The housing market is one of the most important sectors in the UK and global economy and, in recognition of this, Parliament has eased restrictions for the estate agency industry in England ahead of other sectors. As of today, the Scottish government is yet to follow suit, but we thought it timely to look at the wide ranging restrictions and guidance that have been put in place around viewings and moving home in England to give you a flavour of how things might go in Scotland.
Estate agents in England are now having to give all their clients and customers a picture of exactly how to prepare a property for in person viewings, how the agents themselves will be carrying out appointments and how the moving process can move forward from this point. All of us here are keeping a close eye on how things pan out in England and we’re already making plans to ensure everyone's safety, both at the office and when out on appointments, for when we can open again.
Estate agents in England can now visit sellers and landlords in their properties to advise on price, presentation and getting ready to move. They can also arrange for photographs to be taken, while energy assessors can inspect people’s homes and issue Energy Performance Certificates. Tradespeople are once again allowed to carry out any maintenance or cosmetic works. For all visits, everyone is required to practice social distancing measures. Homeowners are required to keep a minimum of 2 metres distance from any visitors as well as ensuring that everyone entering their home immediately washes their hands.
Every viewer will be strongly encouraged to view properties virtually in the first instance, and only to visit in person once they feel they are likely to make an offer on that property. Virtual viewings can give home hunters a comprehensive impression of a property and can take many forms, from pre-recorded videos, to individual tours and even virtual open houses using Facebook Live. Agents are working with homeowners to figure out the best solution that fits their personal preferences and situation.
These are the restrictions, regulations and guidelines in England around physical viewings to ensure everyone’s safety.
1) To reduce the risk of transmission, the owner must open all internal doors and turn on any necessary lighting before a viewing begins to minimise the need for estate agents and viewers to make contact with any surfaces. The Government’s advice is for owners to vacate their property or wait in the garden while viewings take place, but, if that’s not possible, to observe social distancing measures.
Everyone attending a viewing is required to wash their hands as soon as they enter a property, and owners must provide access to handwashing facilities and separate towels, preferably disposable paper ones. Although buyers are being encouraged to bring their own hand sanitiser, agents are advising owners to provide some at their property in case somebody forgets. All viewings must be by appointment only and no open houses are permitted.
2) It is not yet a requirement to wear masks or gloves, on viewings but, depending on the type of property, it may be necessary to do so. It’s also possible that homeowners and viewers may wish to use masks.
Many estate agents in England are choosing to wear masks on all appointments and are encouraging viewers to bring their own Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Again, in case someone forgets, agents are stocking up on PPE to have some on hand in case anyone who requires it on the viewing doesn’t have any of their own.
3) Estate agents are required to limit the numbers of viewers entering a property at any one time to a maximum of two adults, both of whom should be from the same household. They are permitted to be accompanied by their children if no other arrangements can be made.
Agents are asking a number of screening questions of anyone wishing to view a property in person to ensure that nobody displaying any of the symptoms of Covid-19 goes to a viewing. They are also checking for symptoms – high temperature, dry cough, upset tummy, etc. at the point of meeting people outside a home. It is not allowed for agents to drive people to appointments. Viewers are being asked to avoid touching any surfaces as they walk around and agents are working to maintain a 2m distance wherever possible.
4) All surfaces and door handles are required to be wiped down after each viewing. For empty properties the agents are taking care of everything; where a property is tenanted or owner-occupied the responsibility is being dealt with viewing by viewing, depending on whether anyone living at the property is actually in attendance.
There are no restrictions around agreeing a sale on homes. Conveyancers are still working, albeit from home, and can begin collating all the paperwork in readiness for accepting an offer just as they normally would. Surveyors and valuers are now permitted to enter properties again, although a number of lenders in England will issue mortgage offers on some properties through desktop valuations using recent sales data. If a valuer does visit a property, their visit must be treated as though from a viewer and the owner must ensure that all internal doors are open, any necessary lighting is on, and that all areas of their property are accessible.
In case a buyer wants to revisit a home to measure up for furniture and curtains, or if they wish to send in tradespeople to get estimates for works, all the measures in place for in person viewings have to be observed. That includes handwashing, minimising contact with surfaces, keeping all internal doors open and practicing social distancing.
Estate agents are advising sellers to maintain whatever flexibility they can in their moving plans, in their mindset as well as their dates and to ensure that sales contracts are worded to allow for possible changes to the completion date after exchange of contracts takes place. This will protect owners from being in breach of contract in case the Covid-19 situation takes a turn for the worse and lockdown restrictions are tightened again, or if someone from their household or the chain falls ill with coronavirus.
Sellers are being advised to book their removals company as soon as they exchange contracts, and to start gathering quotes while the conveyancing process is underway so they can lock in their removals team as soon as a completion is confirmed.
It’s being recommended that as much of the packing as possible is done by the seller and their household. If that’s not possible, they’re being advised to speak to different removal companies to explore other options as different companies will have different policies. All belongings that won’t be going into boxes and that will be handled by people outside of the seller’s household are to be thoroughly cleaned.
Despite the British custom of making the removals team continuous cups of tea, that’s a no go in England at the moment. But, again, owners must provide the crew with handwashing facilities and towels, again preferably disposable paper ones and hopefully recycled to avoid any eco guilt!
The viewings procedure of social distancing and access must be followed, with all internal doors to be opened before the removals crew arrive and keeping at least 2 metres apart from any of the removers wherever possible. Although it feels like there’s a lot in here, when you break it down most of the steps are fairly small and can make a huge difference in keeping everyone moving. There is no clear sign yet of when the Scottish property market may follow suit, but clearly all eyes will be on England to see whether opening up the property market proves a workable policy while keeping coronavirus in check.