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How to navigate the property market during the pandemic

These are testing times. Covid-19 has reached into every sector, including the property market, and everyone is scrambling to adapt to the challenge. For those who are in the throes of buying or selling, or who have been saving to get on the ladder, what is the outlook? Fran Power finds out from some of the leading estate agents and market experts

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an illustration of a group of swallows flying around telegraph wires preparing to migrate in autumn over city rooftops

an illustration of a group of swallows flying around telegraph wires preparing to migrate in autumn over city rooftops

an illustration of a group of swallows flying around telegraph wires preparing to migrate in autumn over city rooftops

The Banker Austin Hughes, chief economist at KBC Bank Ireland

"The critical thing is that this is primarily about lives rather than livelihood, so people are suspending decisions about anything but the most pressing economic transactions. Their focus is on getting toilet paper rather than a three-bedroom property. And that focus is likely to be a key feature of the property market for the next several months.

"It means we will see something approaching a freeze in property transactions and that reduction means it will be difficult to move on either side. If you want to buy a property, it's going to be hard to find the one you want. If you want to sell a property, it is going to be hard to find someone who wants to step in. It is an extension of what is happening in a lot of financial markets at the moment, though without the volatility.

"However, banks are continuing, agents are continuing, removal firms are still functioning. It's not a case that anyone in the throes of a property purchase isn't going to be able to complete that transaction.

"There may be behavioural changes that affect how and what we buy in different ways in the longer term. People will think, Do I want to travel long distances? Do I want a property where I have some space to myself.

"Working from home is emphasising some of the strains and stresses that have come out of the property market over the last 10 years. People are in houses that no longer suit their needs and this will make it very clear.

"I don't think we're seeing something like the financial crisis where the rules of the game have dramatically changed - that is a big, big difference.

"It seems to me this is the perfect opportunity for government to lay out very substantial plans in terms of housing to get new supply, new forms of supply, to actually deal with social housing on one side, to deal with infrastructure on the other. It would be a great shame - and it is a tragedy in so many ways - but one of the lasting impacts is the opportunity it affords to give government more capacity to make the property market more functional afterwards."

 

THE MORTGAGE BROKER

Michael Dowling of Dowling Financial

"Banks are still lending [to those looking for mortgages]. All are working remotely but service levels are being maintained and there are no visible interruptions at this early stage.

"The challenge will be the significant numbers of people who are temporarily not working and what view banks will take of certain employment sectors, particularly, hospitality and retail sectors, in considering mortgage applications in the short term.

"I expect demand for mortgages to slow down for 2020 until we have the spread of the virus under control and see the fall-out on employment levels.

"Banks will have to move resources, in the short term, to deal with the number of requests for the three-month 'payment freeze'. I believe this is only the first stage of what will be a large number of borrowers who will not be able to pay their mortgage beyond the three-month period being offered.

"Interest rates will be under review. There is scope to reduce interest rates and it will help. The banks must respond and reduce interest rates as we are in uncharted territory and they must play their part.

"With most estate agents offices closed, the process of buying and selling faces significant challenges. There will be a reduction in the number of sales while we are in the 'containment' phase of dealing with Covid-19. Prospective buyers, if taking out a mortgage, will need to know that their job is secure before they agree to buy and /or take out a mortgage. I believe prices will fall in the short term."

 

THE SOLICITOR

Joe Ritchie of Donal M Gahan, Ritchie & Co, residential and commercial conveyancing

"People are taking the long view, the phone is ringing and there is no panic that we have seen. There are still contracts coming in, transactions are still occurring and we're closing sales. It's just a little slower but it has not come to a stop. We're checking with banks about funds and they say moneys are there and are ready to be released.

"In terms of the mechanics of sales and contracts, most solicitors are working remotely, and are emailing contract documents to clients and then meeting via Facetime to explain and go through it in detail. Contracts are now being signed via DocuSign rather than in person.

"All closings funds are being transferred by electronic transfer. All closings are now being completed by postal closing with the vendor providing executed closing documents and with the transfer deed to be signed by the purchaser thereafter.

"There is a hard-held view that this is going to come to an end and people will still want the house, and banks are still lending money, and they still have their jobs. Everything should come back to normal, but who knows. It's unforeseen."

 

THE ESTATE AGENT

Keith Lowe, chief executive DNG

"We decided for the safety of our staff and the public, and in the spirit of cooperating with the national call from the Government, to close our network of 80 offices and cease all viewings last Monday morning.

"However, 25pc of DNG properties have full 3D virtual tours. These will replace viewings for the short term. A team of six agents is taking enquiries on any property matter through DNG Live Chat which is available Monday to Saturday on dng.ie.

"Our sales have been strong this week but this is likely to reduce significantly as people are unlikely to make firm buying decisions without viewing properties. The number of properties coming for sale has reduced significantly in the last week and will reduce further for the rest of this month.

"In terms of valuations, we are offering sellers free valuations by Eircode. They submit their Eircode through dng.ie, live chat or by calling our Freephone number. Our agents check the property via Google Street view and overhead maps and then call back with an estimate. The owner can send through images for a more accurate figure. Our agent will then explain the sales process in detail and can make arrangements for the property to go for sale in due course.

"It is too difficult to predict any impact on the property market until we know the real effect of Covid-19 and how long it affect the ability to work and carry out normal life. With fewer properties coming for sale in the short term, it is unlikely that there will be any change at all in property prices. In a normal market a reduction in the amount of housing stock normally leads to an increase in value, but Covid-19 makes everything far from normal. We're hoping that house viewings will recommence sometime in April and that the market may return to some normality in the months following."

 

THE ESTATE AGENT

Marian Finnegan, managing director, Sherry FitzGerald

"All traditional viewings have been cancelled and replaced with virtual viewings [see sherryfitz.ie]. Basically using the video conferencing software Zoom, we invite buyers to attend a virtual viewing using previously shot walk-through footage. We send the buyer a link and a simple guide in advance to show them how to log in but it's very simple. They can use their phone or a PC.

"Once the buyer has joined the virtual viewing, they can hear the agent talking them through the property walk-through. They can also ask questions in real time through a live chat box.

"It's early days, but last Thursday and Friday traffic to our website from social media channels increased by 31pc, and we had 35 online offers over the weekend and last Monday, slightly above our average numbers. Last Monday alone, 18 live chats took place, higher than any other Monday in the past month, and the average browsing time on the website has increased by 16pc over the week before.

"It is really too early to ascertain the impact of these exceptional events on the market. There will inevitably be a time of uncertainty but once the virus is under control, then hopefully normal activity will re-emerge. Ireland's economy is incredibly resilient and will re-emerge as a driving force in the Eurozone, a factor which will underpin the future of the property market."

 

THE NEW HOMES ESTAGE AGENT

David Browne, director and head of new homes, Savills

"Our offices are closed. All open views were cancelled last Sunday and now all viewsings are cancelled. It's not worth the risk. We are moving everything online. We are developing a new bespoke virtual website which will be up and running next week. All our new homes launches are postponed indefinitely.

"Obviously enquiries are down, people have other things to be thinking about. However, we've had 14 new sales this week, two cancellations on sales agreed, four contracts signed, and five closings.

"We are gearing up for launches in the summer. There were launches in the next month that we're going to bring out to market. We're not going to have a launch, we will sell online. For a lot of our schemes, people have seen the show house, they're waiting for us to release more, so they know what they are buying. There is comfort in that.

"We are working on a system for next week whereby the vendors and purchasers' solicitors all work and sign digitally so no one needs to meet in person and everything can be done on our system. It will be legally binding.

"Ironically, after Brexit this year was shaping up to be a really good year in terms of sentiment, rents are pushing a lot of people into wanting to buy. Will that change? Will rents soften? None of us know.

"While not for one moment under-estimating the devastation caused, we're trying to keep business running in this climate."

Sunday Independent