Empty homes, move-ins and maintenance during lockdown

Published: 26/03/2020

Announcements have been coming so thick and fast this last week that the updates we prepare are out of date before we press send. So far, we can tell you that among the 280 properties we manage, we’ve had calls from less than 10 tenants raising difficulties with paying rent – and most of those were anxiously fact-finding rather than fact! The introduction of furlough (guaranteeing employees up to 80% of their salaries) has surely been helpful in this. An announcement expected today, to make provision for the self-employed will hopefully help stabilise things further. Here is a summary of the main points from the last week.
 On lockdown and working from home

 All our staff have been working from home since Monday afternoon. Our telephone numbers and email addresses have been forwarded separately. We have added our key lettings contacts at the end of this email.
 On moving properties and contract renewals. Is moving home ‘essential?’  
 A representative from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said yesterday on the BBC that people should if at all possible ‘stay where they are’. We are calling tenants in all properties that are coming up for renewal and having that conversation with them. We will be encouraging them to stay put for the time being. I think it goes without saying that we will not be suggesting any rental increases at this time.
 Once we have had this conversation, we will be calling you to see whether you are happy for their contract to become a rolling contract, giving both sides flexibility in the future. There seems to be no obvious advantage for either side in pressing people to sign a further 6/12-month term in the current environment.
 With regard to the eight or so moves we had in progress at the point of lockdown, our feeling is that if a move was already underway, if contracts are signed and tenants have given notice to leave their properties, if all parties in the moving chain believe that for work, health or mental health reasons the move needs to go ahead, then as long as no persons in the chain are self-isolating  (and the move can be achieved within the rules applying to social distancing), then we will assist in this and continue as planned.
 On empty properties awaiting tenants
 This is proving difficult. Whilst it is possible to entertain the idea that tenants in the future may take a property based on what they see online (we will of course be able to offer videos) it may be that there simply are no incoming tenants for the foreseeable future. Certainly, the tenant enquiries we receive (which would usually be about 40 a week during March), has dwindled to less than four.
 If there are no signs of tenants for these properties, we’re wondering whether key workers and NHS staff might be moved around the country or might need accommodation closer to hospitals? If so, will landlords with empty properties near hospitals be prepared to take in key workers at lower rents – or if they have no mortgage perhaps consider letting at cost (if the property is empty already, then at least it would be occupied!) We have been in touch with one NHS hospital who has advised that two weeks from now there could well be demand. If you have an empty property or know anyone who has and empty property who might be prepared to offer it for these purposes, please get in touch.
 On property maintenance and letting
 Guidance announced yesterday offered some clarification, but we are awaiting more detail. The MHCLG has outlined lockdown to include, “routine inspections as well as house moves.”
 The MHCLG are still looking into whether tasks such as gas safety checks will be allowed. Currently the guidance from the Guild of Estate Agents is that if a tenant is in self-isolation and we have a paper trail to that effect, this will be postponed. We will inform you when there is further news on this.
 On rents and repossessions – older news!
 “We are in extraordinary times and renters and landlords alike are worried about paying their rent and mortgage. The last thing anyone needs to worry about at a time like this is losing their home.
 The government is clear – no renter who has lost income to coronavirus will be forced out of their home, nor will any landlord be left with unmanageable debts. These changes will protect both renters and landlords ensuring everyone gets the support they need.” 
Robert Jenrick MP, Housing Secretary, March 19th 2020.
 You will know that last week the government introduced mortgage payment holidays of up to three months for landlords with buy-to-let mortgages.  These will be offered on the understanding that the benefit is to be passed on to the tenant.  
 They also announced they will suspend the eviction process, with no new possession proceedings to start during the crisis, with emergency legislation to be taken forward so landlords will not be able to start proceedings to evict tenants for a three-month period.
 The NLA and RLA are still lobbying for further measures to be taken including pausing the final phase of restricting mortgage interest relief to the basic rate of income tax due in April. We will let you know in due course.
 There are many ends that still need to be tied up on the mechanics of how these measures will work, but in essence it will be down to us to negotiate between you and the tenant: an agreeable and realistic repayment plan, a realistic moving plan, a creative interim property inspection plan etc.
 This situation cries out for understanding and compassion both from landlords and tenants. We are taking each call on a case-by-case basis, because everyone in this equation is an individual with their own particular circumstances. We would really appreciate your support at this time, and we would ask you to please keep safe, and we will try to keep ourselves, our staff and our tenants safe too. If you have any queries following reading this, please get in touch.