With restrictions tightening again across the country, we could be in for a difficult winter as a possible second spike of Covid combines with the annual flu season.
However, steps are being taken to mitigate the spread of the virus, with local lockdowns, a 10pm curfew on pubs and the rule of six all designed to interrupt a damaging second wave.
For the lettings sector, with the lifting of the ban on evictions, recently introduced legislation and the implementation of Covid protocols to come to terms with, now is a more important time than ever for rental properties to be managed effectively and professionally.
While the majority of landlords use a letting agent to manage their properties, rather than opting for self-management, this isn’t universally the case. What’s more, in an effort to cut costs, landlords – potentially affected by increased rent arrears and the damage to profits caused by both the coronavirus and the tax changes of the last few years – may seek to go it alone to save themselves money.
But this is time when good agents are worth their weight in gold, and your assistance and support will be needed to ensure the smooth functioning of the rental market throughout the rest of autumn and early winter.
How can you win more landlord business for the remainder of 2020, though, and how can you ensure existing customers don’t opt to fly solo?
Explain the advantages of using an agent
The rental sector has become something of a legal and regulatory minefield in recent years, with various pieces of new legislation brought in to protect tenants or discourage the growth of buy-to-let.
In the last four years, we have seen the introduction of the extra 3% surcharge on second and holiday homes, the phasing out of mortgage interest tax relief, the Tenant Fees Act (banning nearly all upfront tenant fees and capping deposits), the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act, changes to energy efficiency rules and, most recently, the introduction of mandatory checks on electrical installations, at least every five years.
During the pandemic, too, the situation with Section 21 notices, mortgage holidays, rent arrears, new legislation, tenants’ rights and other issues was fast-moving and complex. This is something you, as an agent, will be on top of as part of your job, but it’s a lot for landlords to get their head around, especially if they are fairly new to the sector.
There are also an increasing number of accidental landlords, whether through divorce, separation, bereavement or other factors, and the private rental market can be an intimidating place for someone with no experience of operating in it.
You need to make clear to landlords the importance of compliance and good practice, particularly during a health and economic crisis. Smooth property management, in terms of dealing with repairs, managing tenants, keeping void periods to a minimum, marketing empty rental properties and ensuring smooth tenant turnovers, is also vital at this time – and something a reliable, experienced letting agent is far more likely to provide.
Help them to understand the current landscape
For some landlords, it could currently be a confusing and worrying time, in particular when it comes to repossession and regaining an asset.
While the ban on evictions was lifted on September 21, with courts able to hear eviction cases again, it’s certainly not a case of business as normal. The government initially placed a complete ban on evictions just before the UK-wide lockdown came into play on March 23, to help protect renters. The government then announced in June that the ban had been extended by a further two months.
Later, on August 21, the government revealed the ban on evictions was being extended for another four weeks, bringing the ban’s overall length to more than six months. Although landlords can now start the eviction process again, or pick back up from where they left off pre-lockdown, there are a number of caveats you should make them aware of.
There has been a government commitment to no evictions over the Christmas period – the truce will last for a month from December 11, with agents and landlords unable during this time to instruct bailiffs to complete evictions – while there should also be no enforcement action taken in areas under local lockdown (which now covers a large chunk of the UK).
Furthermore, notice periods must now be six months, to prevent tenants from being evicted in the winter months. There are a few exceptions to this rule, with shorter notices required for the most 'egregious' cases of anti-social behaviour, domestic abuse or fraud.
With compliance around the eviction process so crucial at the moment, you should make it clear to potential landlord clients and existing ones that they need a letting agent on their side to ensure they are staying on the right side of the law and guidance.
Consider a price cut
Many landlords have been struggling financially as a result of coronavirus – although fortunately rents and tenant demand have held up well since the property market reopened in mid-May. But the perilous finances of some could mean they are less willing to shell out on management fees.
If it’s feasible from a business point of view, you may want to consider lowering your prices ever so slightly to make your agency more attractive to new customers. Similarly, if you have landlords on your books who are getting restless, you may want to come to some sort of arrangement to keep them on board – especially if they have been with you a while and are a loyal, valued customer.
Lowering your prices might not be desirable or achievable during these times of recession and economic uncertainty, but if it works out financially it may help you to both generate new business and keep new business at the same time.
The situation in the rental market is only likely to become more complicated and confusing in the coming months, as restrictions tighten further, so now is the time for letting agents to set out why landlords need you by their side more than ever.