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Covid diaries: How my estate agency survived the pandemic

London agency chief Steve Wayne shares his recollections of a rollercoaster 2020 - from Brexit hope to Covid mope.

Steve Wayne, MD of Benjamin Stevens

steven wayne 2020 estate agency

The fact is that 2020 has been an extraordinary year for everyone. No one has escaped or been untouched by the effects of corona virus in some way shape or form.

I’ve decided to take a look back at the last 12 months, how it affected my agency, the housing market in general and why I truly believe that lockdown had done estate agency a huge favour that can only make things better and more profitable for the coming year and for years to come.

January to February

I remember starting 2019 with a sigh of relief, full of positivity and enthusiasm. Finally, after years of uncertainty, a [Brexit] agreement had been made, a date had been set, and we were leaving the EU. All the waiting, all the anticipation and all the hesitation from people looking to buy or sell their property seem to vanish overnight.

I’d been telling people for months that Brexit wasn’t going to hugely affect the property market. At the end of the day the things that always keeps the market moving are births, death, marriages and divorce – little did I know how this theory would ring true a few months down the line!

Business was booming, phones were ringing, exchanges and completions were flying in. Our sales figures were up on the previous 6 months, and even the previous year. For once we were starting a year on the right footing, people’s confidence in the property market was returning and 2020 was set to be a bumper year……

News of coronavirus was starting to circle. A few cases here and there, and then sadly a few deaths. At this point, were any of us taking it that seriously? But as the weeks went on the numbers rose and all of sudden instead of knowing someone, who knew someone, who knew someone that died of the virus, the virus seemed to move much closer to home.

I started to feel restless and no longer felt comfortable with allowing my staff or our clients to be at any further risk than necessary. So, I decided to shut the doors to our branches for the first time in 16 years. The following week, Boris Johnson ordered the entire country in to lockdown

March to May

Like so many other agents out there – for the first few days I was in no-mans-land. I was ‘working from home’ for the first time in my career, and added to that, I had a toddler and a new-born with me for office staff! I decided there and then to take this potentially damaging period where my business was closed, and turn it into a positive.

The vast majority of my staff were furloughed, all calls were diverted to my mobile. For the first time in many years, it was me speaking to every single client that called up. I was fielding calls, dealing with issues from buyers and sellers who were mid-way through their sales process, as well as property management and block management requests, and people who were simply call up for general advice.

I realised this was a golden opportunity.

This time out from the office would allow me to review first hand, how my business was working, how our systems were working and what changes needed to be made to make us ready and better for when we reopened.

The other factor was our brand. Nobody knew at the beginning of March how long we’d be shut for. We had to keep our name alive. So together with my Marketing Director Rosanne, we decided to start a Facebook Live series. Every single day for the three months of the first lockdown we ran a live interview every day on Facebook at 1pm. We spoke to industry experts, local businesses who were still able to operate during lockdown and local charities raising money for the NHS – all of whom needed some promotion. It was hard work and involved a lot of organising, but it was fun too.

We gained 100,000 views over the series and most importantly, people didn’t forget who we were and what we did! I’ve always believed estate agents didn’t need to be stuck in the office 9am-5.30pm every day to get business done, but now, with lockdown, the industry was being forced to adapt and for the better!

June to September

We re-opened our branch doors on 1st June 2020 – a little later than we could have, but we wanted to make sure all health and safety systems for our staff and clients were in place and fully operational first.

We hit the ground running. We were busy, REALLY busy. Busier than I could have anticipated. The Stamp Duty holiday played a big part in this but I do people that these people would have looked to move anyway. This initiative did wonders to kick start the property industry, give people a helping hand and in the long run, allow the economy to begin rolling again.

We caught up on lost time and lost revenue, the phones were ringing off the hook.

During lockdown people had time to assess their lives. Some wanted outdoor space, or extra indoor space, and for many we must remember, sadly no need for the entire property anymore.

My team also adapted to the new ways of carrying out valuations and viewings. By being extra stringent, we were able to prioritise serious buyers which allowed the whole sales process to be speeded up.

Positively was back. Along with this came an influx of new Negotiators. Our Hub model, where Agents join us as Partners, tripled in size. Many of the Negotiators moved over to Benjamin Stevens from well-established corporate agents, after having spent time during lockdown, assessing what they want from their future careers.

October to December

As we approached the final few months of the year things couldn’t have been better, but as our sales figures rose, so again did the number of COVID infections. November saw us in lockdown again but this time estate agencies could remain open and do business. Yes, things slowed down, but they didn’t come to a complete halt. We have seen things ramping up to allow us to be on the same level of completed business as in 2019, even despite being closed for 3 months of 2020.

December brought another blow, with COVID cases in London and the South East (the main areas we cover) rising sharply and we entered Tier 3 and very quickly after, Tier 4.

Throughout the last 6 months of the year, our industry has been able to continue operating despite tightening restrictions. This has not been the same for so many other sectors and I’m at a loss to try and comprehend how everyone is coping. At times, I’ve openly admitted that I’ve thought it somewhat crazy that as estate agents we could accompany strangers to view other strangers’ home, yet we could not mix with our immediate family.

December 24, 2020

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