People will tell you that when it comes to life’s most stressful events moving to a new house is up there in the top five. The best-known scale, which is now pretty old, is the Social Readjustment Rating Scale published in 1967 and moving does not appear on it at all. It doesn’t show up near the top of any other similar scales either. Moving may not, in theory, be terribly stressful, but try telling that to someone who's currently trying to do it!
If securing a property and moving is not, in reality, the pain it is generally perceived as, buying a place in the autumn of 2020 is certainly no picnic. At the time of writing, a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions seem to have whipped up the property market and, according to the Guardian, created a record high in asking prices.
How easy is it to move?
Although the whole of the property market seems to be doing well, from the title of this piece, you’ll probably guess that I’m referring specifically to the trend labelled by Rightmove as ‘the race for space.’ This is the current phenomena of urban dwellers selling up and buying 4/5-bedroom rural properties, preferably with a few acres of land, all in the £600,000 + or ‘top of the ladder’ category.
My partner and I sold our property after just a couple of days on the market, for the asking price, in June. That's when things got tough. Since then, we have been trying to buy the very thing I described in the last sentence of the previous paragraph. But for horrific surveys on two properties we'd had offers accepted on, we would have moved by now. While I don’t just want to talk about myself, I hope that my experiences might prove useful for anyone thinking about doing something similar.
So, what are the conditions that have set this scramble off?
- Covid-19. Wealthy urban populations have always fled the cities during plagues and what is happening today mirrors that to a degree.
- The Stamp Duty Holiday. As taxes go, this one’s the last straw and the sting in the tail all in one. Just when you thought it impossible to spend anymore, this one pops up. It makes people ask themselves ‘’if not now, when?’’
- Changes in work patterns. People can and do work from home now. ‘’I’m working from home,’’ and a wry grin usually meant the speaker considered they had a day’s unofficial holiday. These days it seems that people working from home are doing just that. Why do it in a small house?
- Extinction rebellion/lockdown. Last year was full of predictions of how we were approaching ‘tipping point’. In spring 2020, we sat at home watching air pollution fall, started seeing the stars again, and learning that wearing the same set of trackie bottoms and tee-shirt every day for three months is okay. This was an epiphany for many people, and now they don't want to go back. It seems that quality of life is preferable to just having ‘stuff’.
- With a weekend in Paris apparently going to involve a two-day wait in French immigration and a cavity search, where else are we going to go?
- ‘The Good Life’. Maybe it’s because we live on an island. Still, it seems that Britons are always dreaming about new starts- escape down under, escape to the chateau, escape the nine-to-five, escape to victory, escape to the country.
Unlike the popularity (or unpopularity depending on which side of the county line you’re from) of buying a second home, this is more of a migration, a proper upping of sticks. Chris Clifford, of estate agent Savills, said, ''The Truro office has recently registered 160 new buyers, two-thirds of which have been from out of the area, primarily from London and the Home Counties’’. The full horror of this will only become apparent when Cornish people realise they have to start eating kimchi, ube and plant-based proteins.
How many people are looking to move?
ThisisMoney.co.uk reported that in the UK in July 2020 there were 38% more people looking to change their homes than in the same period in 2019. It went on to say that a third of homes sold had offers from three or more buyers and that countrywide homes sold were achieving 98.6% of the asking price.
Great if you are a seller. Not so good if you are looking for somewhere, especially as estate agents have pulled out the phrases ‘guide price’, ‘offers in access of' and the dreaded 'best and final offer'. In my experience this month, I have seen two homes sell for £100,000 over the £650,000 asking price.
Where is the biggest demand?
The situation in the country hotspots, like The Cotswolds, the South-West, The Lake District, Suffolk and Norfolk, is becoming even more frenzied and now demand is strongly exceeding supply. I have seen a couple of places which since July have decided to sell their adjoining land as a separate lot. Agricultural land roughly sells for £10,000 per acre, often the cost of the adjoining plot will be three times this. I'm not whingeing (well, maybe a bit) and good luck to rural communities that are benefitting from this trend.
On the 31st of October, the Prime Minister announced another lockdown, tentatively until 2nd of December. An article on the BuyAssociation website quotes Housing Minister Robert Jenrick, who states, ''The housing market will remain open throughout this period." As a consequence, estate agents can continue their ''business as usual approach'' as can solicitors, lenders, and conveyancers. Removal firms can continue as usual, and tenants in the private sector can move to a new house.
Given this, there is no legal reason the latest lockdown will have a significant effect on the current boom. Indeed, some people, both buyers and sellers, are going to become uncomfortable and drop out of the process. I imagine that sellers or agents may try to reduce the number of viewings some properties are having (one place we saw had 40 viewings booked, another supposedly had 60) and that may not be a bad thing.
Another factor to consider is the time it takes to purchase a property. According to comparemymove.com, the average time, pre-COVID, was between 12 weeks and six months. Today sellers are keeping their properties on the market longer to get the best possible offer, and mortgage providers have to process more applications for funds, making the process even longer.
Nor is anyone certain (the default situation for everything these days) about whether the Stamp Duty Holiday will end in March or whether the end will be staggered to include properties bought during the ‘holiday’. If you are buying it is worth balancing the amount you would save on stamp duty against the price you have to pay in such a bullish market.
In early April 2022, we spoke to Leigh Reeves of Morton Reeves Estate Agents, who told us: "From an estate agents viewpoint Covid is very much a thing of the past! Don’t get me wrong we still encourage wearing masks at viewings and appointments and we also follow government guidelines for safe distancing and encourage the use of sanitiser.
"But from the point of view that the stamp duty holiday is now over and the mass exodus from major cities has significantly reduced it feels more like business as usual.
"The factors that impact the property market today are more aligned with rocketing utilities prices! petrol and diesel costs going through the roof, the impact of the Ukrainian crisis, increasing interest rates and high inflation rates!
"All of the above are minor worries to most purchasers but when you gather them all together those minor worries do become quite a substantial concern.
"As interest rates have now started to rise this will temper the marketplace and my crystal ball says that we will have a period of consolidation this year and that prices will increase at a far more subtle and manageable rate which will mean that the general public will stand more of a chance of actually seeing some properties before they are already sold!
"However please do remember that even in the darkest of days and the toughest of markets there are key areas in every major town, city and rural location where specialist purchasers will come out of the woodwork when the right property comes along. I know for a fact there are roads in Thorpe Saint Andrew where I live, that in any marketplace, even on the day back in 2008 where there were huge queues outside the Northern Rock building societies, if we had instructed a property on Hilly Plantation we would’ve had dozens of viewers!
"So we are expecting the market to step up now spring is here and prices to be more consistent moving forward. The greatest challenge we face is the limited stock on the marketplace. The stock levels have never really recovered after the 2008 financial crash and we are still running on only about 50% of the properties that were available then.
"Now that solicitors are not under enormous pressure to meet a stamp duty deadline they are able to run sales through in an average of 8 – 12 weeks, obviously there will be cases that take longer and less time, but we are working on those numbers."
Buying in the country in the time of COVID
If you are thinking about buying a place in the country, I hope that I've given you a small indication of what it is like. Selling is not too bad; buying’s not easy. By March, the situation could have reversed, and that will present yet another set of challenges. I believe that in the end, it will be worth it and 'if not now, when?'