Estate agents offer ‘virtual viewings’ during lockdown

The housing market had got off to its best start to the year since 2016 before the lockdown, according to a property website.

Rightmove said that, until March 23, the number of house sales being agreed was up 11% since the start of the year, compared with the same period in 2019.

It was the best start to the year for four years, the company said.

When the lockdown was announced, visits to its website fell by around 40%, but there have since been some slow signs of recovery, it added.

Social distancing measures to limit the spread of coronavirus mean people have had to put off their plans to move until a later date.

Lenders have been giving extensions on mortgage offers to help people who had been on the brink of moving.

Rightmove said most sellers already on the market, and those with a sale already agreed, appear to be continuing with their plans to move once it has been deemed safe enough to do so.

Available stock for sale fell only marginally, by 2.6%, and since the lockdown the level of sales falling through is similar to what it would normally expect to see.

Across Britain, the average asking price for the dwindling number of properties coming to market from March 8 to April 11 fell by 0.2% month on month to £311,950.

The price of property coming to market had reached an all-time high of £312,625 in the previous month.

However, Rightmove said, given that the housing market cannot currently function as normal, the latest price figure is not meaningful.

Rightmove house price index
Rightmove house price index

With current difficulties in carrying out property valuations, and many people uncertain about the extent to which their incomes will eventually recover, some lenders have temporarily restricted the mortgage deals on offer.

Miles Shipside, Rightmove director and housing market analyst, said that, looking further ahead: “We need to avoid a repeat of the post-credit crunch mortgage famine which took from 2008 until the 2013 launch of Help to Buy to bring the mass market back into play with low-deposit mortgages.”

Rightmove said much will depend on future trends in employment rates.

It said some housing market activity needs to be kept “simmering”, and a post-lockdown plan must be put in place which can cope with maintaining social distancing during visits for marketing, viewing, valuing and surveying.

Rightmove pointed out that some properties that are for sale or rent have pre-recorded videos available for would-be buyers or tenants to view.

It said that, while it would be highly unusual to buy a property without a physical viewing, this would help people to work out which properties may be worth viewing in person when stay-at-home restrictions are eventually relaxed.

Some sellers, guided by their estate agents who are unable to visit, are using mobile phones to record their own videos, Rightmove said.

It also said some estate agents with good knowledge of the local area are using live-stream video to offer virtual valuations to prospective sellers, in preparation for future marketing.

Mr Shipside said: “We think it will take several months or more for the market to find its feet in this new unsteady world.

“Once the lockdown ends, agents will have to follow safe viewing precautions to give sellers the confidence to again allow viewers into their own homes, and buyers the confidence that they can safely visit homes that are for sale.

“During this slow-motion period we do not expect significant price falls, as home sellers will not be prepared to cut their prices while it is still not clear how the general public, businesses, financial markets, and the Government are going to handle the transition to whatever turns out to be the new normal.”

Rightmove’s report also quoted the views of estate agents.

Peter Woodthorpe, director of Readings in Leicester, said: “At worst people are holding off to see what happens by the end of the lockdown, but not withdrawing from the transaction.”

Ben Hudson, managing director of Hudson Moody in York, said: “Prior to the stay-at-home period we put together videos on many of our properties and invited our clients to produce their own ‘virtual viewings’, which has had a really positive and enthusiastic response.

“We’re also using video viewings for our lettings business to sign up tenants in readiness for when we unlock. The vast majority of ongoing sales want to proceed as soon as possible after the lockdown and many potential purchasers want to book appointments as soon as we are once again able to do viewings.

“We’ve also been busy with valuations, with potential vendors sending in photos and videos of their properties and having face-to-face calls with them.

“Whilst we’re under no illusion as to how difficult life may be moving forward, we’re optimistic and we intend to do all we can to ensure people can move when the time comes.”