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26 May 2020
Sean Hooker, Head of Redress at the Property Redress Scheme, shares his views on how the opening of the property market will affect agents.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” as Alice in Wonderland famous lines aptly reflect, coming out of COVID-19 lock-down will prove as challenging as entering into it. Just as we were unprepared for the last couple of months, the transition to the “New Normal” will be another example of trial and error and as a result we should all expect the unexpected.
This said, I am sure many of you, welcomed the announcement from the Government, that estate and letting agents in England at least, can resume business and the property market can begin to start up again.
We at the Property Redress Scheme were given the heads up from the civil servants the afternoon before the move was made but we were strictly embargoed on announcing anything until the Minister’s formal statement due the following afternoon. Strangely the measures were due to come into force at midnight of 13 May due to the fact that the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 had to amended by Parliament. No doubt the eagle eyed Parliament watchers had picked up on the published amendment and the story was all over media the early evening of the 12. Then at 10pm that night a press release by the Government was released and the cat was firmly out of the bag.
This said the official guidance was not issued until the morning of the 13 and it was only then that people were able to absorb what the measures actually meant. The Ministerial announcement we were waiting for of course was left trailing in the wake as various experts interpreted the new rules and businesses took to the air to express their hopes and fears on what the next stage meant to them.
Firstly, it is worth remembering that these new provision only apply to England and the other devolved nations are going at a different pace. OK by the time you read this, the Governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may well have taken measures of their own, however at the moment the indication is that they will not be in any rush to follow suit, despite the confusion this may cause, especially for cross border firms.
Secondly, we must remember that this is only a partial resumption and not business as usual. The guidance outlines strict procedures that must be followed to ensure the safety of all of those involved. Social distancing, hygiene and protecting staff and customers are still the priority for everyone to continue to focus on.
Thirdly, this change is not compulsory! You do not have to reopen your business premises or stop home working if you don’t feel that it is appropriate. It is up to you to undertake a risk assessment and decide whether you are prepared and ready to go back. Many firms are concerned that staff and customers will have huge reservations on how and when they want to resume business as usual and the reality is that this scenario is still a- way-away. Each business is different and therefore the way they operate within the new guidelines will vary. Take for example viewings. The Government guidance states that these should initially be undertaken virtually, were possible and physical viewings should only be conducted where a there is a serious offer on the property. Many agents have embraced virtual views and believe they are now geared up for this, however others may still feel uncomfortable with this, especially as the other redress scheme has stated that virtual viewings could expose you to breaches of consumer protection regulations. At the PRS was have maintained from the start of this crisis that virtual viewings are acceptable so long as they are fully transparent, clear records are kept and the option for a physical viewing is offered where possible, subject to the current regulations at the time.
The crisis has spawned a plethora of virtual platforms that offer solutions to remote, viewings. How robust and tested these are remains to be seen and I await to see how many complaints I receive in relation to mis-selling, misdescriptions and misleading information or if indeed there are spate of prosecutions under the Customer Protection Regulations.
What we know however is that under these restrictions the traditional methods of operating will mean transactions are slower and more complicated. Sales will be delayed as, mass viewings or even multiple appointments in a day will be ruled out and for lettings the only real safe way is to wait till the property is vacated before marketing, which will mean voids and higher costs to landlords. Virtual viewings offer agents a new way of doing things and dare I say may lead to more efficienct processes.
And here’s the point, we have all got used to different ways of working. Meetings by video, webinars, podcasts and even the good old fashion telephone. It is moot point whether these technologies have led to better communication, record keeping and customer service and I am still a believer in the personal touch, especially in a sector where emotion is so important.
I therefore want to know what your experiences have been during lock-down and what they are now as you start to get back to work. Are your customers returning and how did your staff cope and react now? We are therefore running a survey to help find out. I would appreciate if you could take five minutes to complete the survey which is available here.
I will also be looking at what has been happening in terms of complainants during the pandemic and how this compares to before this and after. Did customer service get worse or better? What were the reasons for this? What have we learned and what can we do going forward. This is the positive side to this awful tragedy and for all of us the lessons need to be learned.
So if you have gone back to work and business is resuming, what has surprised you (I am not talking about that forgotten pint of milk that was left in the office fridge) and what is better or worse.
What we do know however is this is just the start of the story and especially in this anniversary year of the ending of World War Two, is fitting to end with a quote from Winston Churchill.
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
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Property Redress Scheme is approved by Government under the Alternative Dispute Resolution for Consumer Disputes (Competent Authorities and Information) Regulations 2015