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It’s a sunny day in Wimbledon, south London, during the coronavirus lockdown in early May. An estate agent’s smartphone camera pans across a terraced house on a tree-lined street. A smiling man opens the door — under his head a tagline reads “Cribs With Gregory”. What immediately follows is in equal measures bizarre and entertaining. As he shows the viewer around his “crib”, Gregory jumps in slow motion onto a bed to the opening music of 2010 hit ‘Like a G-6’. At one point CGI butterflies appear to come out of his head and sparkles randomly shoot out of parts of the house. For £500,000, you could move into this two-bedroom ground floor maisonette.
This type of video tour has become the go-to attempt from estate agents to promote properties to people who are interested in buying or renting during the lockdown. Some are shaky vertical Blair Witch-esque disasters. Others show estate agents apparently auditioning for Location, Location, Location , or complete silence followed by heavy breathing. One particularly depressing viewing in Harrow included an estate agent opening the kitchen cupboard of a miniscule bedsit to reveal a desolate pot noodle and a can of Oust. Another overly honest estate agent in Hatfield admitted that the kitchen drawer in a rental property was broken — not that anyone watching the video would have noticed.
Virtual viewings aren’t new. But they have become part of the experience of thousands of people who have restarted their search to find somewhere to live as lockdown rules were lifted last month. People looking are told it’s buyers’ market, mainly because it’s limited to those daring enough to venture out and risk contagion to look at properties. After months of lockdown, sellers or landlords whose properties have been on the market since before lockdown, or who have seen deals fall through, are eager to move ahead. They have a small window of opportunity, if the experts that are wary about the buoyancy of the property market are right. Housing experts have forecasted UK-wide price falls of up to 13 per cent as the property market struggles to rebuild during the coronavirus crisis. And so sellers and landlords are turning to virtual tours to shorten the time between initial interest and offer on the table. Sales of Matterport’s 3D cameras, which allow properties to be shown in 360 degrees, have jumped 630 per cent in March, according to a report by the Financial Times . But the majority of property videos are still shot on a trusty smartphone.
Mark Hayward, chief executive of NAEA Propertymark, the UK’s professional body for estate agents, says that the surge in virtual viewings was buoyed in some part by people who had become “aggressive” when they were told they couldn’t view properties during lockdown. “It at least lets people make an initial judgement of the property rather than have to physically visit the property and walk around, spending a lot of time,” he explains. “If they’d seen what they can see on a virtual viewing, they probably wouldn’t have bothered.” But that doesn’t mean that estate agents can give their properties a flattering filter and make viewings into Hollywood productions. Virtual viewings should show a home “warts and all”, he says.
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Despite a rise in popularity, video tours are far from becoming the norm. One London estate agent says that their clients did not want virtual viewings of their homes because they preferred people to go and view them in person. By which they meant, virtual viewings are so unpopular with some sellers that they preferred the alternative of people taking public transport, putting masks, gloves and shoe coverings on and traipsing through their personal spaces until they strike a deal.
But going to view properties in person during lockdown is a bizarre experience. Depending on the estate agent (and the property), you can either end up wearing enough home-sourced PPE kit to feel like you’re on a hospital ward, or standing in close quarters with a complete stranger who is not even wearing a mask.
That lack of consistency comes with substantial risks. Hayward says he has warned estate agents that if they don’t comply with minimum safety standards, the entire sector could be put on lockdown again. “I have heard anecdotally that there are some who seem to be ignoring the guidelines. The reopening of the market is temporary. If a sector is abusing the guidance, the government could revert and say I’m sorry, it’s no longer open for business.”
In reality, each estate agent has a different strategy. One agent that showed me a two bedroom flat in Putney insisted that masks were not necessary because no one was living there at the time. Another in Twickenham hung a mask around their neck, while a third half-heartedly blamed his hay fever for tearing off his mask to repeatedly sneeze. All of them agree: this situation is very, very strange.
Christina Taylor, 28, owns a dance school in Old Trafford, Manchester. Since the crisis, she decided to use her savings to branch out and start another venture, buying properties to renovate to boost her income. She shunned video viewings because she says video can’t show the level of work that each prospective property needs. But when Taylor turned up at several viewings in the past couple of weeks, she says the three estate agents she booked appointments with refused to go into the properties with her.
“I found it a bit weird. None of them came in with me, they said due to social distancing I had to go in by myself,” she explains. “All three were on their phone or sat in their car and had absolutely no interest. Two I had to actively go and find, and they were sitting on the phone in their cars. It’s an excuse for them to do what they want.”
Taylor can’t understand why estate agents are not overcompensating now to make sure that they build up a returning customer base once the crisis is over. “Every single time it’s felt so lazy, and I felt very disregarded,” she says. “If you don’t feel like a valued customer, you’re not going to go back.”
On the other side of the UK, one estate agent is following the guidelines despite it impacting her business. Beth Robinson, director at Belfast-based estate agency Templeton Robinson, has been working non-stop since lockdown rules were lifted. An average 20-minute viewing has turned into a 40-minute endeavour to make sure that all of the viewing rules are obeyed, she explains.
“I get there first, open up all the doors, everything propped open, I offer them the spray, I’ve got masks and gloves if they want them. I stay distanced in the background and away they go. I am getting bids, offers and houses agreed for sale,” she says. “You have to follow the guidelines and be very vigilant and strict.”
Robinson has a backlog of about two months in what would have been the busiest time of the year for her business in April, May and June. She believes that the entire viewings situation has been “badly handled” by estate agents and the government alike. “We have been left to muddle through,” she says.
As estate agents decide their own rules on what to wear and how to act during viewings, there are no real regulations on what to do if a property is occupied when someone turns up for a viewing either. One London-based renter shared a message from their landlord, which claimed that in-person appointments are only allowed if it’s someone’s second viewing. “No browsers or time wasters,” the landlord says. “They also have to have financial checks before a viewing, this is all to keep viewing numbers to an absolute minimum which I am very aware is an absolute priority as u [sic] are living at the flat.” Tenants and sellers are routinely asked to step out of their properties or stay in the garden (if they have one) while viewings take place. Few estate agents expect to have to disinfect surfaces and door handles on their way out.
Laura Sears, a PR consultant, is looking for her first property near the border of London and Essex. She didn’t find virtual viewings very useful — many of the properties she was interested in simply had a slideshow of still images to music, she says. Her in-person viewings showed that sometimes, it’s only the buyer who sticks to the rules. “In one property it was the vendor who showed me around,” she says. “She didn’t ask me to put on a mask or take my shoes off or anything. They had a little daughter who couldn’t have been older than eight months, and suddenly here’s this stranger walking in the house with a face mask on. She was so creeped out.”
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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