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The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has forced the world’s businesses to adopt new ways of doing business—and the real estate industry of the United Kingdom is no exception. In an effort to curb the virus’ spread while waiting for a vaccine or cure, social distancing and quarantine measures were put into place. Despite that, the government acknowledges the need for economic activity to prevent an economic depression from further racking the country.

With the government allowing the property market to re-open last May 13, sellers, buyers, real estate agents, and even conveyancing solicitors are innovating to do business. What was once unthinkable is now the norm, particularly with digital options available and rampant as a form of conducting real estate sales.

Here are four ways that the UK real estate market is coping with the challenges brought about by COVID-19 and why they might stay that way for good.

  1. Virtual Viewing is Now the Rule, Not the Exception

With open houses being a logistical impossibility in lieu of social distancing protocols, more and more property buyers and sellers are finding ways to do business digitally. One way this has been accomplished is through virtual viewing—which basically means that buyers and sellers access the property listings through digital platforms.

The process is akin to online shopping, albeit with more steps. Through videos and photos, a buyer can get a first look at the property and determine if it suits their needs and fits their budget. Some real estate companies are even going the extra mile by offering online live tours, to give buyers an approximation of an open house.

To be clear, virtual viewing is not new. Homebuyers in the UK have been coming to websites like Rightmove and Zoopla for years to look at properties listed online. According to a 2020 study by the National Association of Realtors, just 4% of people who bought property visit open houses as the first step in the buying process. Meanwhile, a staggering 44% opted to visit online property listings first to narrow down their options.

This means that from a serious buyer’s point of view, not much has really changed. The shift to virtual viewing affects sellers and real estate agents—who will now have to adapt by learning how to use digital platforms effectively.

On the flip side, the shift to virtual viewing helps real estate agents find serious buyers among the rest. This is because serious buyers are the ones most likely to contact a real estate agent for a private viewing of the property they just saw online.

  1. Strict Rules Have to be Followed, Even During Private Viewings

Once a serious buyer contacts the real estate agent, private viewing can then be scheduled. However, as per government regulation, there are certain rules that need to be followed in order to minimise exposure and transmission of COVID-19.

Aside from encouraging virtual viewing to replace open houses, prospective homebuyers, sellers, and their real estate agents need to follow these guidelines:

  • Serious home buyers should only be accompanied by their real estate agent and the people they already live with.

  • In keeping with government directives, homebuyers should travel to the property in their own vehicles, and not with their agents.

  • Prospective homebuyers, sellers, and agents who exhibit flu-like symptoms should immediately cancel their business transactions and get tested immediately.

  • Homebuyers and their companions should wash their hands regularly with their own hand sanitisers.

  • Handwashing facilities should also be made available in the property.

  • Social distancing protocols should be applied religiously. If possible, avoid bringing children along.

  • Sellers should keep all doors open during the viewing to minimise the need for physical contact with surfaces, such as door handles, during the viewing.

  1. Contracts Need to be More Flexible

Delays are fairly common in the homebuying process, even before COVID-19 came into view. Homebuyers often change their minds, renege their offers, or just stop communicating after a few meetings. As far as real estate businesses go, nothing is finalised without a signed contract.

However, with the pandemic going on, conveyancing solicitors and agents may need to find ways to account for delays, even with a binding contract in effect. For example, delays can come through inspections, which need to be carried out in a manner that is safe for both the tradespeople and the current owners of the house.

Delays come in many forms, especially in lieu of the pandemic. As per government regulation, only one inspection can be conducted at any given time by a single tradesperson. During such inspections, social distancing and frequent handwashing should be observed as well. Most importantly, no tradesperson should enter a house with a member exhibiting flu-like symptoms or doing self-isolation.

What should be given even more attention to are when clients—or even homeowners—fall ill prior to moving. The need for self-isolation may make either party delay the moving process to make way for safety and sanitation.

Wherever possible, conveyancing solicitors and real estate agents should make it easier for both buyers and sellers to fulfil their obligations to the contract, while also following self-isolation and quarantine protocols when necessary.

  1. Digital Checks Must Supplement Face-to-Face Procedures

In the aim of further minimising the risk of COVID-19 transmission, legal identity checks will also have to change. According to the Legal Sector Affinity Group, legal practitioners and

government regulatory bodies will have to develop alternative ways of performing identity and verification checks.

These changes are very likely to take more time before they can be implemented efficiently. However, with the combined efforts of the Council for Licensed Conveyancers, Law Society, Chartered Institute for Legal Executives, and the Land Registry, some development should be found soon.

If there was one good thing that came out of this crisis, it’s the fact that it highlighted the need to develop an easy-to-use, modestly-priced, remote, and digitally secure way for conveyancers to confirm the identities of buyers and sellers alike. While the pandemic has hampered business activity significantly, it has also provided the catalyst for innovation and improvements in the real estate field.

Conclusion

Developments in the real estate industry have been a long time coming. Whether or not these changes will effectively curb the spread of the virus is yet to be seen. After all, protocols are only as good as the people who follow them. However, what’s most likely to happen is that if they do turn out to be effective, these changes will continue to be implemented well into the post-COVID-19 era.

With the pandemic expected to progress for at least a few more months, it’s very likely that stricter hygiene protocols and the move towards digital solutions, such as virtual viewing and online conveyancing, are going to be the new normal in the real estate industry.

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