We continue our series of hot topics in family law in a COVID-19 climate. Manders Law Managing Partner, Mary-Ann Wright, speaks to Louise Harrison MRICS FAAV Director at Savills, on the pressing questions that clients want answered in relation to all matters property, specifically moving house and moving on, in the context of family law proceedings and the current crisis. If you are currently engaged in proceedings, or are contemplating proceedings at this challenging time, the information and practical tips below will be of relevance to you.
About the interviewee
Louise Harrison MRICS FAAV specialises in the sale and purchase of high value rural property across the UK, she is a Director at Savills and also oversees their dedicated equestrian team. Savills is a multidisciplinary firm, with specialists across a wide range of property types.
Clients currently engaged in family law proceedings, or those contemplating embarking upon them, are understandably worried about their ability to value, sell and buy properties in order to rehouse in the current climate. What sort of market are we currently seeing across the UK?
It’s no surprise that we are seeing very low levels of transactions up and down the country, in what would traditionally be a busy period for the housing market. Social distancing and self-isolation rules have inhibited the practicalities of buying and selling. However, evidence, both from our agents operating across the UK and the viewing numbers on our online property portal, suggests that many people are simply delaying a move, until after the lockdown. Visits to our website have now reverted to pre-lockdown levels, which is a good sign.
Can people move house at the moment? Some family law clients will be subject to Court orders requiring a sale of the property and others may simply wish to agree to sell with the consent of the other party in order to more sensibly deal with their case.
Our clients fall into two categories. Discretionary movers – those who want to move when the time and circumstances are right; and critical movers – those who are having to move through life circumstances such as downsizing following death or divorce, a growing family or a pressing need to be near work or relatives. If your home is not yet on the market, current advice, for the majority of discretionary movers, will be to press pause and take time to make plans in the background. If you’re in the latter category, then the government is supportive of the industry, recognising its part in sustaining the economy and driving the production and delivery of other goods and services, and that a suitable home to live in is an essential requirement. Solicitors and agents have been creative in coming up with some effective solutions to allow more critical moves to happen, while bearing in mind all government guidance.
The key to all of this is tolerance, flexibility and good communication with your solicitor, mortgage broker and estate agent.
So, for clients who are buyers and looking to find a new home, is there something they can do now?
There certainly is. The savills.co.uk website shows an array of properties with images and often videos too. Buyers can phone or book a virtual appointment, or just to get in touch to ask questions about a property or an area. Some sellers, whose properties are not yet on the market, are holding back for when lockdown restrictions are lifted, and as a potential buyer it is certainly worth phoning local agents to find out what they have coming up and make sure you’re top of the list to view new properties when sanctions allow. We have started to feature new properties with the information we have under “coming soon”. Also, if there isn’t already a virtual tour, the agent may be able to arrange some footage via a property’s owner. With the reduction in the bank base rate, mortgage rates are very low at present so it’s a good time to speak to a broker and get a mortgage offer in principle. You can also line up a solicitor to carry out the due diligence and conveyancing when you do find your home.
What are the valuation options for those clients who have a house that is not yet on the market but want to sell it this year, can they find out what the value is?
While current lockdown restrictions are in place, estate agents are not able to assess the value of your property in person but technology can help and all is definitely not lost!
In much the same way as agents are conducting virtual viewings, we are also carrying out virtual valuations. It’s important to emphasise that these are provided as part of our estate agency role and they should not be confused with a valuation for lending purposes, for example. Neither do they replace a face-to-face market appraisal, which will still need to happen when conditions allow.
But what they do give is a head start – an indication of price if you were to sell – as well providing an opportunity for advice and to discuss the local market.
We can set up a video conference call with the seller, who will need to show the agent all of the rooms, the exterior of the house, and the outside spaces and also highlight any special features, just as they would in more normal circumstances. When restrictions are lifted, a firm marketing guide price will be provided by the agent after visiting the property. Until then, future sellers can at least start to contemplate plans, armed with a little more information at their disposal.
Is there anything else that clients can do to prepare their property for sale?
Yes indeed- there are a number of important steps that can be taken now, which can help speed up the process when you are able to market your property.
- Appointing a solicitor – most solicitors are working, so you can speak to them to discuss the process and costs involved. They will also have some paperwork such as Enquiries Forms and Fixtures and Fittings forms that you can fill out now.
- Collating important documentation – use this time to gather instruction manuals, copies of planning permissions, listed building consent, building regulation sign off, certificates and guarantees, etc.
- Boundaries – for those with gardens and larger amounts of land, make sure your boundaries are well defined and undergrowth cut back, which makes it easier for buyers and their advisers to clearly see the boundaries.
- Gardens and first impressions – it might not be possible during the current time due to a lack of materials, but where possible, keeping the garden tidy, adding colour and ensuring edges, gravel, paths etc are all topped up and looking at their best will help.
- Take photographs and consider virtual viewings – we are helping clients to take their own photographs as well as property videos and arranging virtual viewing tours.
- Research – I always think the history of a property is interesting and buyers can find this helpful too. If you have time, you could write up the history of your property or interesting information, whether it’s about the garden design or the kitchen and appliances. It will all save time later and help the agent with buyer’s questions.
If a property is already listed – should it be taken off the market?
Our advice is to keep your property on the market. At this stage it is about building up a pipeline of potential buyers and we are still receiving offers, although the legal process may be a little more drawn out.
We have agreed a surprisingly high number of sales off the back of virtual viewings where a professional video is already available, or where vendors have recorded their own footage. We have also organised live video streaming for our clients, involving buyer, seller and an agent so that we can talk the potential purchaser through a tour of the property, answering questions along the way. In our experience a continuous dialogue between all parties almost always leads to an agreed strategy for moving matters forward.
How should a client decide on a moving date if we don’t know when freedom of movement will resume?
You should not feel concerned about progressing to exchange with a long completion date that could then be brought forward by mutual consent. While there has been a temporary pause to registering transactions in Scotland, new legislation will allow this to be done electronically and sales to progress.
However, even if you set a date to move, it is unlikely that removal companies will be able to help, so you may need to agree an extension. In other cases, we have seen properties complete where the outgoing occupant is permitted to remain in situ under licence until the situation becomes clearer, but only where there is a proper legal agreement in place. It is vital that you speak to your agent and your solicitor to understand what potential issues there may be in your particular circumstances.
Some clients own buy to let properties. Should they be worried about a let property?
In many if not most cases, the COVID-19 outbreak will not affect tenants’ ability to pay rent, tenants’ rent is still due, and the government is advising tenants to continue to pay their rent. If a tenant has contacted you with concerns about paying their rent then open communication and agreeing a sensible way forward is the best approach. If you want further advice on this, an agent can help agree a payment plan with your tenant. Landlords’ repair obligations have not changed but there is government advice surrounding what repairs can be carried out during lockdown. The government has also introduced a package of measures including payment holidays for landlords with buy-to-let mortgages, for up to three months, on the understanding that the benefit is to be passed on to the tenant. The government has also announced that it will suspend the eviction process, with no new possession proceedings to commence during the crisis, with emergency legislation to be taken forward so that landlords will not be able to start proceedings to evict tenants for a three-month period.
There is never a ‘one size fits all’ solution, flexibility and understanding will help all parties weather the pandemic with as few financial losses as possible, to ensure a steady return to normality and eventually a full recovery.
Some clients are reporting that they cannot get a mortgage valuation. What is your experience?
Lenders are utilising alternative methods to value a property such as automated valuations (AVMs), desktop valuations and remote valuations. Changes are being made on a day-to-day basis.
Lenders are likely to have strict parameters, such as transaction types, property values, property types and loan-to-values. I am in regular contact with a broker who has offered to help anyone who is looking to find a mortgage, or who is struggling with their mortgage offer as a result of the pandemic.
If you have a mortgage offer but are worried that it is going to expire – what can you do?
Many lenders have agreed to a three-month extension of mortgage offers. Unfortunately, there is not a blanket response to this, with some lenders offering shorter periods, particularly the specialist lenders. You will have to speak to your lender to find out which camp it falls into.
For an initial FREE consultation on any aspect of family law, call Manders Law on 01245 895 105 or email us here
Note: this blog is intended to give an overview (rather than comprehensive guidance and advice) on your legal position, property sale or purchase options. It is not an endorsement of any agent, service or product and is provided for information only.