What does the new three-tier system mean for the property market?

England has now moved from full national lockdown (albeit a much lighter version than the one we experienced earlier in the year) back to a three-tiered system where coronavirus restrictions are based on the infection rate in a particular area.

However, the tiered system didn’t work very well at containing the virus last time round, so the restrictions have been toughened up a bit. 

Effects on the property market across all tiers

In general, the property market should remain largely unaffected by the new rules. The tougher aspects of the restrictions mainly apply to our personal lives and the hospitality industry. In terms of the property sector, it’s not exactly ‘business as usual’, but it is an adapted version of it.  

Viewings can continue as usual, subject to all the relevant protective measures – such as hand-washing and face coverings. Obviously you should postpone any viewings if you or anyone you live with has tested positive for coronavirus or displays any symptoms. 

For landlords, maintenance responsibilities remain unaltered, as they have throughout the pandemic. Both tenants and landlords may need to be a bit more flexible about arranging access for contractors, but by now everyone working in property maintenance has got a pretty good handle on safe working practices and there are comprehensive industry guidelines in place.

You may also find that some agents are working from home – especially those on the property management side who perhaps don’t need to be in the office very much. Again, it’s unlikely this will have much of an effect on their work, but it’s possible that there may be some small delays as a result of home-working. The pandemic has affected most sectors in some way or other, and hopefully we’ve all got used to being a little bit more patient than we were before.

A key component of the restrictions is different limits on ‘gathering’ in the various tiers. In tier one (the lowest level of restrictions), you are restricted to meeting in maximum groups of six, both indoors and out. At the other end of the scale, for those in tier three areas the ‘rule of six’ only applies to public outdoor spaces – otherwise you are not allowed to spend any time indoors or outdoors with people you don’t live with. However, a key exemption to these rules (applying across all three tiers) is ‘to facilitate moving home’.

Effects on the property market in the highest tier

Tier three areas (mostly in the north) have the highest level of restrictions. While the rules shouldn’t technically affect the property sector, it’s possible that some things may be a bit trickier. More people may be working from home, while agents and vendors may be keen to cut down the number of viewings by offering virtual viewings first.

More significantly, tier three areas often have higher infection rates than the lower tiers, and this may also cause problems. Agencies may be struggling due to staff illness/isolation, while buyers, sellers and prospective tenants may encounter more cancellations. If tenants are isolating, landlords may also want to try and consider postponing any non-essential maintenance work until they have completed their isolation period.

It’s worth pointing out that even if an area is tier three, its infection rate might be comparatively low. Because the tier system carves the country up into such large areas, places with low infection rates (particularly more rural settings) can sometimes fall under stricter rules because the wider area also includes COVID-19 hotspots. 

Crossing between areas

One key recommendation in tier three areas is to ‘avoid travelling outside of your area, including for overnight stays other than where necessary, such as for work, education, youth services, to receive medical treatment, or because of caring responsibilities’. House-hunting is not mentioned here, so while an agent would be allowed to leave their area to show you a property, it does look like under a literal interpretation of the rules you wouldn’t be allowed to leave a tier three area for a viewing.

In practical terms, it seems very unlikely that you would get in trouble for this. While there have been reports of some police forces patrolling the main routes out of tier three areas, this almost always seems to be with the objective of reducing tourism from higher-tier areas to lower-tier ones. The occasionally over-enthusiastic policing of the first lockdown seems to be a thing of the past, and you’d have to be very unlucky to be stopped by an officer who had a problem with travelling between areas for a scheduled, socially-distanced property viewing.

How might the new rules affect property trends

Though many people appear to have taken a more relaxed attitude to the recent lockdown and the tier system, some may still be feeling quite cooped up or otherwise dissatisfied with their current homes. In general, the post-lockdown property boom in the summer saw a marked desire to move to more rural locations, and it’s easy to imagine that those currently living in tier three areas (often predominantly urban) might be looking at more remote areas with lighter restrictions and wondering if it’s about time they made the move before stamp duty comes back in.

Of course, this could be tempered by other developments. Some high-profile crashes on the high street – plus the ongoing crisis for sectors such as hospitality and entertainment – mean there are a lot more people facing financial difficulties. On the other side of the coin, the opening jabs of a vaccination drive bring possibilities of a return to some sort of normality in 2021, and it remains to be seen how many of the offices that have been closed for so long will eventually reopen when it’s safe. If they do, the prospect of lengthy commutes might just take the sheen off that escape to the country.