Property market on the move again

After two months of inactivity, during which it is estimated that more than 450,000 potential house moves were put on hold, those involved in the property market will be relieved to know that the process of buying and selling property is finally able to restart. From 13 May 2020, anyone in England can move home, provided they follow the updated guidance issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) for people involved in buying or selling homes during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The government’s update makes clear that people wishing to move house can do so, but emphasises the point that processes will need to be adapted to allow for social distancing and to reduce the risk of the spread of coronavirus, as much as possible.  It will take time for parties involved in the conveyancing process (agents, valuers, lenders and solicitors as well as buyers and sellers) to adapt to the current zeitgeist, but the hope is that the new guidance will help to ‘oil the wheels’ of the property market.

Full details of the updated guidance can be found here but the main provisions include:

  1. Buyers and sellers. It is possible to put a home on the market, view properties (by appointment) and complete purchases, subject to following Public Health England guidance.
    Anyone advised to self-isolate should not move home or view properties. Viewings should not take place where someone in the house being viewed has symptoms or is self-isolating.
    Initial viewings should be done virtually where possible. Physical viewings should be limited to people in the same household. Open house viewings are not allowed. It should be possible to view show homes on new developments or visit a particular plot, with the developer having an appointment system in place.
    There will need to be flexibility in the contract for moving dates with the ability to change move dates if another party or someone in the chain is shielding or clinically vulnerable, has coronavirus or is self-isolating with a family member. The guidance stresses the need for parties to be as flexible as possible and be prepared to delay moves if needed. Buyers “should not expect to move into any home where people are ill or self-isolating”.
  2. Estate agents. Estate agents’ offices can open. Agents can accompany clients on viewings and show homes can open, subject to social distancing rules. Viewings should be by appointment, with no open house viewings. Agents should encourage virtual first viewings, with physical inspections only where the client has a “strong interest” in the property. The revised guidance states that where social distancing is not possible and the visit is within an enclosed space, the agent should consider wearing a face covering.
  3. Conveyancers. Conveyancers can return to work (following social distancing guidelines) and take on new instructions. They should conduct as much business remotely as possible. Searches should be carried out online. Conveyancers should promote flexibility regarding coronavirus risks to transactions. They should also prioritise support for those who are clinically vulnerable or shielding, symptomatic or self-isolating, to agree a new move date.
  4. Surveyors. Surveyors can undertake surveys, subject to following the government guidance on professionals working in other people’s homes and social distancing.
    EPC assessors may also visit properties to carry out surveys.
  5. Removal firms. Removal firms can operate, following social distancing guidelines. Sellers are encouraged to do as much of the packing as possible themselves, cleaning belongings before they are handled by movers. Removal firms should implement a buddy system, ensuring the same people work together when moving bulky items.
  6. Letting agents and private landlords. Where possible, necessary repairs and gas and electrical safety checks should be conducted while the property is vacant, before a new tenant moves in. Landlords should make “every effort to abide by gas and electrical safety requirements”. But if, for example, a tenant has symptoms, the landlord would not be in breach if they can demonstrate they have taken reasonable steps to comply.

Luke Cain is a solicitor in the Property department at Barker Gotelee Solicitors in Suffolk.

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