How agents are adapting to the latest lockdown

After the reopening of the housing market within England and Wales in May 2020, we spoke to four estate agencies to find out how they were coping with the ongoing restrictions facing them and the challenges of a sudden and frenzied re-start.

Some were cautiously beginning again, others flinging their doors open as wide as possible – figuratively and literally – to get their businesses back up and running.

One theme was constant– the re-start of the housing market was one of the busiest periods they had ever experience during their long years in the profession.

Six months on, and we have re-visited them. What happened next?

The four agencies are Winkworth’s Tooting office in South London, HouseFox in Weston-super-Mare; Benjamin Stevens in London; and hybrid agency Keller Williams’ London Bridge hub.

Winkworth – Charlie Mitchell

Branch manager Charlie says even in his wildest dreams did he ever imagine he’d have such an incredible six months after the market re-opened.

“What’s extraordinary about all this is that buyers and sellers have been so keen to get on with it, given the economic backdrop,” he said.

“We’ve been so busy that our branch has employed two more people to cope with the demand in sales. If the next six months after the New Year are like the past six months, then I’ll be very happy.”

Last time we talked to Charlie, he had two of his nine staff furloughed with the rest largely working from home as they ploughed on, getting pre-COVID-19 sales over the line.

He says the difference between then and now is ‘extraordinary’ but that he and his team have been working long hours to cope with the volumes of sales crossing their desks and manage both buyer and vendor expectations.

House Fox – Neil Urch

Managing Director Neil was reluctant to say it in case it sounds disrespectful, but the pandemic made no difference to his hybrid business, which he started up in 2018 in Weston-super-Mare with financial backing from local friends.

“We have no offices so when the lockdown came, we didn’t have to think ‘oh my gawd what are we going to do’ as almost all our team including our regional partners were already working from home,” he said.

But what has made a difference is the boom market following the first lockdown, which he says was like a primed bullet finally being fired.

“There was so much pent-up demand here – we had 85 viewings ready to go when we came out of the first lockdown and that snowballed into hundreds of viewings all within a few weeks,” he said.

But HouseF ox has faced the same sales progression challenges as other agents. It has been exchanging on around 20% of its pipeline in recent months, down from 30% during normal times.

Keller Williams – Chris Buckler

Chris Buckler says his business has coped well with the explosion in buying and selling because more agents have been joining his ‘market centre’ (as KW calls their hubs) so they’ve been able to soak up the workload.

“Instructions eased off a bit in November but overall, this year we’re where we thought the business would be, helped by one of the highest pipelines we’ve ever had, so I can’t complain,” he said.

“The first lockdown was one of the best things that could have happened to us because larger agents used government money to furlough staff whereas the structure of Keller Williams meant we could keep in contact with clients and their local communities and line up instructions in preparation for the reopening.

“We’ve also been able to put more focus on each sale and help them complete in time for the stamp duty holiday cut-off because our model enables agents to sell fewer homes but keep more of the commission.”

Benjamin Stephens – Steve Wayne

Managing Director Steve said the lockdown in November had a significant impact on call volumes, his business seeing a drop in phoned enquiries from 400 a day to 100.

He also says there have been more fall-throughs in the market recently as vendors have become a little more jittery, taking their homes off the market when they butt up against complications such as a bad survey.

“But despite these challenges at the moment, it’s been an astonishing six months – we turned over more in 2020 than we did during 2019 despite being shut for three months,” he said.

“And October was one of our busiest months ever for agreed business.”

Check out the latest from our research team about the effects of the pandemic on the property market


Author: Nigel Lewis, property journalist