Moving house has rarely been more challenging than in 2020 – but a Teesside law firm has continuously adapted to help people along the way.
From the nightmare of lockdown to the current ‘stamp duty holiday’ rush, Punch Robson’s conveyancing team has had to quickly respond to each situation in a year like no other.
With the housing market now lively again – helped by time-limited government incentives – meeting the needs of hundreds of clients has been a challenge.
But it’s a challenge Punch Robson has risen to, and one that’s likely to increase again as people hurry to take advantage of those incentives before they end on March 31.
Last year, Punch Robson – established in 1877 – used its vast experience to help more than 1,000 clients buy or sell their home, and advised many more on property-related transactions and queries.
Partner and head of residential conveyancing, Katherine Eaton, thought she’d seen it all since starting as a trainee in 2002.
But Katherine says no-one could have envisaged the turbulence 2020 would bring.
She told Tees Business: “Before Covid, we had a busy start to the year and were ramping up towards Easter and the summer holidays. They’re the times people want to move, to coincide with the nice weather, and it was looking really good.
“But then Covid hit us all out of the blue. Most support staff were furloughed and when lockdown came, from a conveyancing perspective, nobody could move, so many things ground to a halt.
“We had to quickly assess where we were – we needed everyone to say what they had in the pipeline and what contracts had been exchanged. And would that mean any clients being in a ‘breach of contract’ situation? Did they have recently completed cases to register at Land Registry within a time limit? Did they have anything coming up that had a deadline where, for example, a mortgage offer was going to expire? And if so, could we negotiate an extension of the deadline?.
“The only contracts exchanged were people were moving into new builds or empty properties – we could still proceed to contract completion with those. But many were in a chain and therefore couldn’t move because the Government said they couldn’t.
“Almost everything was put on hold. Priorities and deadlines were really difficult to juggle.”
Mid-lockdown, she said, they continued with “behind-the-scenes stuff no-one sees” and did get some moves completed, although largely those where people didn’t have to move in immediately.
And with no viewings or face-to-face meetings, it meant the use of digital technology accelerated.
She said: “Take the Land Registry, for example. Traditionally it has wanted ‘wet ink’ witnessed signatures, but it’s now saying it will move towards digital signatures and witnessing, and I’m sure that will become more normal in the future.
“We’ve come from a time where you were mostly “post driven” to moving towards mainly electronic communication. We’ve seen the benefits of working digitally and the reality of e-conveyancing.”
There’s always the potential for internet scams, of course: “You have to be massively vigilant when dealing with people remotely. There are scams out there but we are geared up to look for those.”
And Katherine admits the lifting of lockdown brought its own challenges.
“It was awful! It was just dumped on us. One evening we’re suddenly told ‘people can move again from tomorrow’ and even though we still had lots of people furloughed, suddenly the phone is ringing off the hook.”
One reason for the demand surge is the Government’s stamp duty land tax ‘holiday’, where anyone completing on a main residence up to £500,000 before March 31 won’t pay any stamp duty.
The average stamp duty bill will drop by £4,500, with nearly nine out of 10 people buying a main home paying no stamp duty at all. But as that March 31 deadline gets nearer, so, too, will the numbers of people desperate to complete in time.
And Katherine’s advice? Simple – don’t hang around.
She said: “It has ignited the flame and got the property market active again. There was a pent-up demand anyway, but then the Government’s effectively telling us we can save money if we move now.
“If anyone was asking me, I’d say ‘get cracking’. We’ve seen transactions take three or four times as long as usual because of the Covid situation. And as March 31 approaches, it could be a very frustrating time, especially in that last month. The property market is going to be really busy, so get started now.”
She’s also advising people buying Newbuild homes to take advantage of help-to-buy equity loans before they change to a new system in 2021. And she says she’s seen more auction and repossession sales recently as the past few months take their toll.
Calling the market “very volatile” she said: “Someone can be buying a property one day, then the next day they lose their job and everything changes. But properties are selling quickly because the market is so active now. I had a client where the buyer pulled out and we had a new buyer within 24 hours – you can’t afford to drag your heels if you’re ready to go now.”
Her advice to house buyers or sellers is to “keep in contact with everybody, don’t delay your side of things and be open and honest about everything. And don’t sit on your hands doing nothing now because you could miss the boat.”
And she says Punch Robson’s conveyancing section is as ready as it can be to help people navigate the legalities.
“Everyone is feeling their way through this. If the last eight months have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. There’ll be delays so if you’ve done this before, don’t expect the process to be as fast this time.
“But we’re ramped up for it and hope to get everybody through in time.”
Find out more about Punch Robson Solicitors and their services at punchrobson.co.uk.