Coronavirus: Property market reopens as moves and viewings allowed

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·3-min read
The picturesque village of St Mawes on the Roseland Peninsula near Falmouth in Cornwall, England, UK. (Photo by: Andrew Michael/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A home in the village of St Mawes in Cornwall, England, as the property market reopens for business. (Andrew Michael/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The UK government has eased its restrictions on property market activity in England, allowing in-person viewings and encouraging completions.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick said estate agents and show homes could open their doors, and conveyancers and removal firms could return to work. The loosening of restrictions is subject to social distancing guidelines still being enforced.

The government’s lockdown since March had largely, though not completely, paralysed the market, restricting or discouraging much normal and ‘non-essential’ activity. House moves were previously banned unless “reasonably necessary.”

The latest announcement is the first clear signal the UK government wants to see renters, buyers and sellers able to move and an important economic sector start to recover.

But viewings had already started to slump before the lockdown began over virus fears, suggesting eased restrictions alone will not fully revive activity. The economic shutdown is likely to take a toll on the market too, with millions of workers’ jobs and incomes taking a heavy hit. Bank of England figures suggest prices could crash by 16%.

New guidelines ‘allow the housing market to resume’

“Today I am announcing new guidelines to allow the housing market to resume,” said Jenrick. “Our clear plan will enable people to move home safely, covering each aspect of the sales and letting process from viewings to removals.”

The guidance published on Tuesday encourages estate agents, conveyancers and removals firms who had shut down to resume their work. Many estate agents had shut offices and placed staff on furlough.

Estate agent directors welcomed the move. Marc von Grundherr, director of Benham and Reeves in London, said agents were “poised and ready to resume business.” Many have rolled out virtual viewings and processes since the lockdown began, and von Grundherr said his own firm had “stockpiled a large amount of PPE” to keep staff safe.

READ MORE: Fears for construction workers’ safety as sites reopen

The news also lifted property stocks, with estate agent Foxtons (FOXT.L) and housebuilder Barratt (BDEV.L) among the highest risers on London’s FTSE 100 index on Wednesday.

Developer Taylor Wimpey announced a phased reopening of show homes and sales centres after the announcement. But William Ryder, an equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said the speed of wider recovery was what mattered, something “out of Taylor Wimpey’s hands.”

“The key is going to be consumer confidence because houses are big purchases and the marginal buyer will drop out of the market if it looks like they could be heading into a rough patch financially,” said Ryder.

The measures sparked a backlash on social media however, with anger that property viewings had been allowed while family visits are still banned. “So if I stick my flat on Purplebricks, can my mum come round for a viewing?” tweeted one critic.

Support for housebuilding

Jenrick said building firms would be able to agree “more flexible construction working hours” with local councils. The move would help stagger builders’ arrival times, boosting safety on sites and public transport. But more antisocial shifts may not go down well with all workers or residents near construction sites.

Rules requiring councils and developers to publicise planning applications through posters and leaflets will be relaxed. They will be allowed to share them on social media instead. A government press release said it would “unblock the service,” though it may leave non-social media users less informed about local developments.

READ MORE: UK house prices drop as BoE warns on 16% decline

Meanwhile local councils will be allowed to defer charges levied on developers to fund local infrastructure around new sites such as roads and public spaces. Officials said it would help smaller developers with cashflow problems during the crisis.