Coronavirus: government reveals new guidelines on moving house

Coronavirus: government reveals new guidelines on moving house

By Tamsin Kelly

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The government has issued new guidance for those buying, selling and renting a new home during the coronavirus lockdown.

Buyerssellers, estate agentsand new homes developershave been given new advice from the government about moving home while the UK is in lockdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Buyers who are due to move into an empty property are being advised to go ahead, but others have been told to delay their transaction.

The government stressed that while there was no need to pull out of a purchase, people must currently stay at home to help prevent coronavirus from spreading.

It has called on everyone involved in home moving to adapt and be flexible.

Mortgage support

Banks and building societies have agreed to extend mortgage offers where completions have to be delayed as a safety precaution.

Grainne Gilmore, head of research at Zoopla, commented: "The clarity provided by the government announcement is welcome for buyers, sellers and agents who are in the middle of the sales process.

"Agents continue to support their buyers and vendors remotely. But, now that there is some leeway on mortgage offers - with a three month extension from lenders - this will enable some buyers to press pause, and to re-start their purchase once the current social distancing rules are relaxed." 

Can I still move home?

If the property you are moving into is empty, you are being advised to continue with your transaction.

But if your new home is currently occupied, the government is asking everyone involved in the transaction to do everything they can to agree an alternative date to move when the current social distancing measures are no longer in place.

The government has granted new emergency enforcement powers to the police to respond to coronavirus, but there is an exemption for 'critical' home moves when a new date cannot be agreed.

Even so, if someone in the chain has symptoms of the virus or is self-isolating, the move should be put on hold.

The lawyer's view

Amy Hazleton, senior paralegal in the new homes team at law firm Blake Morgan, said: "In accordance with the UK government guidelines we are encouraging all parties to stay indoors but this does not mean we should not attempt to find ways to adapt to the new normal.

"Lawyers are working to find ways to keep the property sector moving forward by agreeing delay clauses and negotiating mutually-acceptable completion dates for everyone involved.

"By working towards the shared goal of keeping our client's dreams of a new home alive, while maintaining the flexibility needed at this difficult time, we can ensure that the housing market does not come to a halt."

"We are moving to our empty new house by car"

Moving house during the coronavirus pandemic

Gemma Antikides went ahead with her family's moving-in day during the coronavirus pandemic. Gemma, 37, who runs a support community for mothers in business, and her husband Tiko, 37, a sales director, moved to their new home in Surbiton with their two children, aged three and seven.

"Moving felt like the right decision for us. We'd been living in a rented home for two years.

"We thought the lockdown would happen, so the week before the announcement the removal company took most of our furniture and belongings to our new house, while we self-isolated ourselves in one room. We spent a week sleeping on blow-up mattresses with no wifi, so it was lovely to finally be in our own beds in our new house. 

"We bought a four-bedroom house five minutes drive away. We'd completed a month before and were having building work done. The day the lockdown was announced, thankfully the bathroom was finished. Now there is nothing structurally urgent to do and the building team had to be pulled off, but we moved into a bit of a building site.

"We did the move ourselves -  five or six car journeys. Now we've got lockdown time to unpack and organise ourselves."

What does it mean if you're buying?

You should only consider going ahead with your move in the immediate term if you have already exchanged contracts. 

If you have not yet exchanged contracts, the government are advising you to delay doing so.

Banks and building societies have agreed to extend mortgage offers for up to an additional three months to enable customers to move at a later date without losing the deal they had lined up.

If your circumstances change during this period or the terms of the house purchase alter significantly, meaning that continuing with the mortgage would put you into financial hardship, lenders have pledged to work with you to manage your finances as a matter of urgency.

What it means if you are selling?

Putting your property on the market will be more challenging than usual, as you are not allowed to have visitors to your home.

As a result, you will not be able to have estate agents come to take photos or carry out a physical market appraisal, while Energy Performance Certificate assessors are also not allowed to visit you.

If your home is already on the market, you can continue to advertise it for sale, but people cannot come to physically view your property.

Importantly, you are still allowed to accept offers on your property during the current period.

In fact, the number of sales agreed between March 16 and March 22 were only 4% lower than a year earlier.

"Our move is on hold"

Ellie Grout: buying a house during coronavirus

Ellie Grout, from Filton, Bristol, put in an offer on a new house before the UK lockdown. Ellie, 29, a self-employed English tutor and workshop leader, lives with her boyfriend Ricky, 31, a postman, in the childhood home she bought from her parents six years ago.

"We're in limbo. Our offer was agreed in principle a few days before the lockdown, but we have no idea if the sale will go through now or what the timings will be.

"We live in a small three-bedroom home, where you have to do the sideways shuffle round the bed. The house we've put an offer in for is a much bigger three-bed with a dining room I can use as a home office. There's also space to do a loft extension and single-storey kitchen extension.

"Our plan was to rent out our current home and we had tenants lined up for early May. But everything is now very much on hold."

How can your selling agent help you?

Estate agents are swiftly adapting to the changes brought about by the pandemic, including how they can still help you find a buyer.

If you had already instructed an agent before the current measures came into force, they can continue to advertise your property, with many agents conducting virtual viewings using video tours.

Your selling agent can also help if you have exchanged contracts and the property you are buying is occupied, by working with the selling agent of your new home to help agree new completion and moving dates.

The government has asked estate agents to prioritise support for anyone with symptoms, or who is self-isolating or shielding from the virus, as well as those they are in a chain with.

What steps will your agent be taking?

Estate agents and letting agents are not classed as essential services, so they are not allowed to open their branches or visit clients’ homes during this period.

They are, however, enabling staff to work from home so they can support existing clients and advise prospective clients.

The government has also said that agents can continue to progress sales where they can, while still following the guidance to stay at home and away from other people.

What about other service providers?

Conveyancers should continue to support the sale of properties that are not occupied, while helping clients of properties that are occupied to change their completion and moving dates.

They should advise clients not to exchange contracts on properties that are not vacant, unless explicit provisions have been made for the current situation.

As with estate agents, they should prioritise helping clients with symptoms, those who are self-isolating or shielding from the virus, or people who are in a chain with others who fall into this category.

Meanwhile, surveyors have been told not to carry out any non-urgent surveys in properties that are occupied, and not to do any work in homes where someone has symptoms of coronavirus.

Urgent surveys can still be carried out on empty properties or those where the inhabitants are out, as long as guidance on social distancing and handwashing is followed. Work can also be done online where possible. 

Removal firms have been asked to honour existing commitments where the move can be done safely and the date cannot be changed.

How long is this expected to last?

The current stay-at-home measures will remain in place for three weeks, after which they will be reassessed.

There is no guarantee that they will be relaxed after this period.

I am partway through buying a new home. Can I pull out?

Your offer for a property becomes legally binding once the exchange of contracts has taken place.

At this point, an exchange deposit is also paid, typically of around 10% of the property’s value.

While you could still withdraw your offer for a property after exchanging contracts, you would lose your 10% deposit, and you could be potentially be left open to legal action from the seller for additional compensation

The above does not apply to Scotland, which has a different system for property purchases.

Top 3 takeaways

1. Homebuyers and renters have been urged to put moving plans on hold while the UK is in lockdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

2. Buyers who are due to move into an empty property are allowed to go ahead, but others have been told to delay their transaction.

3. Banks and building societies have agreed to extend mortgage offers where completions have to be delayed to priorities safety.

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