Estate agents are busier than ever now that the housing market has suddenly started moving again. But is this a good time to buy or sell - and what are the longer-term prospects for house prices? STEPHEN LEWIS investigates

ESTATE Agents’ phones have been ringing off the hook for the last ten days.

For seven weeks, the housing market - like pretty much everything else - had been in lockdown. According to Government figures, more than 450,000 buyers and renters across the country had seen their[plans to move brought to a grinding halt. Most estate agents, meanwhile, had resigned themselves to not being able to resume work until June 1 at least, along with small retailers.

Then suddenly, on Tuesday last week, the government announced that house sales could begin again.

Despite Government warnings that things may need to be done differently, and strict new guidelines on how to arrange property viewings, it was as though a dam had burst.

"Things had been in a holding pattern," says Ben Hudson of estate agents Hudson Moody. "People had had seven weeks to re-evaluate where they were. And then suddenly, when we were told we could go ahead again, everybody was wanting to get started."

York Press:

Estate agent Ben Hudson

Paul Atkinson, who runs small York agency Bishops, said he arranged a host of viewings the very next day - ie on Wednesday last week. He sold a house the day after that. And he's been working around the clock ever since. "It has been incredibly busy," he says. "Lots of people were obviously frustrated. They were being patient, but just waiting for things to get moving."

How long the current levels of activity last is another question. "I think we are likely to get a flurry of activity because people have been stopped from doing anything," says James Naish of estate agents Naish. "Longer term it is a bit of an unknown, because the economy is not in great shape."

For now, though, it is all hands to the pumps.

Larger agencies admit that to a certain extent they were left scrambling to catch up by the suddenness of the announcement - many had staff on furlough who had to be recalled.

But they have adjusted quickly. James Naish says his company managed to arrange viewings last week despite having staff on furlough. "And now it is very much business as usual."

As you'd expect, viewings have to comply with strict rules on social distancing.

That means the owners have to be out of the property before potential buyers arrive to have a look around. All doors have to be left open in readiness, and the estate agent and viewers have to wear masks and gloves.

Paul Atkinson likes to go into a property first, to make sure everything is clean and ready. Viewers can look around the property, but it's very much a question of look but not touch, he says. "And I also make sure clients have hand sanitiser. If they haven't got any, I give some to them."

James Naish also likes to try to encourage potential buyers not to bring children in with them - they are less likely to stick to the guidelines.

Despite the restrictions, viewings are essential, Mr Naish says. Yes, it is possible to have a virtual look around a house. "But you're not going to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on a house without being able to look around."

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James Naish

The start of lockdown back in March, following that unprecedented statement by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on March 23, was almost as sudden as last week's announcement that estate agents and others involved in the housing business could get back to work.

It left many who were on the point of exchanging contracts or completing and moving scrambling to get everything done in double quick time.

James Naish remembers one case where customers were about to move in. They were part of a big chain - and when their removal firm suddenly said they wouldn't do the move because of lockdown, it threatened to disrupt the whole chain.

Eventually, he says, they managed to persuade two other removal firms who were moving other households in the chain to help out, and the whole thing was able to proceed. But it was touch and go.

In other cases, deals were simply put on hold.

Liam Nicoll had been within a couple of weeks of exchanging contracts to buy his first house when lockdown was announced, and spent a frustrating seven weeks wondering whether the deal would ever go ahead - though now things are looking promising again (see panel below).

In most cases, says Mr Naish, people who were contractually committed to a move were able to go ahead. There were a few deals that fell through at the last minute. "But fewer than I thought."

So what about the longer term prospects for the housing market? Will prices hold up? And is this a good time to buy or sell?

It is impossible to predict the future, says James Naish. "The economy is not in good shape. People are unsure." That said, while there have been a few reductions in asking price - mostly in cases where properties had already been on the market for quite a while before lockdown - in general things have picked up pretty much where they left off.

Paul Atkinson is optimistic. "Nobody can predict the future, but York is a very popular place to live," he says.

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Paul Atkinson

Ben Hudson broadly agrees. There is a shortage of housing in York, he points out. At the moment, his company is getting sales at pre-lockdown prices. Nobody can say for certain what will happen in future. But if house prices were to dip by 10 per cent or so, he believes people simply wouldn't sell, and would would hang onto to their property. In that case, the age old principles of supply and demand would come into force.

Mr Hudson simply doesn't believe the doom-mongers who predict a fall of 30-40 per cent in house prices. That has been predicted before following recessions, he says. "It won't happen. It never has."

Even if there is a small dip in prices, that won't bother people too much, he insists.

People these days are less likely to view a house as an investment. They are buying a home - a place where they and their family will live for many years. "So you're not taking a three month view, or a one-month view. You're buying a home, and you're taking a long term view."

On average, people live in a home for 12 years, he says. In 12 years time, he'd take a bet that we'll be looking back on 2020 and seeing it as nothing but a blip, like 1976...

‘Two weeks earlier and we’d have been able to move in!’

LIAM Nicoll and his partner were about to buy their first home together when lockdown happened.

The couple, who live in a 2-bed privately-rented flat in Holgate, had decided what they wanted, viewed almost 100 properties online, then visited six or seven.

They had settled on a two-bed semi-detached house in North Duffield near Skipwith, and their offer of £155,000 had been accepted. The house has a huge back garden, a conservatory, and the potential for extension, says Liam, 27. He and his girlfriend, who works at a York museum, had agreed they wouldn't get anything like it for the same money in York. "You'd be looking at a flat for that money," says Liam, the assistant manager at the O2 shop in Spurriergate.

York Press:

Liam Nicoll

He and his partner planned to commute in to York each day by bus. "We reckon it will be around a 30-40-minute journey," he says.

They had booked a survey, instructed solicitors, and were within a couple of weeks of exchanging contracts when lockdown happened.

The surveyor had to cancel, and there followed a worrying and hugely frustrating seven weeks. "If we'd been two weeks earlier in the process, we might have been able to move in," Liam says. Instead, they found themselves trapped in their small rented flat, which has no garden or outside space, Liam working from a makeshift office in the living room.

There was also the worry about whether the whole deal would fall through - and about the entirely separate concern that lockdown might cause a fall in house prices. Might their dream home turn out to be a bad investment?

It was a hugely stressful time, Liam admits. But once estate agents got the green light last week, he quickly received an email - and now things are very much back on track. The survey has been rebooked. "And we're hoping to be able to exchange contracts in July," he said.

And what about those concerns that house prices might fall? They plan to live in their new home for several years at least, he says - so a short-term fall in house prices wouldn't affect them. And in a few years time, when they're ready to move again - well, even if prices haven't gone up, then the price of the larger house they might be moving into would be lower, too...