GARRY BEST Director of Best Property Services, Co Down reflects on the business of selling property in a pandemic over the last 12 months.
In a month that my youngest child has had her second vaccine, one feels a sense of relief that our immediate family have come through this past 16 months intact. Whilst the current pandemic is far from over, there is a gradual feeling of being somewhat ‘back in control’ - compared to that eerie feeling in late March last year when the news headlines declared a national lockdown and the ‘Stay at Home’ message was firm and unequivocal in the face of this new threat named Corona.
Just days after lockdown was imposed, I lost a very close friend in the west of Scotland. Not being able to travel to his funeral and pay one’s respects to the family added to the sense of loss.
The unknown quantity of COVID, and huge uncertainty lead to a barrage of questions for everyone… …Will our family survive this? Will we still have a livelihood at the end of the year? What steps do we need to be taking today to survive this pandemic?
The announcement of Furlough by the UK Government during that same week brought some sense of relief in so far as there was assistance to pay staff, while reduced income was being generated.
WORKING FROM HOME
Like other local businesses, we gradually adapted to working from home, embraced Zoom meetings, welcomed family members moving home temporarily in order to Work from Home, paid close attention to news bulletins and supported health workers as best we could while the weeks turned to months.
During one week in May 2020 only the directors were ‘holding the fort’ for 10 days when transaction levels were at their lowest and like other business owners we wondered how long we could continue at that level of business. During the first lockdown quarter of April May and June property sales were down by 57% on the same period in 2019.
We were fortunate to have been invited to join the Guild of Property Professionals a year previous and their support at this time was significant. The Guild is a UK wide network of independent agents underpinned by an ethos of ‘knowledge, integrity and results’. They ran daily zoom sessions for their members, keeping us appraised of changes within our sector, sharing best practice in how other members were coping with work issues arising from COVID 19 restrictions as well a guidance and reassurance on adapting to use new technology to support sales.
We began using video apps for virtual viewings and valuations and it heralded the start of a wave of accelerated digitisation – which continues to transform the way we transact business with our clients and customers.
As a land agent, my day to day role was less restricted from a valuation perspective in so far as lands could still be inspected and valuation reports produced and emailed to clients, solicitors and accountants. However Land Auctions needed to be adapted to new requirements – traditionally hosted in our Auction Room which was now declared out of bounds – at least temporarily during the first lockdown.
We had three auctions scheduled for April and May 2020 (farm and development sites) and it transpired we had a maximum of 3 bidders so we were able to conduct these from home using 3 mobile phones, one dedicated to each bidder.
We kept all three lines live, until we reached a highest bidder. The contract details were completed, scanned and emailed to the purchaser, signed and emailed back and deposits paid by direct bank transfer – seeing the sale to a close without any contact.
In terms of the residential market – it did react with some shock to the Lockdown declaration which saw a temporary dip in prices late March/April. In contrast demand for land continued to remain strong and vendor expectations were often exceeded in this quarter.
Throughout this time, we embraced Zoom for auctions and we were still able to retain the level of transparency that we strive for.
At one stage a particular property situated just off the A1, four miles north of Newry attracted so much interest we had a total of 34 viewers which were narrowed down to eight bidders at auction. This was a farmhouse in need of renovation on 0.6 acres with an adjacent site (0.4 acres) with Planning Consent being offered as either one or two lots. This appealed to both builders and future home owners attracted to the proximity to the A1 and potential garden space. It was offered as separate lots and then as one lot but a single buyer persevered and secured the entire property at a figure approximately 38% in excess of the guide price.
During that first lockdown like many companies, we used weekly Zoom team meetings including those on Furlough, as a way of keeping the team united and informed on what was happening.
Thankfully by early June, restrictions relative to the first lockdown were easing and we gradually returned to the office. In the summer of 2020, we were able to return to our Auction Room, with altered layout and spacing to enable social distancing.
New Way of Working
Working in the office was different too as we adapted our space to enable social distancing, encouraged Zoom appointments and had a ‘locked door’ policy to restrict ‘drop in’ callers. In tandem we encouraged the use of emails and zoom calls in place of ‘in person’ meetings where possible.
Thankfully property sales by the end of July 2020 were approaching similar levels to July 19.
Homebuyers were alternating their priorities as COVID continued and working from home was becoming a more realistic option for many - who had new priorities for buying, namely being garden space and home office.
In July the increase in enquiries from UK and European buyers seeking coastal homes had doubled on previous years and virtual viewings were assisting those across the water gain a better understanding of the interior condition and layout prior to asking a local relative to attend an actual viewing on their behalf.
5th Generation Family Business
As August came, sales turnover improved relative to the previous year as buyers were determined to acquire residential property that matched their needs or location in their ‘new’ pandemic world.
During that year, one very positive business story was welcoming my daughter to the family business, becoming a 5th generation business (100 years on from my grandfather welcoming my father to Best Property Services). My daughter Olivia made a career change and decided she wanted to continue the crusade of creating property solutions started by her predecessors some 130 years earlier.
As the year turned in January 21, we found ourselves back in Lockdown territory using the Zoom process for auctions between January and May. However adapting to a second lockdown seemed easier having established good systems and embracing digital technology the first time around - as long as one kept track of the changing rules and regulations.
As we enter the month of September there are gradual indications from intending house sellers having more confidence in the vaccination programme. We are seeing a rise in requests for valuations as they ‘test the market’ and ascertain their worth of their property. In general there is a sense of growing positivity about putting their property on the market. The hope within the industry would be that the increase in supply of available homes to purchase will stabilise the market to pre pandemic levels as we all adapt to working in this new ‘living with COVID’ world.
About the Author: Garry Best is a Director of Best Property Services, a fifth generation family business which has evolved over 130 years, to provide a comprehensive range of expertise across a full range of property services.
Garry is primarily involved in the Land Division Comprising Valuation, Sale, Acquisition, Letting, and Negotiating Compensation etc. Garry has significant expertise in asset disposal.