Reopening: the agents’ view

Every agent we spoke to agrees that the week following the market reopening on 13 May was one of the strangest, and busiest, they’ve ever witnessed during their careers.

Some 19,000 branches, and 50,000 sales and lettings agents, have moved from an almost complete standstill to ‘utter carnage’ as one agent put it. Nearly two months of pent-up sales and lettings demand has surged through the portals towards agents.

It’s not been quite that black and white, though. An industry can’t close for that long and spring back effortlessly, however welcome the bounce may be. 

Four agents spoke to us about the highs and lows of the coronavirus lockdown and release.

Neil Urch, Managing Director, HouseFox, Weston-super-Mare

Neil’s business, which uses a mixture of staff and self-employed local representatives, furloughed a handful of its sales team and originally expected to fully reopen in mid-June.

The sudden announcement on 12 May came as a happy surprise, but Neil admitted he had had a ‘manic’ few days.

“Our hybrid model means we’ve been able to keep a presence in the market during the lockdown rather than close completely, so we’ve been more prepared than some agents and able to jump on opportunities faster,” he said.

Neil is now getting viewing requests for properties across his listings from £100,000 to £500,000. On the day we spoke to him, he’d taken on two valuations, and two instructions.

“I think that because people have had seven or eight weeks to mull things over, they are making very quick decisions about getting their home on the market since the green light,” he said.

Joe Masterson, Branch Manager at Benjamin Stevens Estate Agents, Bushey

Joe said he’ll be opening his branch cautiously, and doesn’t believe agents should throw open their doors too widely before coronavirus has been defeated. 

His office will stick to its original plan to reopen more fully for business on 1 June, despite the government announcement.

“Because of the hygiene and social distancing rules that we’re all going to have to observe, we’ll ease back in slowly. [We] won’t be doing any viewings for at least a week and will continue with our virtual viewings and open houses,” he said.

“We’ve been busy communicating with our buyers and sellers how the business is going to start-up again and that, in the current circumstances, rushing everything won’t make a difference.

“They agree with us that the last thing we all want is to end up in lockdown again in three or four months’ time.”

Charlie Mitchell, manager of Winkworth in Tooting, London

“The last few days have been incredibly busy, which has been amazing because working from home during the lockdown hasn’t been much fun, particularly with two children at home all day,” said Charlie.

“But now we’re back. Because Winkworth is a franchise operated by lots of small, independent business people, we have been able to react to the reopening of the market quickly.”

His branch has seven employees and only two were furloughed. Charlie said these were his two lettings staff who couldn’t do their jobs during the lockdown. 

The other employees all worked from home, including his two sales negotiators, who were kept busy keeping the pipeline of 38 ‘under offer’ deals alive during the lockdown.

“I thought it best to ensure that the people who landed these deals should see them through and the strategy worked – we only lost two, although there have been several price renegotiations, unsurprisingly,” Charlie said.

“We’re social distancing within the office and I’m working in the back storage cupboard, which is a bit weird, but it’s vital that we, and our clients, all ensure people’s health and safety is paramount. 

“Nevertheless, I believe that vendors, buyers, tenants and landlords are all genuinely excited that people can start moving home again,” he added.

Chris Buckley, Keller Williams, London Bridge

Chris said the lockdown period is the hardest he’s worked throughout his whole career. He simultaneously continued the huge agent training programme that Keller Williams is famous for, tried to keep expenses to a minimum, and also plugged away at prospecting for instructions.

“At the moment it’s all about forming relationships with our local community by getting involved with them, and also sharpening our skills while everything is quiet – these two things combined will get us through until the housing market picks up,” he said.

“We don’t want to be seen as the agent up the road who is trying to nick an instruction, but rather that we are people who really care about the areas in which we operate,” he added.

Now that the market has reopened, Chris said his agents realise how privileged they are that the property industry has been able to open its doors before other sectors. They view it as a duty to ensure that it plays its part in ensuring a ‘second wave’ of the virus doesn’t happen.

“It’s vital for the whole industry that we are seen to stick to our duty of care for the health of the nation by both Joe Public and our clients,” he said.

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Author: Nigel Lewis, property journalist