We’re now in the early stages of getting the home buying and selling process moving again after lockdown. This follows the publication of the cross-industry guide, Re-Opening the Home Moving Market Safely.
Recommendations have included those for individual behaviour, client engagement and transparency, how ID checks can take place, and only allowing office attendance from clients by personal appointment.
The guidance also asks the industry to consider video viewings, checking the COVID-19 status of occupants and recommends that ideally only one professional and two adults maximum should take part in a physical viewing. These should take place outside of commute times.
Since then we’ve seen reports from property portal, Rightmove, that it has experienced its busiest day ever, and with mortgage rates at all time low, many are predicting a buyers’ boom. Yet with residential property sales at their lowest level in April since comparable records began and the Nationwide reporting a fall in house prices in May, there may be a long way to a recovery.
Since lockdown began, we have been speaking frequently to our regulated community of licensed conveyancing practices to find out and keep track of what has been happening in their businesses.
Here is a snapshot of what practices told us of their experiences of emerging from lockdown when we spoke to them one week after the market reopening:
- Over half of practices (54%) saw an increase in the number of new instructions to buy or sell a property.
- 89% of practices had not made any redundancies, 11% unfortunately had.
- Almost a quarter (24%) of practices had started to bring furloughed staff back and of those staff working in the office, 18% had brought back at least half of their workforce into the office. However, for 70% of practices, no staffing changes were made in the wake of the reopening of the market, suggesting an initial cautious approach.
- There was widespread confidence in their ability to manage the return to operations, but caution about gaps in the flow of work which could bring challenges.
The Government’s furlough scheme appears to have been a lifeline for many businesses during the pandemic, with over 8.4 million workers furloughed at the end of May. Specific data for those workers involved in the home buying and selling process does not exist, but over three quarters (77%) of our practices told us that the furlough scheme had helped them plan their staffing effectively during the expected business recovery period.
Naturally, returning staff back into the office is not without its challenges, with practices most often citing space and not being able to appropriately socially distance as a key issue. Along with this employees’ fears for their own health or those of others in their household, especially those who are shielding, and childcare issues are big challenges.
However, when asked about how confident they were of their practice’s ability to manage the return to more normal levels of working, 86% told us they were either very confident or quite confident of their ability to do so. We will of course be working hard to ensure our regulated community get the necessary compliance assistance they need along with signposting to where and how to access financial help to support their businesses.
Elsewhere, there has been a great deal of activity during the lockdown to see what modifications might be introduced to help the market back to full strength, or at the very least, move more quickly.
In my last article I wrote, perhaps somewhat prophetically, about the rapid pace of change in conveyancing driven by new technologies. Yet even when I was writing that at the turn of the year, I don’t think I or anyone else could have predicted just how quickly the pressure for that new technology would grow in just a few months.
As Mike Harlow, deputy chief executive of the Land Registry puts it, the conveyancing process hasn’t felt very 21st century during the pandemic. So, the pandemic may well speed up the move towards a faster, simpler and more secure home buying and selling process for the longer term.
Cryptographic and biometrics
The saying is that necessity is the mother of invention and we have certainly seen the pandemic driving creativity. One such initiative being explored is the use of cryptographic and biometric techniques.
This pandemic has undoubtedly highlighted the immediate need for an easy-to-use, cost-effective, remote and digitally secure way for conveyancers to securely identify buyers and sellers. Working with HM Land Registry and others, we think that using cryptographic and biometric checking of identity, using microchip-enabled passports or identity cards presents a potentially simple solution.
It involves a user placing their smartphone next to their passport and an app analysing the information from the passport chip to cryptographically check the validity of the passport. The user would then record a video, which is then compared with the passport photo on the chip to achieve facial recognition and delivers near immediate results.
HM Land Registry is urging potential cryptographic and biometric technology suppliers to consider how they might be able to meet conveyancers’ needs and plans to hold a virtual event soon to explore this issue further. I am sure we will return to this issue in later articles.