Sheffield’s property market has been ‘unlocked’ and people can move house again – this is how everything will work during the pandemic
"It was a shock," says Sheffield estate agent Linda Crapper of the Government's decision this week to 'unlock' the housing market by allowing property firms to reopen their offices.
"We were bombarded with emails saying 'Can we view?' We've looked at all the health and safety, and we're sending that out to all our clients so everybody's got a full understanding."
Late on Tuesday housing secretary Robert Jenrick made a surprise announcement, outlining new guidance that removed Covid-19 lockdown restrictions on property transactions.
Viewings are permitted again, tours of show homes can resume and removal companies are able to accept jobs – but social distancing measures must be implemented throughout the whole process.
"We're going back to work on Monday, but we're still going to lock the office," says Linda, managing director of Saxton Mee in Crookes, Hillsborough and Stocksbridge.
"Being off for two months, you realise you don't have to have people sitting in front of you, there's other ways of speaking to people, like Zoom. If people want to come in and see us we're not going to say no to them, but we'll probably do that by appointment."
Nationally, more than 450,000 buyers and renters have been unable to progress their plans to move since March, according to the Government. In Sheffield, Linda says interest from potential buyers hasn't dried up during lockdown.
"We've still been getting enquiries – but not as many – saying 'When lockdown is over can I have a look at this property?' or 'It looks empty, can I look at it now?'"
But viewings in the middle of a global pandemic are going to be a much more complicated business, involving multiple rounds of cleaning and other measures.
"For a physical viewing around an empty house, we're going to go early and open all the windows," says Linda. "We're going to insist that people wear a face mask or covering, and gloves. We're going to stand outside and if they've got any questions they can ring the office afterwards so we keep a distance. Then we'll sanitise the property – we'll go in and give it a spray, close all the windows and dispose of the gloves. We're taking it really seriously."
If a property is occupied, vendors will be asked to wipe worktops down, leave cupboard doors open to prevent people from touching handles, and to stand outside while customers look at the rooms.
Linda says potential buyers will be told to scope out neighbourhoods first before viewing particular homes, 'to check they like the area'.
"We don't want window shoppers," she says. "We're wanting no more than two people, not whole families, and we don't want children to go round either."
Homebuilder Taylor Wimpey was the first UK company of its kind to stop construction on its sites and close sales centres when the coronavirus outbreak worsened. From May 22 customers will be able to visit its Connect @ Halfway development again, albeit with firm requirements in place – these include the installation of Perspex screens and marker guides for social distancing. Show home viewings will be unaccompanied and only one family at a time will be able to look around.
"I want to assure the public that we are not prepared to compromise on health and safety, which is why we will be operating the sales office at Connect @ Halfway on a strict appointment-only basis," Ross Clarkson, sales director for Taylor Wimpey Yorkshire, said.
“I also understand that some customers may still prefer not to visit us in person. Our sales team has been working remotely over the past few weeks, helping customers through each stage of the homebuying journey and we will continue to offer remote appointments.”
Forecasts for the state of the housing market over the next few months vary widely – the Centre for Economics and Business Research predicts 2020 prices will be down by 13 per cent, while estate agent Savills thinks the figure may be as low as five per cent.
"Sheffield has always been a little bubble of its own, it's always held itself up," says Linda. "If you're in the right location I don't think house prices will drop. At the moment we're mostly getting instructed on deceased estates, or empty properties, and there's not enough of them. I can't see prices decreasing, if I'm honest. Later on, perhaps if more come on the market, prices might drop slightly but I can't see it happening. There's not enough stock already for people wanting to move."
Mortgages, she observes, are 'taking a lot longer' to secure.
"Personally I don't think we should have opened, but the Government wants you to and you've got to go with it. I think it's too early."