Housing market gets moving but some restrictions remain in place

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So, the Government has announced a re-start to the housing market – but it’s definitely not business as usual. To paraphrase Roy Sheider – “we’re gonna need a bigger van”!

Estate Agents can re-open, removal firms can take bookings and, yes, people can move house. The headlines give us the hope and optimism we’ve been craving, but that should be tempered by a modicum of realism.

The detailed rules can be found here, but to summarise:

  • Houses can be placed on the market
  • Estate Agents can visit to take photos/videos and to put up “for sale” sign
  • Surveyors can visit
  • Removals firms can deal with the physical aspects of the move
  • Tradespeople can visit to undertake works

The fact that surveyors can visit properties should mean that banks and building societies can carry out mortgage valuations and start to issue mortgages again. In itself, that will remove one of the biggest barriers which sellers and buyers have faced during the lockdown.

However, the pandemic is not over. Should infection rates start to rise, the Government has made it clear that restrictions will be re-imposed.

With that in mind, the regulations establish some quite severe restrictions on the business of moving house. For example:

  • Estate Agents should encourage potential buyers to participate in “virtual viewings” to whittle down their list of properties before undertaking any physical viewings
  • Physical viewings should be by appointment only
  • All internal doors should be opened prior to any viewing taking place
  • Where possible, the seller should vacate the property whilst viewings/surveys are in progress
  • The number of people participating in a viewing should be kept to a minimum
  • Properties should be cleaned after each viewing/survey – in particular door handles, light switches, taps etc.
  • The seller should undertake as much packing as possible personally, rather than asking their removal firm to do so
  • Sellers and buyers should have minimal contact with their removal crew and practise social distancing
  • Where possible, any items being moved should be cleaned before being handled by anyone outside the household

The net effect of all this is that the entire process is likely to take longer, and perhaps be more fraught than would usually be the case.

To add a further note of caution, the re-start of the property market also comes against an extremely challenging economic backdrop. The government’s furlough scheme has been extended to October and the spectre of job security looms. Time will tell whether sellers and buyers remain confident to make a move. Research suggests that they will – let’s hope that holds true!

And where do lawyers fit into all this? Well, the usual conveyancing process must still be followed. Whilst most lawyers remain working from home, their clients need reassurance that access to advice and updates should be as seamless as if their lawyer were sitting at their office desk.

Since the start of the lockdown, Buckles has had systems in place which allow us to deal with conveyancing work whilst all the time complying with government restrictions – including (but not limited to) social distancing.

Our lawyers are at the end of their usual phone numbers and email addresses, so access to our lawyers is no different than before.

Video conferencing has become the “norm” but, equally, where clients don’t have that facility, we have developed protocols for dealing with meetings through car/house windows.

Most documents can now be dealt with by email or hard copy post but where clients have difficulty in finding witnesses, we have again developed the protocols for dealing with those scenarios.

Perhaps the most important thing for buyers and sellers is having a lawyer who is alive to the possible issues we’re still facing. For example, what if someone in the transaction develops COVID-19 symptoms in between exchange and completion, meaning that they cannot move on the completion date? The last thing that that person, and their family, will want to be worrying about is financial penalties for breach of contract.

For transactions which have not yet exchanged, we are actively seeking to negotiate contract provisions which protect the parties where a delay is caused by COVID-19 related issues in the chain.

At the end of the day, moving home should still be an exciting, happy time for everyone involved. Although we may be settling into a “new normal”, with the challenges that brings, we are determined to make at least one aspect as smooth and painless as possible.