Inspecting a potential purchase via PC conforms to social distancing rules but perhaps we need to prepare to distance ourselves from the disaster, says Rupert Bates

While technology has in some ways come to the rescue, virtual property viewings that conform to social distancing is only one small part, says Rupert Bates. Perhaps we need to prepare to distance ourselves from looming disaster.

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The property world, like every business, has had to reset and even reinvent itself in the shadow of coronavirus, the housing market’s short-term future subject to huge uncertainty. Forecasters are used to crunching the numbers from a position of expertise, experience and historical data. Boom-bust housing market cycles have been around since the days when Stamp Duty referred to the impression stampeding mammoths made on Stone Age first-time buyers.

But this is a global pandemic unique in our lifetime – an enemy that cannot be bought by economic stimulus, nor cowered by sanctions. There is no manual to revisit; no trends to follow. Estate agents making predictions are used to listening to clients, peers and economists, not virologists.

The property industry is adapting as best it can. I have been bombarded by about 180 companies called something 360, as in degrees, referring to the virtual viewings and property technology kit they are offering to estate agents and housebuilders to mitigate lockdown. International agencies know all about selling property to overseas investors who may never see the house in the flesh before purchase and Savills, for instance, beat the lockdown to shoot videos of its developer clients’ show homes.

Technology has got some deals over the line, but then there is the problem of physically moving house. Knight Frank has braved a crystal ball polish and anticipates more than half a million fewer home sales this year, 350,000 fewer mortgage approvals, nearly £8 billion in lost DIY and renovation spend, £4.4 billion in lost Stamp Duty revenue and a £395 million hit for removal companies – without forgetting the far wider impact of job losses and business closures.

“Moving house has a clear multiplier effect for the economy. Different-sized businesses in all areas of the economy feel these benefits, which is something the Government will take into account when drawing up its post-lockdown stimulus plan,” says Tom Bill, head of London Residential Research at Knight Frank.

While health is the overriding priority, many people, looking out the other side of the crisis, are questioning their lifestyles, beyond the financial ramifications.

Edinburgh-based agent George Goldsmith sent a letter lamenting the postponement of salmon fishing weeks and the sporting lettings of Scottish castles and lodges. No data to dissect, just a gentle reminder of life out the other side. “Scotland will be waiting patiently for you all to enjoy again soon. It will still be as glorious, wonderful and untouched as before; blissfully unaware of this current phase we are all experiencing. If anything, it is accentuating how special these large, remote expanses of country are and how lucky we are to have such privileged access.”