Watching the government’s surprise press conference a couple of weekends ago the message was clear; we were heading into a gruelling and absolutely necessary second period of lockdown.
What was much less clear however was what exactly this meant for estate agents and homemovers.
Later that evening the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick confirmed (on Twitter, naturally) that ‘the housing market will remain open’. So far so good. But what did that actually mean in practice?
Only after several days of questions and cajoling by the industry was it confirmed that yes, viewings can take place and branches can stay open.
This news was of course welcome. I believe however the government should go further and pledge that the wholesale cessation of activity we saw earlier this year will not be repeated.
The housing market is, by any measure, thriving right now. The pent-up demand following the first lockdown, combined with the turbocharged impact of the stamp duty holiday means that many agents are the busiest they have been for a number of years.
In an economy which has adopted a war footing to delay the true impact of Covid, and with the possibility of a no deal Brexit, the housing sector is a rare shining light. It needs to not just be protected but allowed to flourish.
It isn’t just the estate agency fees I’m talking about although our recent analysis, showing there are 418,000 home sales worth £112 billion progressing through the system, in turn representing over £1.5 billion in potential agent commission, shows just how much money a market shutdown would cost the agent community.
Instead we must look at the network effect of our industry. The housing market extends beyond our much-valued agents. It’s the conveyancers, the removal firms, the kitchen and bathroom fitters, the painters, decorators and many more. Many of these are small and medium-sized businesses, critical to employment opportunities, and the backbone of the local, and in turn national, economy.
If the market were to grind to a halt again through the implementation of more serious government measures, it would be disastrous. We’d swiftly see sales pulled and at a macro level consumer confidence would fall. Any sales that do continue would proceed at a glacial pace as delays in conveyancing and mortgage approvals filter through to homemovers.
But what would this really mean? If we focus on who we really know, which is our agent partners, we’ve already said they will hopefully generate over £1.5 billion in commission. To put this in perspective, the UK fishing and fish processing industry, very much part of the Brexit debate right now, is worth £1.4 billion. These figures underline the importance of our industry’s contribution to the economy.
It’s also important to consider something less tangible but perhaps just as important.
People move home for many reasons. Of course it is a financial decision but we also should remember it’s an emotional journey. A new home can provide a new lease of life. Whether it's more space for that home office, peace and quiet, or great schools, these things, while they don’t have a monetary value, matter. In a difficult time reaching these goals shouldn’t be stymied.
That’s not to say of course that we should do anything that compromises public safety. We all know the danger to the economy and our collective health this virus poses.
However, agents have shown themselves during this period to be responsible and proactive when it comes to the measures they need to take to protect themselves and homemovers. It’s not just keeping their offices clean and safe, though. They’ve also utilised technology with virtual viewings and CGI fly-throughs of properties becoming increasingly common. Overall, they’ve embraced this challenge with exactly the entrepreneurial zeal we’d expect and have set a new standard in innovative working.
I know that for someone in my role it isn’t exactly surprising that I would call for the government to do everything it can to keep the housing market open. Indeed you’d be disappointed (and probably angry) if I didn’t.
My point however is that, while much of the focus on the impact of Covid is understandably on the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors, we have our own part of the economy that is flying right now.
We need to stand collectively and shout this from the rooftops, reminding ministers and stakeholders at every opportunity that we are not only doing the right thing by our businesses and customers but also the wider economy.
What happened last time, while necessary, put many in the industry on their knees. We can’t let the housing market become a soft target or a victim of a rush to judgement when steps are taken to fight this awful virus. If it were to do so there’s no doubt the effects both on the industry and beyond will be felt for many years to come.
*Charlie Bryant is CEO at Zoopla