We are no stranger to industry threats – be it changes of our Government, shifting interest rates, recessions or new compliance rules – but will a pandemic knock the buoyancy out of the property market, especially after the Boris effect added so much bounce?
At the time of going to press, the Covid-19 crisis was a very fluid situation and you may well be reading this from the comfort of your sofa, not your desk, during a period of self isolation. Both the business-to- business and public-facing sides of our industry are feeling the drastic effects of an unpredictable and unprecedented health event.
ARLA Propertymark postponed its conference and exhibition, scheduled for March, until September, while the RICS sounded a note of caution that the market’s mini boom may go bust before it’s really had an impact on bottom-line figures.
The Law Society has also advised conveyancers on transactional issues that may arise, from sellers failing to vacate due to being quarantined to disruption within the CHAPS banking system.
Agents too have seen an early fall-out, just as the green shoots of spring started to appear. London agency Benham & Reeves reported that nine per cent of people who had been in the middle of buying or selling had withdrawn from the process amid coronavirus fears, while a further nine per cent put their scheduled moves on hold.
The immediate issue is human contact – a desire to keep face-to-face contact to a minimum, the potential for social distancing rules and even enforced confinement preventing people from leaving their homes.
Vendors will be less willing to accept strangers. We hear that they are screening buyers before viewings and asking vendors to identify if they are ‘at risk’ from long term health issues. Harry Jellicoe, Panoptic Motion.
Harry Jellicoe at Panoptic Motion says Covid-19 might see people less willing to go into the houses of others and vice versa: “Vendors will be less willing to accept strangers, particularly in the case of the elderly. We have already heard from one of our clients that they are screening buyers before viewings and asking vendors to identify if they are ‘at risk’ from long term health issues.”
Visiting properties for maintenance
Tertiary issues are also beginning to emerge and sadly the lettings sector looks to be hardest hit. At the time of writing, ARLA was awaiting official guidance from the Government in relation to visiting properties where a tenant is in isolation.
ARLA wants a firm steer on how to lawfully deal with maintenance incidents, such as faulty boilers or leaking pipes, seeing as trades may refuse to visit properties where the resident is showing signs of Covid-19. This could potentially expose a letting agent to a breach of Section 11 of the Landlord and Tenancy Act, as well as other legislation pertaining to duty of care.
There is also concern about uncompleted work in rental properties trying to make 1st April’s new minimum EPC E rating, and preparations being thrown off schedule relating to impending mandatory electrical testing.
William Reeve at Goodlord also raises the issue of non-payment of rent, especially in circumstances where zero hours, self-employed and contracting workers find their incomes slashed or reduced to nothing. He says rent guarantee insurance will come into its own over the coming weeks and months: “As long as the standard criteria are met then yes, policies including those offered by Goodlord should protect landlords and agents, should the tenant not be able to pay.”
Rent guarantee insurance will come into its own… as long as the standard criteria are met… policies, including those by Goodlord, should protect landlords and agents. William Reeve, Goodlord.
Check-ins and check-outs
We can’t stop people moving home, particularly in rentals, “Irrespective of the current pandemic, at Inventory Hive we have always advocated Remote paperless check-ins and check-outs’,” says Richard Abbots. “Our platform has grown in popularity due to the efficiencies of our automated audit-trails. For instance, it’s a much less time consuming to capture the tenant’s ‘confirm receipt’ signature remotely via e-signature and then allow them a window to interact with their report from a web browser after they’ve moved in. It puts less pressure on the tenant whilst the removal van is waiting outside – let’s face-it, tenants will sign anything at that point.
Irrespective of the current pandemic, at Inventory Hive we have always advocated remote paperless check-ins and check-outs. Richard Abbots, Inventory Hive.
“In turn, you’re more likely to get their comments and photo feedback, because they’ve had time to consider the content. This leads to fewer disputes at check-out and is far more tenant centric. Of course, it also helps to create social distancing, as there really is no need for personal contact during this process – reducing risk in the current crisis.
“The same rule of thumb applies with check-outs, issues can be identified and then the report content shared remotely for discussion with the tenant/landlord. When a consensus is reached, our users trigger our dedicated ‘check-out’ paperless process, which audit-trails all ‘before’ and ‘after’ descriptions and comments by all parties in one document. This massively reduces the time spent performing attended check-outs – whilst also being fair and avoiding personal contact.”
Forcing agents into the future
If there ever was a silver lining amidst the Covid-19 crisis, is has to be the pandemic’s ability to future proof the property industry, forcing agents to take contingency planning more seriously and helping them adjust to a more digital way of working – a practice and style that Harry says was creeping into agency pre coronavirus: “We often hear that branch interactions are lower now anyway, thanks the rise of online portals and younger buyers more familiar with conducting affairs over the phone or internet, opposed to going in branch.”
The human touch… without the touch
Harry is not alone in believing the industry can ride out the Covid-19 storm and be better equipped for the future, even if social distancing becomes a draconian measure. “In theory, buying, selling and letting can definitely continue during this period,” says William Reeve. “The real question is whether it needs to be ‘in person’ or whether phone, WhatsApp and email can suffice. Automating the tenancy and sale processes is already in motion, therefore ramping this up is very doable.”
The good news is almost every aspect of agency can be conducted in the digital sphere or remotely, so the message to clients should be ‘we’re open for business and ready to help’, even if it’s in a virtual sense. Our eight top tips will help keep the momentum going:-
1 Start making virtual tours and videos: If buyers and tenants can’t be there in person, a video or virtual tour is the next best thing. The Guild rolled out its video tool a month early to assist members – with the fee waived for the duration of the pandemic – while Matterport is gearing up to host an increasing number of virtual tours on its platform.
The company’s James Morris-Manuel highlights how URL links to virtual tours, such as those hosted by Matterport, can be shared with a client for them to browse using any wifi-connected device. An agent could start a live screen sharing experience with the client, walking them through the tour. “These two options are extremely important in today’s current climate, especially as individuals seek to limit direct human interaction,” adds James.
2 Install touch screens: If branches are forced to close early or for days or weeks at a time, a touch screen will keep a connection with potential clients. Screens are designed to run 24 hours a day in an agent’s shop window, operated on the other side of the glass by passers-by. Steve Blackaller of market leader InTouch Display says, “Our touch screen provides a great way to continue to promote your property portfolio, capture leads and advertise opening hours and agency USPs”.
The touch screen provides a great way to continue to promote your available property portfolio, capture leads and advertise opening hours and agency USPs. Steve Blackaller, InTouch Display.
3 Deploy live chat: research by Moneypenny has found 26% of UK agents already have a live chat facility and this instant messaging tool will really come into its own as more people self isolate but want to retain an immediate source of advice or even just conversation.
Live Chat provider Yomdel is offering estate agents window signs, to remind customers that they can be reached night and day via Live Chat on their website.
A QR code in the branch window can be scanned with a smartphone, which immediately opens Live Chat powered by Yomdel, and customers can chat with the agent’s team online.
Andy Soloman, MD of Yomdel says, “Customers still want to do business, they still want to go about their lives, but they’re being forced to adapt and find new ways of doing that. Let’s work together to help each other make that possible, and hopefully we can help ease the enormous concerns going around our industry today.”
Customers still want to do business, to go about their lives, but they’re forced to find new ways of doing that. Let’s work together to make that possible and ease the concerns in our industry. Andy Soloman, Yomdel.
4 Use video calls & conferencing: platforms such as FaceTime, Zoom and Skype can be used in both B2B and B2C situations. Agents can keep branch networks engaged with video conferencing, while the face-to-face element of video calls can be used to keep the ‘personal approach’ going with clients.
5 Make electronic signatures your default: there are many moving milestones that require a signature but there will be reluctance among some to come into branch and mingle with the masses. Adobe Sign and DocuSign are two signature capture softwares that help keep transactions on track with minimal reliance on sharing pens and paper.
6 Digitally check ID: ID checks are another interaction hot spot that cause delays if not undertaken. Agents using the Yoti app can screen clients remotely by requesting already-verified details from over one thousand Government-approved ID documents, although Right to Rent ID checks still need to be conducted in person with the tenant present.
7 Tune in to streamed broadcasts: organisations including Rightmove and Goodlord, are stepping up to the plate by running free webinars and Facebook Live events to support and educate agents on remote working and marketing practices. Agents can tune in from any wifi device, at home or in the office.
8 Promote the use of My account/ secure log in dashboards: a good client-agent relationship centres on communication but what happens when movers want news and branches are shut? Transactional updates that can be entered by agents remotely for clients to digitally access provide reassurance and customer care, even from a distance.
Advice for agents
Our advice is in accordance with that issued by the Government and the NHS. Due to the evolving nature of Covid-19, this advice may be out-of-date by the time your copy of The Negotiator arrives.
Therefore we advise you check for daily updates on:
Self isolation for under 70s – ask staff, suppliers and clients to stay at home for 7 days if they have a high temperature and/or a new continuous cough.
Over 70s – at the time of going to press, it was highly likely that those over the age of 70 would be asked to self quarantine. Ensure you keep in regular contact with clients and staff older than 70 by telephone, email, video calls and instant messenger – even if it’s just to supply a link with the wider community.
Hygiene in branch – regularly disinfect touch points, such as door handles, telephones, computer equipment, smart devices, taps and food preparation surfaces. Make soap and hand sanitiser freely available to all and encourage everyone to wash their hands frequently, ideally for 20 seconds.
Personal hygiene – cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze. Bin any tissues used immediately and wash your hands after. Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth if your hands are not clean.
Working practices – ensure your agency can run remotely and converse with conveyancers, IFAs and other major suppliers with regards to their emergency strategies. Have a trial ‘working from home day’ to ensure you have enough laptops and IT capabilities or consider a ‘week on, week off’ rota so you can continue to staff your office.
Mental health – Check out this guide about guarding mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.