the more there is around, the less likely vendors will want to invite buyers into their homes.
Jeremy Leaf, an estate agent in north London, adds that in reopening, there is “the danger of complacency,” he says. “The virus is still the same. Nothing would be worse than going backwards, it would be awful for the market, and for people’s health.”