Stepping out into the brave new world of house hunting is daunting in the wake of the coronavirus crisis – but the temporary cut to stamp duty could certainly make it worthwhile. Toby Walne finds out what it is like going in search of that dream home.
The ‘stop’ sign in the doorway of estate agent Mullucks in the Hertfordshire town of Bishop’s Stortford is hardly welcoming. But such a precaution allows the surprisingly busy office to follow social distancing guidelines – and for me to put on a mask before being ushered through a dividing glass door.
William Wells has not quite got that ‘elbow bump’ off pat – a firm handshake would be more his style – but once seated two metres across his desk, a polite wave of the hand means my face covering is dispensed with so we can get down to business.
Safe as houses: William Wells gets ready to show the home to Toby Walne, left
The director has been in the office since mid-May. Half a dozen others sit in the office picking up a constant stream of phone calls. He holds no truck with sitting in a garden being paid to do nothing.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, the lockdown did not stop people searching online for properties and Wells received hundreds of enquiries during this period that are finally being turned into visits.
Staff are not just manning phones but taking queries from a few brave people venturing into the office after looking in the window. The agent is now handling up to 30 visits a day to 160 properties on its books.
During lockdown, there was a growth in ‘virtual viewings’ that include high-up aspirational angles captured by drone video cameras.
But these were mostly reserved for £1million-plus country piles offered by the estate agent. Wells is enthusiastic about the video potential, with two-minute clips proving a big hit on social media such as Facebook and Instagram ‘as they act like a first visit to a home’.
Pandemic property viewing checklist
● Be prepared to fill in a health questionnaire before you visit.
● Work your timings around when the vendor can be out of their house.
● You may need to visit properties in your own car.
● Turn up promptly as time may be limited.
● Wash your hands or use hand sanitiser before you visit.
● Wear a mask and try to maintain social distancing.
● Do not touch door handles or open cupboard doors unless you are invited to do so.
But for dinosaurs like me, he still reaches for the filing cabinet and pulls out a brochure.
Apparently, Lilac Tree Cottage in the hamlet of Patmore Heath five miles away is the perfect antidote to Covid-19.
This £695,000 four-bedroom semi-detached home is in a ‘reassuringly expensive’ rural location – but still less than an hour’s commute to the big smoke of London. The picture perfect bolthole oozes idyllic 19th Century character and even has an outside home office.
Such properties are suddenly in high demand from the army of cramped city dwellers wishing to escape coronavirus madness and work from home.
Wells picks up the phone and with a clipped professional manner calls the owner, telling them he hopes my visit will not be too ‘onerous’ on the family.
Afterwards, he explains that this recent crisis has changed selling dynamics and the vendor is now given priority.
Some sellers – often elderly and vulnerable – have been taken off the books until the pandemic is over due to health concerns over visits. Buyers are also now far more accommodating, accepting visiting times whenever suits the vendor. Previously, it was often the other way round.
We arrange to see the cottage late the following morning when the family will go out. But first I must fill in a ‘coronavirus event check’ – a tick-box list of potential medical conditions and travel over the past fortnight – so it is safe to let me visit.
Although usually prepared to drive me to the property, Wells suggests we travel separately.
I am ordered to follow his instructions and not to rely on satnav as the viewing is strictly limited to 20 minutes.
He says: ‘Sadly, many people blindly rely on this technology rather than follow directions – and end up lost in the middle of nowhere. These days we need to be serious about being punctual.’
Next day, right on schedule outside the cottage’s picket fence gate, Wells asks me to hold out a hand, squeezes a blob of hand sanitiser into it and tells me to rub.
Estate agent William Wells
Donned in blue rubber gloves, Wells explains that all the doors in the house inside will be left open – as well as both the front and rear door for ventilation – and that I must touch nothing.
It is not obligatory to wear a mask but it seems good manners as the estate agent is already wearing one and is holding out a disposable spare. ‘They are a lovely family and might normally have been around, but have popped out to walk the dog. It is just a precaution – we will not be too long.’
Perhaps surprisingly, the ‘delightful 19th Century cottage with a lovely garden and exceptional views’ fits the brochure description perfectly.
The home takes up 150 square metres of floor space – spacious for those who are fleeing a city shoebox – and it is just a ten-minute drive to the nearest commuter town of Bishop’s Stortford.
Wells believes the property market is looking up and, as long as people are not greedy and give honest descriptions, most homes should easily sell.
Not being able to poke about myself does not lessen the experience as the estate agent boldly opens fridge doors and cupboards on my behalf to show space inside – something I would have been bashful about. And practical details, such as having an off-grid LPG tank buried deep under the well-manicured garden, would have been totally missed.
The pandemic has certainly altered the priorities of what a homebuyer desires. The estate agent pauses for a moment as we stand in the back garden overlooking rolling hills of unspoilt countryside. Following the claustrophobia of Covid-19, a sense of freedom is now a key part of selling.
There is no doubt that house hunting is no longer the often fun experience it once was – and time wasters should no longer apply if they are only interested in a window shopping expedition.
But having finally mastered the art of an elbow bump in coordinated unison as we say our farewells, Wells is delighted to announce the property market is now back open for business.
Despite my initial reservations, the experience has been far more straightforward and rewarding than expected. And perhaps most important of all, it was also reassuringly safe for everyone involved.
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