Re-opening Of The English Property Market

It’s understandable if you, as a conveyancing practitioner, have felt slightly caught on the hop by the announcements and measures announced over the past week or so.

To quote Monty Python, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…”, and, despite the fact that we had been actively working to demonstrate to Government the value of the industry to the economy and the ability to bring it back safely, few of us were expecting that the lockdown restrictions would be lifted to an extent that would effectively re-open the housing market.

I refer, of course, just to England at this time and this is clearly a sensitive issue, with firms in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland under more stringent guidelines with the potential for greater difficulty in cross-border arrangements, and a two-tier system currently being run.

While we may not have anticipated this change in England quite as soon as it came, the CA has been working with other organisations, associations, partners, regulators and the Government throughout this period on a raft of documents and industry/consumer guidance, which we were able to publish at the same time as MHCLG Minister, Robert Jenrick MP, was making his announcement on what happens next.

That Guidance for the industry and consumers on re-opening the home moving market is now available here and it outlines a number of checklists to follow when working and what the responsibilities of all stakeholders within this new environment are. We are also going to publish sector-specific guidance for conveyancing firms and will communicate the availability of that as soon as it is ready.

While you might be thinking ’be careful what you wish for’, getting the housing market open – even if it is just in England for now – is clearly good news but all practitioners and stakeholders need to be conscious of the changes COVID-19 has brought and they, and their clients, also need to be aware that this is not going to be a short-term development. Far from it.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently warned that COVID-19 may never go away, and if that is the case, then we all need to get used to working within these new guidelines. In effect they create the ‘new normal’ that many people have referred to and, while we may be able to get to a point where they are relaxed further or they shift as the guidance changes, we should not anticipate a return to a pre-COVID-19 environment anytime soon, if ever.

Safety of both property professionals and consumers is the top priority, and even with all these measures in place, we may well find that the latter group are simply not willing to take a risk when it comes to, for example, allowing strangers into their home in order to move a property transaction through.

There’s also a message that needs to be issued to consumers and that is focused on the property professionals they deal with. If there are companies that are not taking this seriously, and adhering to the guidelines, then they should be avoided – again, this may mean that transactions won’t go ahead.

There is going to be a risk assessment made on both sides of this particular coin and, just because this guidance exists, it doesn’t mean it will be enough for consumers, neither does it necessarily mean it will be followed by professional firms. It needs to be, but we can’t guarantee it.

It’s for this reason that we understand why the sector should be cautious about what happens next. For conveyancing firms in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland we have not even reached the same point yet, but when we do, the same questions will need to be asked, the same worries will be voiced, and the impact on business transactions and volumes will be determined.

So, while this is a positive move, we need to acknowledge that the process will be slow. Media headlines of agents inundated with enquiries on the ‘first day back’ do not tell anywhere near the whole story of how we move forward, and it’s therefore vitally important you, as conveyancing firms, offer realistic appraisals to your clients of what is achievable and what may not be. It is very likely that every part of the process, for the short- to medium-term at least, is going to take longer.

What we can however do is work on that process and utilise various methods in order to speed it up. That is the next big challenge and it will provide some obvious and immediate gains if we are able to halve the time it takes to get through to exchange and completion, even just by ensuring that the conveyancer is instructed at listing, the seller completes the information form and the information is shared with all stakeholders.

If this crisis has taught us anything, it’s the necessity to help ourselves and this is the one big benefit we can deliver for everyone.

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