Is Remote Working the Future of Conveyancing?

Are you feeling a sense of Déjà vu yet? 

As England returns to a nationwide lockdown, many of us are returning to our hastily prepared desks in the spare room and heading back in time to March 2020. But, rather than a temporary inconvenience, is our current situation a foretaste of what’s to come? Could remote working be the future of conveyancing?

The Case for Remote Working 

Let’s start by asking another question. How much of the conveyancing process really needs to be conducted in an office? 

Since midway through the last decade, the industry has been slowly – and at times painfully – been moving towards a digital future. On the lawyers’ side, the first electronic mortgage was completed back in 2018. And, while digital mortgages aren’t due to become compulsory anytime soon, it’s not hard to imagine them being used more widely in the future.

What’s more, despite concerns about compliance, electronic signatures are well on the way to being commonly used. Transfers of land and charges must be made by deed. In other words, they need to be signed, witnessed and attested. So, naturally, many conveyancers worry about how they can be compliant with the legal requirements for execution remotely. 

However, this hurdle can be cleared using the government’s ‘Verify’ service – an online application that checks identity. It’s the service you used if you’ve ever applied for a driving licence or passport online. It works by an individual signing up to an account with a government identity provider before having their identity verified against credit agency or mobile phone provider data, a process that takes 5-10 minutes. 

Services like Verify remove the need for conveyancers to meet clients and witnesses in person, without the compliance risk this would usually entail. 

But it’s not just conveyancers who are benefitting from new technology. The Land Registry began its process of digitising and centralising the LLC1 back in 2018. And, although the process has been fraught with difficulty, eventually, search agents will be able to access instantaneously LLC data online – removing at least some of the need to visit local authorities in person. 

What Needs to Happen to Get Us There? 

So, if much of the infrastructure for remote conveyancing is already there, why is the industry much the same in 2020 as it was in 2010? Well, unfortunately, there are still a few vital missing pieces.

Digitise the CON29 

This one’s pretty glaring. From a search agent’s perspective getting LLC1 data digitally from the Land Registry while still having to source CON29 data from a local authority, actually makes the process more difficult. Admittedly, some councils offer the CON29 digitally, but many more don’t. For search agents to work from home permanently, all data needs to be accessible digitally and preferably from one central source. 

Improve Trust 

For all its strengths, the legal sector has never been one for rapid innovation or embracing change quickly. So while digitised processes like electronic mortgages and signatures are now a reality, until there is widespread trust in them they’ll never be fully adopted. More needs to be done to demonstrate to the industry as a whole that tools like Verify are not only safe and reliable but also convenient.

Alongside this, there’s an urgent need for government legislation to clarify the legality of many of these tools. Doing so would be a major step towards the whole industry embracing remote working.

More Technology

Although progress has been made, the tools required for real digital conveyancing are still in their infancy. If one of the greatest concerns about electronic conveyancing is security, then it stands to reason that’s it’s this area which will need to see the most rapid developments. We’ll need tools like biometric or retinal scanning and a whole host of anti-fraud measures if electronic conveyancing is to take off. 

Get Buyers Onside  

In much the same way as the legal industry, buyers will need to fully trust the process before they use it. After all, no one wants to risk the biggest investment of their life on processes and technology that’s still in its beta phase.

 It’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. Conveyancers can’t iron out the wrinkles in digital processes without real transactions to test them on, but buyers won’t use the technology until they’re confident it’s safe. As with conveyancers, the key to building confidence among buyers is a strong, clear signal from the government, most likely in the form of legislation or a campaign.

Meeting these requirements could take a couple of years or a decade. Fully digital conveyancing is probably inevitable, but it’s a question of appetite for change – does the industry have it? And will the government stand behind new technology to build trust? If not, could COVID-19 and the sudden need to do things differently provide the catalyst? 

We’re about to find out. 

Will the Housing Market’s V-shaped Recovery Last?

We’ve talked a lot recently about the UK housing market’s seemingly miraculous immunity to COVID-19. But in case you’re unfamiliar with what’s going on, the story is as follows. Unlike the wider economy, which is currently in the throes of a potential double-dip recession, the housing market is flourishing. 

Data from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) shows buyer enquiries recovering strongly in July which, due to transaction times, is positively influencing sale prices in September and early October. Meanwhile, Google search data reveals that as recently as early September, buyer interest remains well above pre-pandemic levels. 

This has led many commentators, including the Bank of England, to label the phenomenon a ‘V-shaped’ recovery. But can the recovery last? Or are will the housing market eventually succumb in the same way the labour market and wider economy has? Let’s look at the case for continuing recovery and the case against.   


Perhaps the best indicator that the recovery could be here to stay is that current activity isn’t being driven by backlogs. It was easy to put the initial bounce in activity we saw in the summer down to the pile-up of incomplete transactions from earlier in the year. However, even the most sluggish of transactions in the backlog would have completed by early August. After all, the housing market reopened in May. 

Yet, the housing market continues to surprise. The building society, Nationwide, reports that UK house prices hit an all-time high in August. What’s more, Zoopla announced that the number of sales agreed in August were 76% above their five-year average. This, coupled with the Google search data we mentioned earlier, appears to point to a positive outlook for the rest of the year. 

There could be several things driving these impressive numbers. It could be lockdown-induced itchy feet from buyers in smaller properties. Or maybe it’s down to middle-class urbanites taking the chance to move out of major cities as the switch to remote working continues (as we covered recently ). Perhaps it’s simply a case of those with capital seeking to invest in property – always seen as a safe option in a downturn. 

Or maybe, just maybe, we’re headed for a fall. 


Sadly, it’s time for some gloom. We know you’ve probably had enough to last a lifetime but, for the sake of balance, we need to cover why the V-shaped recovery could turn out to be a W.

In a w-shaped scenario, the peaks we’ve seen throughout the summer begin to gradually decline as we hit mid-to-late autumn. The theory goes like this. As pent-up demand for housing begins to subside, the housing market will begin to rely on ‘underlying’ demand. Or, to put it another way, the demand that isn’t being driven by delayed existing transactions from earlier in the year. 

Most commentators think this underlying demand remains weak. Add this to conditions that include a weakened economy, tight credit conditions, mortgage lenders nervous about the future, and the end of stamp duty, and you have all the conditions for price stagnation in 2021. And this is before we even consider the dreaded ‘B-word’ and its potential effects on the housing market. 

Some housing market experts have been predicting this for a while. JLL, the American commercial real estate services company, has long suggested that the UK could see an 8% drop in house prices by the end of 2020. Business management consultants, Capital Economics, go even further – predicting a year of stagnation in 2021. 

Nevertheless, there is an upside to all this. The more eagle-eyed among you may have realised that for market activity to form a W, we need an upward trajectory once the decline and/or stagnation ends. 

If we zoom out for a moment and look at the bigger picture, one of the longer-term effects of the COVID-19 has been to transform the way we all think of the workplace. It’s also very likely that these changes will be permanent. In short, many of us are going to be working from home (at least some of the time) from now on. 

As we’ve already seen on a smaller scale with wantaway Londoners, this has the potential to trigger a structural increase in housing demand. Many people will be looking at the four walls they’ve spent much of the last year within and decide it’s time for a change – whether that’s buying a first home, moving out of the city or just moving somewhere a little bigger.

Of course, for this to really take off, confidence in the economy, labour market and housing will have to return. This will take time, and could mean a tough year for conveyancers, but the green shoots of a potential recovery are already there.

So, conveyancers take heart. A W might not be quite as promising as V, and things might have to get worse before they get better, but both lead to a recovery in the end. 

Could London See an Exodus of Homebuyers?

A recent poll conducted by the London Assembly Housing Committee reveals that one in seven Londoners (14%) want to leave due to the COVID-19 crisis. Could we see an exodus of buyers to the home counties and beyond? And, if so, what does this mean for house prices and the market?

Let’s picture a scenario. 

It’s a normal Monday afternoon, sometime in 2026. You’re heading home from the office after a long day. A COVID-19 vaccine was found a couple of years back so, although you’ve never returned to the office fulltime, you head in once or twice a week.

On your way into the station, you pick up a copy of The Evening Standard. The front page screams ‘London property prices fall for the fourth year in a row’. You’re headed back to your newly purchased home in one of London’s trendier boroughs, let’s say Hackney or Southwark.

Just a few years ago, purchasing a house in this part of town was an improbable dream for all but the wealthy and those fortunate enough to have inherited money. But that’s all changed. 

Your area is now full of new homeowners. Young professionals. Families. Lifelong Londoners. The bad old days of ordinary Londoners being forced into decades of precarious renting have passed. The city is one again a place where people can settle and put down roots.

As a result, local communities are thriving. Your neighbours recognise you on sight. People smile at you in the street. 

Commentators put London’s transformation down to two things. First, the exodus of middle-class professionals to Kent, Hampshire, Essex and beyond in the wake of COVID-19. Second, the falling demand for housing this caused and the corresponding drop in prices, making housing more affordable for those that stayed. 

Sounds fanciful, right? However, if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that what seemed impossible a decade ago is today’s reality. So, could it happen?

The Case for Falling Prices 

The case for falling house prices is a simple one. The COVID-19 crisis has caused the UK economy to contract 20.4% in the second quarter of 2020. This followed a 2.2% contraction in the first quarter. And, where the economy leads, the housing market isn’t far behind. 

JLL, the corporate real estate services company, has predicted an 8% fall in property prices for 2020. Meanwhile, according to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) London house prices continued trending downwards, even during the easing of lockdown measures between July and September. This makes London the only region across the UK to still experience price falls. 

At the same time, there’s been a near-universal shift to remote working in white-collar jobs. This has led to many middle-class professionals (who make up a large proportion of London’s homebuyers) considering whether they need to live in London at all. After all, why live in London when you could do your job anywhere and get considerably more for your money elsewhere?

The number of job seekers wanting to leave the capital more than doubled in June,  according to the Escape the City careers advisory service. This has been mirrored by a doubling in the number of buyers registering outside of the capital throughout the summer. 

The theory goes that economic contraction and an exodus of the middle classes work in tandem to create a fall in demand for houses, particularly at the lower end of the market. In turn, this leads to a drop in house prices, making housing more affordable for first-time buyers. Eventually, you end up with a scenario like the one we explored earlier.

It’s a crude theory, but certainly not impossible. What about the case against? 

The Case Against

Although the idea of London becoming an affordable city to live in might be a nice one, it’s also very possible this lull in growth is temporary. 

Many analysts are predicting a strong recovery in the London housing market as early as 2021. Estate agents, Knight Frank, forecasts that London house prices will jump 6% next year. Meanwhile, their competitor, Chestertons, predicts growth for inner London between 3% and 4%. There are a few reasons why this could provide a more realistic picture. Let’s take each in turn. 

Firstly, the sheen might have worn off living in London during COVID-19, but the city remains one of the most desirable in the world. Were a vaccine to be found for COVID-19, London would quickly return to its role as the cultural and financial epicentre of the UK. With London back in business, pre-COVID demand and prices would quickly follow.

Second, we may not yet have seen the full effect of either the Stamp Duy Holiday (which doesn’t expire until March 2021) or conveyancers clearing their backlogs in the capital. 

Lastly, the role of foreign capital in inflating London prices can’t be ignored. Middle-class homebuyers are only part of the story, just as important are overseas investors who are largely responsible for spiralling prices over the last decade. 

Brexit’s fast-approaching conclusion will play a part in this. Should the UK crash out with no deal, investing in London property could become very appealing for buyers from nations with stronger currencies, leading to a mini-boom and higher prices for domestic homebuyers. 

Of course, both the possibilities we’ve discussed rest on what happens in the rest of 2020. Are we about to enter a second nationwide lockdown? Can a vaccine be found? Will the double-dip recession many are predicting come to pass? And what will the outcome of Brexit be? 

Without an answer to these questions predicting the future of London’s housing market is tricky. However, one thing’s for certain: whatever happens in the next six months will shape the city’s future for decades to come. 

How Well-insulated is The UK Housing Market Against a Second Wave of COVID-19?

The housing market has surprised us all in the last few months. Even the most bullish commentators couldn’t have predicted how resilient UK housing has proved. At the time of writing, the market is performing at close to 75% of 2019 norms.

Not bad, especially when you consider the once-in-a-generation disruptions the last few months have served up.

Yet, for all the positivity it’s hard not to worry that we haven’t seen the last of COVID-19. We may try to push it to the back of our minds. We may do our best to live for today. The frenetic activity in conveyancing departments across the nation certainly speaks to that.

However, most epidemiologists concede that a second wave is entirely possible, or even likely. If the worst should happen, how well-insulated is the housing market against a second period of disruption?

The Worst-case Scenario

Let’s start with the worst possible outcome. It might be tempting to assume that the housing market will simply stall for a while, then resume normal activity once the peak of the second wave has passed. After all, that’s exactly what happened back in June.

But there’s a key difference between the late-August and early-June. The state of the UK economy.

Of course, commentators have been concerned about the UK economy for much of the last decade. What’s different this time around is that a double-dip recession is no longer a spectre haunting economists’ dreams. It’s here.

According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the UK could be facing the worst recession since records began. To put that in context, we could see 12% unemployment and a 35% contraction in GDP by the end of 2020.

You don’t have to be an economist to conclude this is bad for the housing market. Very bad. Mass unemployment means fewer people able to buy houses. And, even those that can afford it may well opt to sit out the storm and delay their purchase.

Nor is a recession likely to have a positive impact on house prices. Without a high-demand for property (outside the rental sector, at least), there’s little to drive values up. Admittedly, they’re unlikely to fall dramatically either as new build projects stall, but that’s no real solace to developers, conveyancers and estate agents.

In this context, a second wave could be disastrous. The combination of a flatlining economy and a return to lockdown could send the UK housing market into a deep freeze for months or even years.

A More Hopeful Picture

Despite all that doom and gloom, there are a few reasons why the housing market might yet prove resilient.

The first is the likely nature of any second wave. Although many of us are still susceptible to the virus and a vaccine is still some way off, that doesn’t mean it has to be as bad as the first time around. According to many scientists, provided the government eases its way out of the current lockdown measures (you be the judge of whether that’s happening), a nationwide shutdown doesn’t have to be inevitable.

Instead, we could well see a series of local lockdowns through the winter. As for how that would look, you need only look at Leicester, parts of the North West, and Aberdeen. This means that while local lockdowns would be terrible for conveyancers in the towns and cities affected, the impact on the market as a whole would probably be negligible.

The second factor worth considering is history. The UK housing market has proved itself remarkably durable in the recent past. Most notably in the months following the last wave, but also in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Its entirely possible that we could see a short period of stasis, followed by a return to something like normality very quickly.

Finally, there’s the wider question of how tied the UK housing market is to consumer spending anymore. Of course, it makes perfect sense that low-spending power among UK consumers equals poor demand and falling house prices. But, although this is partly true, it ignores the role of overseas capital in the market.

One of the key reasons house prices and activity remained relatively stable during the austerity decade (2008-2018) was foreign investment. Whether the same is true in the years ahead will largely depend on the outcome of Brexit and how hard the recession bites globally. However, it at least provides another cause for optimism for UK conveyancers.

Uncertainty Reigns

The truth is the next few years are a leap into the unknown for UK housing. On the one, hand there are few positive economic forecasts to be found at the moment. On the other, the market has proved resilient in equally dire circumstances in the past. So, perhaps the best advice we can give to conveyancers is to enjoy our current period of sunshine, however long it lasts.

Assessing the Stamp Duty Holiday.

Last week’s announcement of a holiday for stamp duty land tax (SDLT) on properties seems an obvious fillip for the housing market. Implemented as part of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s summer statement, the tax break means that until 31st March 2020 anyone buying a home will only be required to pay SDLT if the value of the property exceeds £500,000. So far, so positive, but will the cut will have any long-term impact on the market. Is it anything more than a sticking plaster on a wounded economy? Starting off with some optimism; any extra stimulus of the market is welcome, particularly after the cryogenic freeze Covid-19 applied to it. 

What’s more, so far it’s worked. Rightmove has reported traffic to its listings increased by 22% immediately in the wake of the chancellor’s announcement of the £3.8bn tax. The property website said it received 8.5m visits, the highest in its 20-year existence. The number of people phoning and emailing estate agents via the site also hit a record high and was up 93% on the same day in 2019.

The announcement met with similarly spectacular results across the whole industry, with everyone from comparison site Zoopla to estate agents Winkworth reporting a dramatic uptick in interest. 

All of this points towards a short-term boost for the housing market. Add to this that positivity was rife in the market before the SDLT announcement, and the short-term forecast for property looks decidedly sunny. 

However, as always, there are some potential drawbacks to the scheme. The first is a question of fairness. While the SDLT cut is a welcome relief for the industry, it seems highly unfair that those who purchased property since the start of lockdown proceedings in March – at the urging of the government – aren’t subject to the same benefits. Do those people who risked infection and financial uncertainty while making their contribution to the health of the market not also deserve a break?

Of course, any scheme like this needs to be time-limited, but how hard or costly would it be to backdate the tax break – as many conveyancers are calling for – to the beginning of the lockdown period? 

The second major drawback is the scheme’s focus. We shouldn’t ask too much of a tax break, it’s not designed to be a root-and-brach overhaul of housing policy, but it is worth asking who is this for? 

The policy does little to address the housing market’s fundamental problems. The industry still faces issues with supply, mortgage availability, rising house prices, and high barriers to entry for first-time buyers (who, incidentally, are likely to be hardest hit by an economic downturn). 

This seems compounded by the fact that the measures extend to help those buying a second home or investment property. Is this really the part of the market that needs a leg-up?

Finally, it’s worth asking whether the reduction is enough to spark the confidence potential buyers need to sign up to the long-term liability of a house purchase? Many people will, understandably, still want to wait and see how the economic situation develops over the next six months. After all, the ghosts of 2008 still loom large in the public consciousness. 

None of this is to denigrate a much-needed boost for the housing market, on balance, the reduction is a good thing. However, it’s clear that if the sector is to continue its surprisingly positive trajectory, we need more. Much more. 

Is the Housing Market Really ‘Back’?

It’s been over a month since the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, officially re-opened the English property market by lifting restrictions on estate agents and the buying and moving process. 

It was the announcement we’d all been waiting for and the industry breathed a collective sigh of relief at the end of the seven-week freeze. Perhaps things were finally returning to some semblance of normality.

But where are we nearly 6 weeks later? Is the housing market really ‘back’ in any meaningful sense of the word? And what can we expect for the rest of 2020 and beyond?

The Rebound

As of early June, the property market appears to have simply picked up where it left off pre-pandemic. Figures released by TwentyCi group reveal that the exchanges are being recorded at 68% of the same period in 2019, not bad given its two-month hiatus. Meanwhile, the market as a whole is operating at around 75% of the norms we saw throughout 2019.  

And this sunny outlook is being replicated elsewhere too. The Yomdel Property Sentiment Tracker is claiming that demand from vendors and landlords has risen to all-time highs. It’s results for the week ending 7th June show new enquiries from vendors seeking valuations skyrocketing. 

The number of vendors seeking a valuation rose 34% to hit 85% above pre-coronavirus levels. It appears that having put moving plans on hold, people are swarming onto estate agents platforms in a bid to get things moving again and into a new home before the summer is over. 

The Future 

So if the present state of the property market looks hopeful, what of the future? Well, it’s ultimately pretty mixed. Although, nothing like as bad as might have been expected after the last few months.

National estate agency, Savills, produces an annual five-year prediction for the housing market and has revised it’s November 2019 edition in light of the coronavirus pandemic. This new version makes for very interesting reading.

The property giant expects UK house prices to dip slightly throughout the rest of the year, dropping by 7.5% by the end of 2020. However, perhaps more importantly, Savills is standing by its original prediction of a 15.1% growth across the country by 2024. After the -7.5% fall this year, the data predicts a bounce-back of 5% for 202, followed by house prices rising by 8% in 2022, before returning to a steady 5% and 4.5% for the following two years.

Savills puts this bullishness down to factors such as better mortgage affordability and a ‘backlog effect’ of pent-up demand for UK housing. It also expects the market to closely shadow UK GDP, which is expected to fall during 2020 and bounce back in 2021. 

However, all this good news should come with a side of caution. There are still some major challenges ahead. 

Firstly, payment holidays are still in place for as many as one in seven mortgages. It remains to be seen how smoothly these will transition back to normal payments once things stabilise, particularly given we’re likely to see a tough employment market for the rest of 2020 and beyond. 

There’s also the first-time buyer elephant in the room. Demand for first-time property far outstripped demand pre-coronavirus, and this has only been made worse by months of downtime. Many lenders are withdrawing from the 90% LTV market, making it even more difficult for new buyers to get onto the ladder. Indeed, only 50% of mortgage products available pre-COVID are still on offer. 

On top of this, we still aren’t building enough new houses. The new-build market, which was already struggling to meet the number of properties required, has been set back further by a nearly two-month pause. It’s worth noting, however churlish it might sound, that all the demand in the world isn’t much use without a steady supply of new homes. 

Finally, it’s important to note that we just don’t know what comes next. The rest of this year could see the UK economy rally and return to the growth we saw pre-COVID, or it could be hit by a hard Brexit (yes, that again) and a debt crisis. As things begin to return to something like normality, let’s all pray it’s the former. 

What Easing of Lockdown Means for Conveyancing?

We’ve entered a new stage in coronavirus crisis. Some call it the easing of lockdown, others (mainly just those in Whitehall) call it ‘the second phase’. Whichever you favour, with the UK government announcing a partial easing of lockdown on measures on Sunday, it’s clear we’ve started, albeit very cautiously, down the long road back to something resembling normality. 

As the government advises some elements of the economy, including, crucially construction workers, to return to work where possible, where does this leave the conveyancing sector? Of course, we’re a long way from where we were in late 2019, or even early 2020, but where do we currently stand. 

Supply Chains

The part of Sunday’s announcement which will have provided most cheer for the property sector is the advice for construction workers to return to work where possible. At the start of the lockdown period, many had feared the supply of new build properties could be hit for years to come.

While it’s true that most construction sites have been closed since late March, as things currently stand, disruption may be much less than initially feared. Some developers such as 

Taylor Wimpey, Persimmon and Redrow, plan to tentatively reopen this month, with extra safety measures in place. And, provided we don’t experience a ‘second wave’ forcing the resumption of lockdown measures, the supply of new houses could emerge from the crisis at only slightly lower levels than it went in. 

However, obvious concerns about how ‘under control’ COVID-19 really is aside, there’s something else worth mentioning. Building materials. Although, many construction manufacturers and suppliers have weathered coronavirus surprisingly well, disruption to supply chains could continue for some time yet. This is particularly true of those businesses dependent on imports from China and other international markets. 


What about prices? Well, that depends on who you listen to. Savills has predicted falls in London of between 5 and 10% for the rest of the year, (although it also expects a 15% rise over the next five years. It also says property searches on its website are up 16% in recent weeks, and now stand 7% higher than before the current crisis began, promising a relatively swift return to normality. 

The BoE, however, predicts a 16% fall for the rest of 2020, which would put us in 2008 territory. Yet some commentators, most notably two analysts on CNBC, suggest that UK house prices will only fall ‘modestly’ in the next few months. 

The truth is we just don’t know. If the lockdown is extended into the summer things will begin to look very different and the industry will be forced to re-forecast. But, equally, we could also be looking at something approaching normality by the end of the summer. In such a changeable environment, coming up with any concrete predictions is tough and a little unwise. 

Transaction Numbers

Lastly, transactions numbers. Rather predictably, they continue to fall as lockdown eats into another month. Property portal Zoopla suggests around of 373,000 purchases are on hold due to COVID-19, and estimates put the value of these transactions at £82 billion. On top of this, it also expects transactions numbers to be half what they were in 2019. 

Meanwhile, Knight Frank is predicting the number of home sales in 2020 will decline by £526,000, a drop of 38% on 2019.

While that makes for gloomy reading, it’s important to stress that there are also a few causes for optimism. Firstly, because at some point, be it in late 2020 or early 2021 things will start moving again. When they do, conveyancers everywhere will have a backlog of stalled transactions to work through, as well as all those potential buyers who put it off due to COVID-19 uncertainty. 

Second, the new build market could soon be open for business again. Many estate agents have begun offering virtual tours to buyers to get around social distancing rules. What’s more, as we mentioned earlier, the construction industry is clunking back into gear, promising at least some supply of new homes. 

And, finally, discussions have begun about what we can do to get things moving again even if social distancing rules remain in place for the rest of the summer. The conveyancing industry has innovated in the past to deal with challenges, so perhaps it’s time we did so again. The new normal might not look much like the housing market we all recognise, but maybe this presents us with an opportunity to do things in a greener, leaner and more efficient way? 

What will the Conveyancing Industry Look Like Post-coronavirus?

If your COVID-19 experience has been anything like ours, you’ll have spent the last few weeks self-isolating and trying to complete what work you can – easier said than done when many land charges departments are closed and most transactions have stalled. So it’s the perfect time to take stock and think about what the future of conveyancing might look like.

In the short term, how long are the UK’s partial lockdown and the current restrictions on the property industry likely to last? And, in the longer term, how will the industry adapt to what could be the worst recession in a century and a world in which remote working looks set to become the norm?

The Short-term

First, let’s look at the short term.

The obvious place to start is the lockdown and when it’s likely to end. But, before we go any further, we need to add a caveat. The COVID-19 crisis is a live event and continues to change hour by hour, confounding even the world’s top scientists, so anything we say could be out of date within a few hours or days.

Nevertheless, there will no doubt be some in the UK looking hopefully towards Denmark and Austria who have both announced a cautious easing of restrictions beginning in the week after Easter. Could we soon see something similar in the UK?

Well, it depends where you look. The scientific consensus seems to be that social restrictions will stay in place for at least four weeks following the virus’s peak in the UK. Some, such as Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, think cases peaked over the Easter weekend and will now begin to fall if the public follows social-distancing measures.

Meanwhile, Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance has said deaths in the UK will continue to rise for a further fortnight after Easter. Some scientists have even suggested the peak could come as late as mid-June.

The problem is we just don’t know. The UK is woefully behind in its testing capabilities.
Although No.10 has repeatedly claimed it’s on course for its 100,000 tests per day target, the reality is that even now when tests are being scaled up, the actual number of tests carried out has never risen much above a fifth of that figure. Compare this to Germany, confirmed as carrying out around 50,000 tests per day since the beginning of the crisis (although it should be noted Britain isn’t alone in its poor testing performance, France and Spain also lag behind).

Nor is the UK at all comparable with Denmark or Austria. Both of these countries moved to adopt stringent social distancing measures such as shutting schools and businesses early in the crisis and, as a result, have confirmed cases in the low thousands at the time of writing. Locking down early and keeping social interactions to a minimum during the early stages of virus transmission has allowed both countries to come out of the containment phase earlier.

For the UK, it seems certain it’ll be at least another four to six weeks before we see any easing of social restrictions, with the most optimistic predictions placing an end to the current lockdown in mid-May. This means we’ll see virtually no new transactions for at least another month and slow movement on those still outstanding, as land charges departments, law firms, surveyors and estate agents remain unable to work or confined to what they can achieve from home.

So it’s perhaps no surprise UK house sales are expected to drop to their lowest level in 20 years. But while that might sound grim, it should be taken with a pinch of salt. Economic stasis means that the plan, or what seems to be the plan, to temporarily ‘freeze’ the economy by furloughing large sections of the workforce and suspending business is working.

The Long Term

What about the longer term?

Well, the first thing to note is that COVID-19 is likely to change the way we work forever. Many conveyancing businesses and local authorities will have been forced to embrace remote working. Those that have are likely to find employees questioning why they need to return to the office at all once the crisis is over.

At the same time, some of them are going to find that running a business remotely is not only possible but perhaps even preferable, to the current approach. If economic predictions are correct, then many businesses and local authorities are going to come out of this crisis in financial straits and looking to save costs. And, if you’ve spent much of the last quarter working remotely with few problems, the most logical OPEX cost to cut is office space. This will be particularly relevant to local land charges departments, who could face a fresh round of government-mandated austerity.

The outcome of this is a hypothetical future in which much of conveyancing is done remotely. We’ve already seen the beginnings of this with the Land Registry’s much-opposed takeover and centralisation of LLC1 data. But could we see a future where all local land charges data is supplied from an online, centralised source? Or perhaps land charges staff will work from home and retrieve the data needed via an online database?

Furthermore, do solicitors need to be in the office to process documentation? Do estate agents really need a high street base to work from? When you couple the fallout from COVID-19 with the problems presented by climate change and the fact the planet needs less of us to commute using cars, trains and buses, the answer is likely to be no.

It’s clear COVID-19 could be the catalyst for a change in the way our industry works, but what about its long-term health?

It’s obvious the industry faces a difficult year, things were beginning to look up with the housing market finally returning to pre-2008 levels, but we’re now potentially back at square one. How well conveyancing businesses deal with this will largely depend on two things: one, how well run or overleveraged and indebted they were pre-coronavirus, and two, what the government does to keep the industry afloat.

Schemes like providing 80% of wages to furloughed staff and the offer of business loans at competitive rates are welcome but the industry will need more. In particular, those firms in poor financial health going into the crisis – quite a few, given the slow recovery from the last crash – will need direct financial assistance rather than loans if we’re to keep thousands of jobs from disappearing.
However, it’s not all bad. We may see a slight decline in prices spurring those who were on the fence into the market, particularly the young. What’s more, there’s nothing like spending two months’ trapped indoors to help you decide you really do need a bigger home or more green space.
So the industry should rebound. However, the speed at which it happens and what it looks like is entirely dependent on whether the government succeeds in preventing a temporary shock turning into an economic tailspin.
Over to you, Mr Johnson.

How Is COVID-19 Affecting the Conveyancing World?

We live in uncertain times. With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rising by the hour, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to picture what the world will look like in a month, let alone in six months or a year.

Against such a confusing backdrop, making predictions about the housing market or our industry is tough. We just don’t know how tight coronavirus’ grip on our society will get. However, there are a few questions floating around the industry that we can try to answer.

Does the Homebuying Process Count as ‘Essential Work’?

It might seem like there’s an obvious answer to this question, but there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding it. We’ve all heard horror stories about estate agents being ‘forced’ to go to work and even disguising their appearance to fool the authorities by not wearing a suit or neglecting to shave. But the truth is, even the government hasn’t decided whether conveyancing is an essential process.

As of Friday 27th March, the government was still debating the matter. While most solicitors have stopped taking face-to-face meetings and surveyors are refusing to come out to properties, some areas of the industry are still working away. For example, construction workers have been told they can continue to work, provided they remain two metres apart at all times.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made that the conveyancing process is ‘key’. If you’re a homebuyer halfway through a transaction, with all the uncertainty that brings, then it’s going to feel pretty important to you. Similarly, anyone unfortunate enough to be on the hunt for a new rental property when the virus hit is going to need an estate agent, even with a moratorium on evictions in place. Should their needs be catered to?

The truth is, that while we wait on a definitive stance from the government, whether or not you go to work is down to individual businesses. Most people we’ve spoken to are opting to work from home or suspend business for the foreseeable future. And the governments’ recent announcement that letting agents and estate agents will not be required to pay any business rates until next year has only made it an easier decision. 

However, there will be some businesses that choose to stay open for as long as government advice remains cloudy and open to interpretation.

How Is It Affecting Transaction Numbers?

According to figures from Today’s Conveyancer, search volume has decreased by a third in the last fortnight as the number of active buyers continues to drop. The overall volume of searches on Wednesday 25th March was down 33.36% on two weeks previously.

So we’re seeing a very real slowdown. This is partly being encouraged by the government, which has issued a plea for stakeholders in the home buying and selling process to do all they can to delay home moves until restrictions to reduce the spread of the coronavirus are lifted. 

Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick even went so far as to say even if the legal exchange has taken place, both parties should ‘amicably agree’ a new move-in date. And UK Finance confirmed that mortgage lenders will do everything they can to facilitate this, by extending mortgage agreements by up to three months until exchanges can take place.

Alongside this, we’ve seen moves from banks and building societies to withdraw mortgage products temporarily to focus efforts on their existing pipeline.

The good news in all this is that by shifting their focus to already existing transactions, lenders will at least keep some work moving through the industry. What’s more, with everyone focused on getting a few transactions over the line, perhaps we’ll see them processed faster than they would be ordinarily. 

The obvious downside is that we face a race against the virus. If everything outstanding is completed before COVI9-19 burns itself out, the industry may grind to a temporary halt. 

What about Land Charges?

This is a tricky one. Every local land charges department we’ve come across has sent staff home to work remotely in one form or another. Although some facets of local government are considered key, local land charges, justifiably, isn’t one of them.

Where things become a little murkier is what services local land charges will provide remotely. Most local land charges are currently unable to process official or personal search requests at the moment. This is, of course, down to the difficulty in accessing registers and documentation when staff are at home working with outdated equipment and systems.

However, some councils are providing assistance for outstanding or urgent searches, while others have effectively closed for the duration of the crisis. So whether you’re able to get urgent local authority searches processed will largely depend on the council you’re dealing with. In some cases, you may even get them back faster than you would normally. 

So What Can Conveyancers Do? 

Given the seemingly contradictory advice coming down from the government, you could be forgiven for wondering what conveyancers can and can’t do. So here goes…

While strongly discouraged, moves are still permitted to take place ‘where the move can be done safely’ with all work adhering to guidelines such as ‘maintaining a 2-metre distance from others.’ It’s also important to note that, while it’s been underreported, the police have been granted exemptions to waive new enforcement powers concerning breaches of the new rules on social distancing, one of which is for ‘urgent moves’.

On top of this, conveyancers have been asked to prioritise the following:

  • Supporting the full sales process for unoccupied properties and advising clients that they will be able to move if all advice is followed regarding social distancing
  • Encouraging transactions due to complete in the days ahead to delay the process while the stay-at-home period continues
  • Advising clients who are ready to move not to exchange contracts on an occupied property unless they have made explicit provision for the risks
  • Prioritising support to anyone with symptoms, self-isolating or shielding from the virus and those they are in the chain with, and do all they can to help a new date to be agreed in these circumstances

We face an uncertain few months. Lenders are suggesting that finance will be limited until restrictions are lifted and resources ploughed into mortgage break enquiries rather than new transactions. Meanwhile, the restrictions placed on surveyors and the closure of land charges makes the basic process of home buying and selling tricky. 

Yet, for all the uncertainty, perhaps there are some positives. The industry will likely continue working in some limited way for the next few months as it works through outstanding or urgent cases. And it offers us all a chance to step back, reset, and consider how we do things. It’s also possible that policy like mortgage payment deferrals may win back some much needed public trust for lenders.

Of course, times are tough, and we may have to endure a difficult summer of economic uncertainty. But as we’ve said before, the housing market is incredibly resilient. Maybe, just maybe this is simply another hurdle for it to overcome. We live in hope. 

Finally, Some Good News About the UK Housing Market?

Good news is a rare commodity at the moment. We’re potentially facing a global pandemic in the form of coronavirus. The global economic outlook looks gloomier than it has done since the 2008 crisis – FTSE 100 plunged by 3.5% in early March. And, to cap it all off, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit continues to cast a long shadow over the UK economy.

But there’s one area of economic life where things look a little brighter. The UK housing market is continuing on the upward trajectory we saw at the end of 2019.

House Prices

First up, the ‘Boris bounce’. According to figures released by Nationwide, UK house prices grew at their fastest rate in over a year at the start of 2020. The housing market posted a 1.9% annual rise in January, bettering the buoyancy we saw in December by 0.5%. This came after 12 months of sub-one-per cent growth following November 2018’s 1.4% spike.

The good news doesn’t end there. The average price of a home climbed 2.3% year on year to £216,092 in February, the strongest growth rate in 18 months.

This comes as something of a surprise. Overall economic growth came grinding to a halt in late 2019 and, usually, where the economy leads the housing market follows.

So what’s happening?

Some commentators have dubbed this upturn in fortunes ‘the Boris bounce’. The theory goes that Boris Johnson’s resounding election victory has ‘removed a spanner from the works’, creating greater buyer confidence in the market. And, it’s true, demand does appear to have rebounded after nearly two years’ of low buyer confidence.

However, buyer sentiment isn’t the only thing driving the rise. Healthy labour market conditions and low borrowing costs are also playing their part in offsetting general economic uncertainty.

Prospective Buyers

We’ve spoken about rising demand, but what about the people driving it?

Well, there’s been positive developments in this area too. January 2020 saw a yearly increase of 29% in the number of potential buyers registered per estate agency branch according to Today’s Conveyancer. The figure rose from 297 per branch in January 2019 to 382 in 2020. 

What’s more, the January figure represents a 22% increase on December 2019, which posted 313 potential buyers per branch.
This surge in demand is closely linked to the rise in prices. Although buyer interest is recovering, we’re still woefully short of places for them to live. December’s increase in available housing stock was followed by a drop in January from 41 to 38 available properties per branch, and with less available houses come higher prices.

The lack of housing is particularly important to first-time buyers, who ‘currently make up 29% of all transactions. New-build transactions are on the rise – figures climbed 3% between in period January 2019-20 – but, simply put, we still need more houses. The BBC’s Housing Briefing estimates that we have built 1.2 million fewer homes than we should have and the need is only going to become more acute with growing demand. 

This isn’t meant to put a dampener on what’s very good news but, if this sudden surge is to be more than a blip, we need a concerted effort to increase housing stock.

Mortgage Approvals 

The last flower in our bouquet of spring joy comes in the form of mortgage approvals. January 2020 brought with it pre-referendum highs for mortgage approvals, hinting that maybe, just maybe, lenders are finally be getting over their Brexit-induced caution.

The 70,900 mortgage approvals for house purchases represents a 4.4 per cent increase on December 2019 and the highest rates since February 2016. The figures, released by the Bank of England, come off the back of an already promising December. In addition, the annual growth rate for mortgage borrowing continues to rise, seeing a 3.4% growth in the last year.

The BoE also reports that January’s figures are statistically higher than average, with the current numbers ‘‘taking the series above the very narrow range seen over past few years.”

Will It Last?

So, is it all sunlit uplands from here on out for the housing market?

It’s probably best to exercise caution. As Nationwide’s chief economist, Robert Gardner put it to The Guardian, “there are still significant uncertainties that threaten to exert a drag on the economy in the coming quarters.”

Chief among these ‘uncertainties’ is, of course, how Coronavirus develops. It’s already playing havoc with the global economy and few people want to move in the midst of a national crisis. But Brexit and whatever happens in the spring budget are also factors to consider. Likewise, the shortage of housing may cause a contraction if steps aren’t taken to make more homes available.

On the other hand, Nationwide expects the UK economy to continue growing at a modest pace, with house prices staying fairly flat. If this forecast proves correct, conveyancers could see their fortunes improve even further.