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1 May 2020

Should you buy or rent a house based on a virtual viewing?

Estate agents offering video viewings during COVID-19 lockdown

Estate agents are increasingly offering video tours and virtual viewings to buyers and renters as they look to tempt them into making offers during the coronavirus lockdown.

With the property market on hold and in-person house viewings suspended, many agents are offering online viewings instead - but would you buy or rent a home you've never seen in person?

Here, Which? explains how online viewings work and offers advice on the key things you should consider before agreeing to view a property virtually.

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Virtual viewings are on the rise

The government's stay-at-home measures mean people can't currently complete on house purchases, but estate agents are finding innovative ways to market homes in the meantime.

Earlier this week, Rightmove introduced an 'online viewing' label on listings, allowing agents to promote homes that come with video tours.

We spoke to two of the UK's biggest estate agencies, Foxtons and Savills, about how they're adapting their services.

Foxtons told Which? it now has more than 1,000 video tours available, while Savills claims virtual viewings have doubled in the space of a week.

Savills says video conference calls on the likes of WhatsApp, Facetime and Zoom are its most popular option, as they allow the seller to give the buyer 'a bespoke, real-time video tour' and answer questions. Pre-recorded videos can be emailed to customers, but 'lack the interactive nature and immediacy of a live viewing'.

Foxtons says its specialists are offering advice to clients on the best way to conduct their own video tours, and that its branch managers have been trained in video editing.

Are buyers and tenants making offers?

Both estate agencies say buyers are making offers despite the lockdown, though many are doing so subject to an in-person viewing after the lockdown ends.

NAEA Propertymark, a trade body for estate agents, told Which? that while offers are being accepted, buyers 'will hope to see the property in person before they agree to the sale to see where it sits in the street, what's on either side and it's condition'.

ARLA Propertymark, which represents letting agents, says renters are also proceeding with caution.

It says: 'Many tenants are agreeing move dates for once the lockdown has been lifted. Some are agreeing short-term contracts so they can decide later if they like the property enough to stay for many years.'

Video viewings: how are people protected?

NAEA Propertymark told us that buyers will seek follow-up in-person viewings before committing as 'a video won't necessarily touch on any negatives of the property, it will only highlight the positives'.

With this in mind, we expressed our concerns to Savills and Foxtons about buyers and renters getting the full picture.

Savills told us that it will highlight any issues it is aware of near a property, such as noise problems or local planning permissions, and customers should also make their own enquiries and use tools such as Google Street View. It says customers should submit questions or concerns following a viewing in writing before they sign anything.

Foxtons said its teams work closely with both parties to ensure everyone has all the required information.

Update: advice from The Property Ombudsman

On 30 April, The Property Ombudsman published advice for agents on video viewings.

It said that for sales, video viewings should be used as a 'filtering exercise' and serious buyers should be provided with an 'offer agreed subject to viewing' notice.

For letting agents, it says it is 'always advisable' for the prospective tenant to view the property in person, but that its code of practice does allow some exceptions.

Agents should offer customers a download of the viewing and keep it on file in case of a dispute, and in instances where a seller or landlord is recording the viewing themselves, they should be 'reminded of the responsibilities upon them' under Consumer Protection Regulations.

Row of terraced houses

Five tips on online viewings

We caught up with buying agent Henry Pryor, who shared his top tips for buyers and renters considering virtual viewings.

  1. Always make any agreement having only seen a property via video, 'subject to a physical inspection'.
  2. Try to save a copy of any virtual tour, either by recording it or by downloading a copy. Never be afraid to ask for a copy from the agent, landlord or seller.
  3. Always try to get a live virtual tour rather than a pre-recorded, edited version. You should be able to ask questions and give directions. While the production value may be lower, you are likely to get a more honest impression of the property.
  4. Don't forget to ask to see outside. What do neighbouring properties look like? How busy is the street/road? What state is the garden?
  5. Virtual tours are helpful marketing aids but remember that the only person who will want to rush you is the agent. Unlike viewing an ad for something online or on TV, it's very hard to return the item or get you money back when it's a house or a flat.

Are people allowed to move home right now?

Even if you do agree a deal to buy or rent a property, the government's guidelines mean you should delay moving into the home until the current stay-at-home measures have been relaxed.

Buyers and sellers

The government advises that people should only move home during the lockdown if they've already exchanged contracts and are moving into an unoccupied property. If the property is occupied it says 'all parties should work together to agree a delay'.

In circumstances where an agreement can't be reached, it says parties must follow its social distancing guidelines.

Landlords and tenants

The government's guidance for landlords and tenants bans in-person viewings during the lockdown. It states that 'no one should visit the property to conduct viewings, or anything else which is not urgent and health and safety-related.'

It also confirms that renters should only move in 'unavoidable' circumstances where an agreement can't be reached to delay until after the lockdown.

Landlords whose tenants are struggling to pay rent have been offered mortgage payment holidays, and tenants have been protected against eviction during the fight against the coronavirus.

What can I do to prepare to buy a home?

If you're thinking of buying or selling later this year, there are some steps you take now to get ahead of the game, from finding out about your mortgage options to sprucing up your home.

Some estate agents are also offering virtual valuations to give sellers an idea of what their property might be worth. Savills says video valuations give sellers a head start and an indication of price, but will need to be backed up by a face-to-face market appraisal after the lockdown ends.

If you are thinking of selling, it's best not to take too much notice of valuations and house price data at the moment. With the market on hold, it's impossible to provide specific information, and house price indices are likely to be very volatile.

Which? coronavirus advice

Experts from across Which? have been compiling the key advice you need to stay safe and make sure you're not left out of pocket.

You can keep up to date with our latest advice on the coronavirus outbreak over on our coronavirus news and advice section.