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Homes sold in 15 minutes, what an estate agent saw through Covid

Buyers paying £100,000 over the asking price, knocking on doors unannounced and homes sold in 15 minutes. A year in the life of an estate agent working through Covid.

Words by: Nic Hopkirk

Senior Editor

‘It’s been a stressful year,’ says Michael Fenton, Director of East London agents Estates East. 

Demand for property in the areas he covers, Walthamstow, Leytonstone and Forest Gate, went through the roof after the first lockdown last year.

Estates East had to rethink their viewings strategy to cope with it, giving people just 15 minutes to make a decision on the most expensive thing they’re ever likely to buy. And the properties flew off the shelves. Within five days, all last and final bids were taken and they were sold.

‘I live in Essex and the standard thing here is that you go and view a property, go and view it for a second time, then you take your builder back or you might take your parents back to see it for a third time.

‘In East London you're just not afforded that amount of time. You go and see a property on a Saturday, offers generally come in on a Monday and by Thursday the sale is agreed.’

Michael Fenton, Director at Estates East

Viewings had to be limited to just 15 minutes

Sellers, reluctant to have dozens of people traipsing through their homes at the peak of the pandemic, were asking agents to limit the amount of viewings on their behalf.

‘We had some sellers saying 'Have you got anyone on your books who might want to buy my house without it going online? Do you know someone that's desperate for this kind of thing, where they would just do a one-off viewing and buy it?' 

So Estates East started setting up one-off open days and calling them ‘viewing events’. Each buyer was given a 15-minute slot in the property, with masks, sanitisers and gloves on offer - and around 20 people were allowed in during a four hour shift.

Keeping numbers so streamlined meant that buyers had to be vetted before they were even allowed the chance to view.

Before the pandemic, we would normally arrange 30-40 viewings over a day, but because we had to do them all over a four hour shift, we had to really prioritise the best 20 buyers, on the basis of how proceedable they were.’

And some buyers weren’t happy if they didn’t make the cut. ‘Some people were saying, 'That's ridiculous, I want to go and see it, I'll offer more than the asking price, I'll go and knock on the vendor's door. I'll just turn up!' 

‘Our members of staff had a list of people in the diary. And basically if your name wasn't on it, you weren't allowed in.’

Buyers had to be able to proceed with the purchase before they could view the property

So what makes a proceedable buyer? Basically someone who’s chain-free. 

‘A buyer who has sold their property or has a buyer in place would be someone we'd look to show, or any first-time or chain-free buyer,’ says Fenton. 

Being in a good financial position was essential too. 

‘We wanted to see mortgage agreements in principle to know that they could actually afford what they were going to look at and we were asking about deposits,’ says Fenton.

If the deposit was in savings and ready to go, that opened up doors. Tied up in an inherited house that’s yet to be sold? Not so much. 

‘We had to know that every person who was viewing the property could buy it,’ says Fenton. ‘They weren’t just there for a weekend of looking at people's houses.’

View properties for sale through Estates East

Three bed terraced house for sale in Walthamstow, available through Estates East

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Just 15 minutes to decide to buy a house?

‘You've got to remember that at the time of selling, the vendors had literally nowhere else to go. They couldn't go and sit in a pub or restaurant. So if you're a family of four with two young kids, where do you go for four to five hours? 

‘Especially in the winter, because if it's teaming down with rain, you can't exactly go and walk around the forest with your one and three-year-old for five hours.

‘We’d ask the vendors as much information as possible, like why they bought there, what the street and the neighbours are like, their favourite places to go out to eat and drink, which schools and nurseries are good… so that we could pass on as much as possible to the buyer.' 

Some buyers were selling up and renting first, to be in the best position

‘But you have to be quite careful with that. It's a good idea, in that it puts you in a better buying position, but if you sign up for a year's rent or six months’ rent and the market starts to increase, you can get left behind. 

‘If you sell your house at £500,000 and your budget's £600,000, then you move into a rental for six months and suddenly all the houses that were £600,000 are now £700,000, you can get left behind.'

‘People were paying well over the asking price for a few different reasons: firstly, you've got people that get excited in the bidding process, and secondly, you've got people that are a little bit desperate because they've been doing five or six open days every Saturday for the past month.

‘If they miss out on six properties, and then they go and see one and think, 'This is the one, I love it!' they'll pay what they need to pay to secure it.

‘And in those people's eyes, they've secured a house, they're going to live there for the next 15 years and they just sort of wear it.’

'The stamp duty holiday was a psychological enhancement in that yes, you're saving a bit of money, most people were saving between £10-15,000. But then if you're offering £30,000 to £50,000 over what the asking price is, it's a little bit... Well, it got people moving.' 

Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) is a tax paid by the buyer of a UK residential property. The stamp duty rate ranges from 0% to 12% of the purchase price, depending upon the value of the property bought, the purchase date and whether you are a multiple home owner. Anyone purchasing an ‘additional’ residential property will be charged a 3% surcharge on each of the threshold bands.

While the stamp duty holiday tapers off until 30 September 2021, the rates are:

  • 0% up to £250,000

  • 5% on the portion from £250,000 to £925,000

  • 10% on the portion from £925,000 to £1.5m

  • 12% on the portion above £1.5m

For existing homeowners, the rates will revert to:

  • 0% on the portion up to £125,000

  • 2% on the portion between £125,000 - £250,000

  • 5% on the portion between £250,000 - £925,000

  • 10% on the portion between £925,000 - £1.5m

  • 12% on any portion above £1.5m

Read our guide to find out more about stamp duty and how it's calculated.

There are exemptions available for first-time buyers beyond the current stamp duty holiday. 

They don’t have to pay stamp duty on the first £300,000 of a property, so long as the home doesn’t cost more than £500,000.

If you’re buying a second home, you pay a 3% stamp duty surcharge. So the rates are: 

  • 3% on the portion up to £125,000

  • 5% on the portion between £125,001 - £250,000

  • 8% on the portion between £250,001 - £925,000

  • 13% on the portion between £925,001 - £1.5m

  • 15% on any portion above £1.5m

It was stressful at times

It's understandable, people have got families and we're talking about a lot of money. But you did get people who were losing their minds a little bit because they had a six week deadline to get in before the holiday ended. 

'There were a lot of people making rash decisions and a lot of our job was trying to manage the people, more than the transactions themselves, advising buyers to sleep on it.

‘Let's say someone gets a survey done on your house and they offer a £5K reduction, because they found a few things in the survey. 

‘We had vendors saying 'Nope, I want to put it back on. I'll lose the house I'm buying and I'll miss the stamp duty holiday, because I'm not taking £5,000 off my asking price.

‘And you have to kind of say to them, ‘If you withdraw from the sale, you’ll lose the property you're buying, you won't then find another one in time for the stamp duty holiday, so that's an additional £15K that you're going to have to pay. 

‘And you might not get the same money for your house, because the buyer is buying it on the proviso that they're going to save on stamp duty as well. Are you going to think about that £5K in six months? Probably not.’

People really wanted homes with gardens and offices

‘Walthamstow is all Victorian terraces, so there was no way to get them through the house. But then if you’re paying a lease on an office in central London and that closes, £30K is probably less than what you would have been spending anyway.'

Now we’re coming to the end of the stamp duty holiday, things are changing

‘We’ve seen a change in the amount of people listing their houses for sale, so it’s quieter, but it’s always quieter in the summer. And so many people moved over the last year that most people who were thinking about doing it have already done it.

'But prices are still buoyant despite the holiday ending, because there's still the same amount of demand, just less supply.'

The pandemic has changed the way people will view properties

Will viewings be returning to normal again? Not for the foreseeable.

Estates East have realised that viewing events, limited to buyers who are in the best possible position to move forward, are the future.

‘People are generally having a better experience because they're not rubbing shoulders with two or three other couples when they're looking around the houses. They get their own time in the property and we get more of a chance to speak to them on a one-to-one basis.

‘And why would you show properties to people who aren't in a proceedable position? I don't think that should be the case just in Covid. That will be something we look to do for the foreseeable.’ 

Find your local estate agent through My Home.

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