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HF Assist webinar Q&A: Life after lockdown – How to kick-start your lettings

When letting agents closed their doors at the start of lockdown, it was a daunting moment for an industry that has always relied on face to face relationships and physical access to peoples’ homes. Yet, as the weeks in lockdown progressed, many agents adapted to the situation more effectively than they imagined. It’s great news that, in England at least, the industry is beginning to open up again – agents in England can reopen for business and house moves have been able to take place from 13 May – but, as the Government has said, “this does not represent a return to normality”.

 

The message is clear: just because you can open doesn’t mean you should – the relaxation of rules for letting agents can only work under strict social distancing and other measures designed to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Government guidelines are clear that agents should consider alternatives to face to face contact and physical presence wherever possible.

 

It’s also important to note that the lifting of restrictions only applies to England. Letting agents in Wales remain closed, with only virtual viewings and essential moves permitted. Agents in Wales will have to wait until the next review of the regulations, on 18 June, to find out the latest on re-opening the housing market in Wales.

 

So much has changed and it’s clear that the pre-coronavirus status quo will not be restored any time soon. What will life after lockdown look like for agents? What have agents learned during lockdown? And how will they need to adapt their practices as we come out of it? HF Assist’s recent webinar, ‘Life after lockdown – How to kick-start your lettings’ considered these questions and more, looking at practical ways in which agents can get back to business and do their bit to get the economy moving again. Hosted by Paul Shamplina, Founder of Landlord Action, Brand Ambassador for Hamilton Fraser and star of Channel 5’s ‘Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords’, Paul was joined by Mike Morgan from HF Assist, the helpline which offers practical advice for letting agents, and Steve Wayne, Director of Benjamin Stevens Estate Agents.

 

As the three experts all agreed, agents will be judged on how they acted during the lockdown, and how they handle the return to business. To help you show your worth at this crucial time, we’ve pulled together some of the key insights shared during the webinar. From how to manage customers in the office, to best practice for removals and viewings and how to fulfill your legal requirements, we address questions from the agents who tuned in live, and touch on some of the innovative approaches from agent colleagues operating at the coalface of the ‘new normal’.

 

Life after lockdown Q&A

Although the lettings market is open for business, and agents can start to do viewings and move-ins, Mike kicked off the webinar by emphasising the importance of adhering to the safety guidelines. He said, “It’s still important to check whether occupants are showing symptoms and / or self-isolating, have come into contact with someone who is showing symptoms, or are being shielded. Agents will need to operate within social distancing parameters and minimise face to face contact as much as possible.”

 

Q: How is Benjamin Stevens Estate Agents managing the return of employees to the office?

Steve explained that the office is opening up slowly, with precautions in place, bringing staff back gradually as business builds up, mindful also that many staff are not yet in a position to come back, for example those with children who are still off school. This means that colleagues can spread out and adhere to the social distancing guidelines. The business has ordered shields ready for opening to clients, but is not in a rush to open its doors, and will try to remain closed to customers for as long as possible. Fortunately, much of the agent’s business can be carried out online or over the phone.

 

Q: What best practices should agents use when colleagues come back to the office?

Take measures such as not using the lift and implementing a one-way system so that people can avoid passing each other. Most importantly, think about whether everyone needs to be there at once – can you stagger working hours? The same principles apply to lunch and break times – think about how you can keep people apart and minimise contact.

 

Q: What guidance should agents follow when customers come into the office?

It makes sense to allow visits on an appointment only basis, being sure to carry out a risk assessment and ask safety questions before customers come to the office and, once they are there, keep distance and minimise contact. Of course, if there is an alternative to bringing customers into the office then that is preferable.

 

Think about how many customers can safely be in the office at any one time. For smaller offices it may be best to limit this to one customer at a time. It’s also worth checking with customers when making appointments whether they plan to bring children with them. Ideally this should be avoided.

 

Benjamin Stevens is a member of The Guild, a network of independently owned estate agents. The Guild has provided an online form including key safety questions which agents should ask customers; for example whether anyone in a potential customer’s household is self-isolating or showing symptoms. Customers are required to complete the form before being permitted to view a property.

 

Government advice is that yes, you can open your offices if you want to, but it’s important to do so in a safe and responsible way, and only if you have to. Carry out a risk assessment, implement an appointment system to limit customer numbers, minimise contact and maintain social distance. Only have face to face meetings and appointments if there is no alternative. Staff and safety come before money – it’s better to lose out on one customer than to put staff and customers at risk.

 

Q: How do you know if a customer is asymptomatic?

Obviously it is not possible to know for sure whether a customer has symptoms, so again it comes down to reducing the risk, by using social distancing and minimising opportunities for touching surfaces within the office. Mike cited the example of an agent who has positioned a chair for customers in the middle of the floor space with nothing near them which they may be tempted to touch. This is a simple but effective way of preventing customer contact with any surfaces and reducing the risk of transmission of the virus from an asymptomatic customer.

 

Q: What is the official guidance on carrying out viewings?

The guidance is that there should be no open house viewings at all as this poses too much of a risk. Wherever possible, viewings should be carried out virtually and there has been an increase in the number of tools agents are using to facilitate this. For example, ‘On the market’ now has a search portal for prospective tenants and buyers. Agents who don’t yet have this technology should start looking at tools to enable them to carry out virtual viewings.

 

Physical viewings should be restricted to those with a serious interest in a property, and a limit imposed on the numbers viewing. Occupants should vacate the property during viewings to limit contact with the household and internal doors should be left open. After each viewing, surfaces should be cleaned and hand washing facilities should also be provided.

 

Q: Tenants are nervous about inspections and allowing viewings and some are refusing to allow access. What can agents do in this situation?

Understandably, some tenants are reluctant to allow access – they don’t necessarily stand to benefit from new tenants coming to view a property and are likely to feel nervous. Agents can’t force tenants to allow them access, so it’s a case of explaining to them how you will reduce the risks, and that this will require people to be out of the property as much as possible.

 

If you have always taken care to look after your tenants in the past, they are more likely to be prepared to help you during these difficult times.

 

Q: What is best practice for removals?

Removal firms are now able to operate, but are needing to adapt to be safe. Demand on removal firms is high – some firms don’t yet want to operate or are not yet ready, so it is important to plan in advance as much as possible.

 

Government guidance is that tenants should try to do as much of the packing themselves, clean things before they are packed and seal boxes with tape so that they are self-contained. If there are breakages for items that you’ve packed yourself they may not be covered by insurance so it is worth checking with the removal firm.

 

When the removal firm is in the home, keep as many drawers and cupboards open to minimise surface contact and maintain social distance, and again, provide hand washing facilities.

 

Q: Are moves into HMO properties permitted?

Yes, HMO moves are permitted, although they can be more challenging, especially when it comes to communal areas. It’s important to be careful with the logistics to minimise the risk of running into other people on the way in and out of the property. It would be sensible to make contact with other occupants to advise them about the move and suggest that they either stay behind their door or out of the property between defined times. It’s also important to make sure there is access to cleaning facilities so that you can clean the communal areas after the move has been completed.

 

Q. What are the guidelines for visiting your properties as an agent?

Avoid visiting properties unless it is for essential repairs. Routine inspections are not essential. If you do need to visit the property, take safety precautions such as running through a checklist of symptoms with the tenant and maintaining social distance. Ongoing dialogue with your tenant is vital so that you can explain, comfort and reassure them.

 

Q: How can you filter out non-serious applicants when viewing a property?

Agents are likely to be quite used to figuring out whether applicants are serious about a property. Obviously the main test would be whether a client is prepared to pay a holding deposit as that would indicate that an applicant is serious. But again, where possible viewings should be carried out virtually.

 

Q: Is there a cut off point by which tenants can refuse to allow access for gas or electrical inspections?

The practical reality is that tenants can refuse at any time, but since lockdown has been eased there are no restrictions against gas or electricity inspections taking place. Again, it’s important to maintain social distancing and follow health and safety guidelines; minimising contact with people and surfaces and paying particular attention to cleaning.

 

Q: What should I do if tenants want to be present at all times while I take photographs of a property?

The best thing to do is to ask the tenant to go into the hallway / a garden while you take the photographs. It’s important to ensure the safety of both you and your tenant by maintaining distance to minimise risk.

 

Q: Should I enter the property to get quotes for works to be done?

With regards to quotes, Mike cited an example of a tenant who was able to liaise with a contractor by video and work out costings for work required. The key point is that you should only enter the property if essential, so if it is feasible to obtain quotes remotely, this would be the best course of action.

 

Q: What should you do if tenants are struggling to pay the rent?

Many tenants are struggling at the moment - two million people have applied for universal credit since lockdown began and furloughing, which remains in place until October, has cost the Government £15b. Paul, who is getting calls from landlords each day whose tenants are struggling to pay the rent, emphasised that the key thing is to work with your tenants at all times to find a fair solution. It is currently likely to take nine to 12 months to gain possession, so it’s worth working with tenants and ensuring that you maintain regular dialogue with them throughout their tenancy. As Paul points out, a good tenant doesn’t become a bad tenant overnight.

 

Options available to help tenants include delaying payments or offering a rent holiday period and then setting up a payment plan. Paul advises that it’s always best to get some rent paid than none at all. And if you reach an agreement, make sure that everything is in writing.

 

The PRS has set up a tenancy mediation service to mediate between landlords and tenants. Although it had been planning to introduce the service anyway, the PRS brought forward the launch to help mediate in any problems arising as a result of the current COVID-19 situation. Following the suspension of court proceedings for evictions and the extension of notice periods to three months, it is more important than ever for landlords and tenants to try to discuss and come to an arrangement on tenancy matters such as non-payment of rent, early vacation or vacant possession. This will help to avoid court proceedings and loss of rent in the future.

 

The tenancy mediation service is a fixed fee service and most cases result in repayment agreements which are acceptable to both parties. Mike explained that, once rapport is built it is usually possible to open up a dialogue and find a way forwards.

 

If a tenant can prove that they have been affected by COVID-19 they shouldn’t be evicted and a landlord should try to work with them. Three month mortgage holidays are available for landlords, who will need to check details of this with their lender. However, Paul cautions that landlords should also check whether taking a mortgage holiday might affect their credit rating in the future.

 

Paul highlighted some uplifting stories of ‘landlord heroes’, featured on LandlordZONE, shining the light on some of the landlords who have gone out of their way to help their tenants during these difficult times.

 

At Benjamin Stevens, around five percent of landlords have asked for help and most have been able to come to an agreement, for example offering a 25 per cent reduction in the rent which they’ve agreed to pay back within six months. It hasn’t been as much of a problem as expected. As always, communication is the key.

 

The student market has, however, been hit very hard and it is likely that students may not even be returning to universities in September. For those who are interested or affected, in her article, How to survive the chaos of coronavirus in the student rental market long-time landlord Mary Latham looks at what landlords can do to navigate these uncertain times.

 

Q: What is the latest on notices and evictions?

Since the webinar aired, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has announced a two month extension to the Government’s ban on evictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. New evictions in England and Wales of tenants in both social and privately rented accommodation will be suspended until 23 August. “No-one will be evicted from their home this summer due to coronavirus,” Mr Jenrick tweeted.

 

We will need to await further details and are expecting changes to the process for new notices and claims (there are more details on the ‘pre-action protocol’ below).

 

For now, Section 8 Notices and Form 6a (Section 21) require at least three months’ notice.

  • Applies to all notices served up to the end of September (at the time of writing)
  • All current possession proceedings suspended for 90 days
  • We were expecting the courts to re-open on 25 June 2020. This date has now been extended to 23 August and will be with a significant backlog of cases and using virtual hearings

 

Paul explained that currently Landlord Action has 500-600 cases stuck in the court system, many of which originate from before the COVID-19, so there is significant backlog. Courts will be running with virtual hearings and there is likely to be a spike in evictions when government support stops.

 

Section 21 is also going to be banned and the Government is looking at ways to make Section 8 more robust. This will require major investment in the court system. An extensive report is expected to be released shortly looking at the impact of the banning of Section 21.

 

Anyone who has issues with tenants being unable to pay the rent or evictions can contact Paul directly at paul@landlordaction.co.uk. Landlord Action is working in partnership with the PRS’s tenancy mediation service, who can also be contacted by email at mediation@theprs.co.uk.

 

Q: What is the pre-action protocol for possession claims?

The pre-action protocol is a new procedure that is going to come in over the next six to 12 months and will apply to new notices and claims. The protocol is a series of steps which will need to be taken before commencing and also potentially during court proceedings. It is aimed at encouraging landlords to work with tenants to resolve a dispute before going to court. The Government is keen to encourage more mediation, fewer court cases and less homelessness. It is already in place for social tenants and is going to be coming in for private landlords too. Landlords and letting agents will need to make sure they are aware of the vulnerability of tenants so that they can understand the background to any arrears and this procedure will need to be carried out before making a possession claim. Some things to consider will be:

  • Does the tenant have difficulty reading or speaking English?
  • Is the tenant vulnerable – consider mental health / care
  • Understand cause of arrears, entitlement to benefits, repayment plan
  • Provide rent statement to tenants
  • Clear pre-action correspondence, payment plans with time limits

 

Many issues can be resolved with effective communication and very few tenants go out of their way to cause trouble for landlords. Engagement with tenants can help avoid problems further down the line. Ultimately, the question will be whether the tenant can afford to carry on living in the property. As we know, landlords’ livelihoods are also being affected by the pandemic.

 

Q: What’s the future for the market?

Paul sees the residential market coming down a bit, including rents, as landlords will be worried about void periods. Landlords are more likely to sell (21%) than buy (12%) over the next 12 months.

 

Steve emphasised that landlords will need to make sure they price their properties carefully and work with the right agent. The types of property tenants are looking for also may change, for example people may be more likely to work from home which might increase the demand for home office space. This may also impact the areas tenants look to live, for example in more rural areas with less emphasis on being near public transport.

 

Job security will be a worry for many people. Almost half of tenants are aged between 16-34, exposing landlords to those most at risk of losing their job. 80% of landlords report a negative impact from lockdown, with almost half anticipating financial hardship.

 

There may also be more direct deals with councils needing to house tenants.

 

Steve highlighted that it is not necessary for agents to have a high street presence anymore, so take time to look at alternatives. “Slow down, take a step back, breathe and stop running around like a headless chicken!”

 

Q: What is the best thing about being an agent?

In response to this question, Steve replied that the best thing about being an agent, is seeing first time buyers and renters falling in love with a property while trying to keep a poker face! “You’re helping them with one of the biggest decisions of their life, and you get to see their joy when they move in. As an estate and letting agent, you’re helping clients and as long as you do that you’ll always do business.”

 

Q: How can agents attract new business?

Closing the webinar, Paul offered some final advice for letting agents. “Landlords need letting agents - the days of let only are numbered and full management is the way forward. So agents need to be upselling full management and promoting more effectively the work they do, putting a price on their time. Explain to landlords how much time you spend on managing a property and make sure you get inside the head of landlords to upsell. Value yourselves, give a great service to landlords and don’t compromise on your fee. There are 2.1 million landlords out there and renting is needed. 21% of the market is rented.”

You can watch the full webinar, ‘Life after lockdown – how to kick-start your lettings’ here.

 

HF Assist special offer

HF Assist is a new letting agent helpline run by property professionals with years of experience. We’re currently offering 10% off for new members using discount code HFFAMILY10. To find out more visit the HF Assist website. To claim your discount, simply enter the code when prompted during the sign up process.

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