It’s been a year like no other – with the whole process of letting a home now very different thanks to strict hygiene protocols, social distancing measures and the prioritisation of virtual viewings and remote check-ins.
On top of that, a number of pieces of legislation have been extended or introduced, giving landlords and letting agents plenty to get their head around as well as coming to terms with a global pandemic and operating in a new normal.
A significant amount has happened to the lettings sector in 2020 – here, we do our best to provide a summary.
A new way of moving home
At the start of lockdown, the government issued detailed guidance on the rules, restrictions and protocols when it came to moving home during the coronavirus crisis.
While this was updated in late August, and has become less stringent than it was at the height of the pandemic, much of the original guidance remains in play.
The advice recommends that initial viewings should be done virtually wherever possible, with property agents helping to facilitate this. Members of the public who are visiting an agent’s office or viewing a property should wear a suitable face covering unless they are exempt from this requirement. If this is the case, the agent should be informed about this before arrival.
Visits to an agent’s premises are now more than likely to be done on an appointment-only basis, and with appropriate measures put in place when someone does attend your branch.
The government guidance states that all physical viewings where prospective renters will be entering the property should involve no more than two households inside the property at any one time, including any agent accompanying either party. However, anyone in a support bubble with either household will count as part of that household.
Where prospective tenants from separate households wish to view the property at the same time, it’s advised that one household leaves the property to enable the other to enter, ensuring social distancing is adhered to at all times.
Viewings should always be arranged by appointment-only and ‘open house’ viewings are still banned to prevent the mixing of many different households.
When viewing properties in person, you should inform tenants to avoid touching surfaces wherever possible. Everyone should wash their hands regularly and/or use hand sanitiser. If your tenants need to be accompanied by small children, and there is no way around this, you should try to keep them from touching surfaces and ensure they wash their hands regularly.
On a viewing, you should make sure that landlords have opened all internal doors – even when the weather gets colder, as the virus survives for less time in fresh air – and insist that surfaces, such as door handles, are cleaned after each viewing with standard household cleaning products.
It’s recommended that landlords aren’t present in the property while viewings are taking place in order to reduce unnecessary contact. Like many parts of life, social distancing in line with public health advice should be practiced at all times to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
If prospective tenants are especially worried about the risk of infection during viewings or the moving process itself, you should work with your landlords to put extra precautionary measures in place.
In addition to the above, the government issued specific advice for landlords and tenants during the pandemic. While the advice is non-statutory, it provides guidance on regaining possession, court cases during the Covid-19 outbreak, and health and safety obligations, repairs and inspections in the context of coronavirus.
The most important thing to make clear to tenants is that the process of finding and moving into a new home will look different due to the restrictions designed to prevent Covid-19 spreading, but that agents are adapting flexibly to these new changes to ensure moves are as safe and smooth as possible.
A long wait for repossession
To protect tenants in the midst of a health and economic crisis, the government placed a ban on evictions just before the national lockdown came into play. On June 5, the government announced that the suspension of housing possession cases in the courts had been extended by a further two months.
Then, on August 21, the government announced the extension of the ban on evictions for another four weeks, bringing the ban’s overall length to more than six months. Since September 21, courts have been able to hear eviction cases again, albeit with caveats.
The government has revealed a commitment to no evictions over Christmas and no enforcement action in areas under local lockdown. Additionally, notice periods have been increased to six months, with the aim of preventing tenants being evicted over winter.
There are exceptions, with shorter notices for the most 'egregious' cases of anti-social behaviour, domestic abuse or fraud.
Legislation introduced or updated
2020 has been the year of rental legislation being updated, with the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act, the Tenant Fees Act and the rules surrounding Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) all being extended to include existing tenancies. Until now, they had only applied to new tenancies or renewals.
Elsewhere, new electrical safety standards for the private rented sector came into play from June 1, with the regulations compelling landlords to have the electrical installations in their properties inspected and tested by a person who is qualified and competent, at least every five years.
What’s more, landlords must provide a copy of the electrical safety report to their tenants, and to their local authority if requested. You can read more about the regulations here.
The Renters’ Reform Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech in December last year – which promises to abolish section 21, so-called ‘no-fault’ evictions – has made no progress through Parliament as of yet, and is likely to be further delayed by the fallout from coronavirus.
The government recently confirmed it was committed to bringing forward the Renters’ Reform Bill to abolish section 21 and ‘deliver a fairer and more effective rented sector’, but also said such legislation must balance greater security of tenure with an assurance that landlords are able to recover their properties where they have valid reasons to do so.
The Bill is hugely controversial, and has been widely criticised by those operating in the private rented sector, but it has wide cross-party and public support – so it seems almost certain it will go through once it eventually makes it to the Commons and the Lords. However, the imminent threat of section 21 being abolished is no longer there, which will be a relief to landlords who have had to cope with the eviction ban and the issues this has caused with arrears and the minority of troublesome tenants.
Greening the housing stock
As well as support in the form of mortgage payment holidays during the height of the pandemic – although such deferrals had definite downsides for landlords – the government is also launching the £2 billion Green Homes Grant at the end of September to help improve the energy efficiency of the UK’s housing stock.
This will mean landlords can apply for up to £5,000 worth of vouchers to make eco-friendly improvements to their home, in turn ensuring it is more energy efficient and reducing tenants’ energy bills.
Landlords will only have until March next year to claim the voucher and carry out the necessary works, but it could help those letting out homes to ensure they are compliant with the MEES legislation (which requires a minimum EPC rating of E on all tenancies, with only some exemptions, and which could increase again to D or C in the coming years).
As we can see then, an awful lot has happened and an awful lot could still be to come, as the eviction ban is lifted, the possibility of further lockdowns is mooted and the likelihood of fresh changes to the moving process increase as we enter winter.
Letting agents will need to be on top of all Covid-19 protocols while also ensuring landlords are fully compliant with all new legislation, which continues to come in despite the pressures caused by the coronavirus.
What could the future hold?
There is likely to be a continued use of virtual and remote solutions, particularly as the threat of further restrictions and local (or even national) lockdowns looms large. There may be fresh advice and guidance on moving home during winter, and stricter restrictions on the number of people in a home at any one time (which could affect physical viewings).
Elsewhere, with the eviction ban lifted (albeit under constant government review), there is likely to be a rise in the number of possession cases in the courts, but these are likely to be held up by a backlog and the possibility of further restrictions. If parts of the economy are forced to shut down again, there is a chance that evictions could be banned once more.
While no other major legislation is set to come into play in the final months of 2020, there is always the chance that emergency new laws could be introduced in the private rented sector to protect landlords and tenants.
Although the only certainty is uncertainty at the moment, the rental market has bounced back strongly since lockdown was eased – with strong levels of demand from tenants – and this is likely to continue to be the case unless further draconian measures are introduced.