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Impact of Covid-19 (Pt 1): Has pandemic changed the way we go house-hunting?

Pandemic has shaken up the 'must have' and 'nice to have' wish lists

This is the first of an occasional series about how coronavirus has changed our lives. As we publish this, it looks like England is headed for another lockdown. Next time, coronavirus’s impact on public transport.

Are you heading out this weekend looking for a new house? If you want to take advantage of the ‘holiday’ on stamp duty payments you might need to put your foot down. The pandemic led to a stagnation of the housing market for a few months and the Government’s stance on stamp duty has helped reinvigorate it. But the clock is ticking.

Basically, you have until the end of next March in which to find a place, get yours sold (if you have a property, of course) and complete all the paperwork. It sounds a long way off, but the time will evaporate.

So, the Chancellor has raised the threshold for payments on stamp duty to £500,000 until just before the end of the tax year. Let’s call that one impact of Covid-19 on the housing market in Kent.

Before I start listing other impacts perhaps it would be as well to spell out my approach to house-buying. Mentally – and sometimes on paper – I would list a house’s amenities under three columns or categories, namely “essential to have” (column 1), “nice to have” (column 2) and “not overly fussed” (column 3). I would give a “weighting” to ticks in column 1, let’s call it five points. Those in the second column got three and one for in the “not fussed” category.

For me, at least, Covid has played havoc with things I used to rate in column 1. For example, proximity to a station that would get you into London in less than an hour used to be very important (column 1). Two things about the coronavirus have knocked this – one, I’m not sure I want to travel by train so much any more because of social distancing; two, given the surge in working from home (WFH), I don’t feel I need to worry about travel to London as much.

Estate agent particulars will still make mention of the train times as will the promotional material issued concerning new housing developments. I’m not suggesting for a moment that this should stop. But has closeness to a station slipped down the pecking order of priorities (column 2)? For me, it has. That’s impact number two.

Impact number three relates to what rooms are now essential in a house? My youngest son is in the process of moving from Snodland to Larkfield. You may think this crazy (I do), but one of the main reasons behind the move is to gain a downstairs loo. He thought about adding one where he is, but the only place he could put it was about as far away as you could get from the plumbing. That Government decision regarding stamp duty helped him make up his mind to move. I’m pleased. I have nothing against Snodland other than I think it is a rather unfortunate name. Still, he’s managed to avoid Orpington’s neighbour, Pratt’s Bottom.

I would rate a downstairs loo in column 2, but for my son, it was in column 1. Each to his own. But now I want to consider a room that, at one time on my wish lists, would hover between nice and not overly fussed. I refer, of course, to the study. The study was confirmed in the “essential” category when I moved to Petts Wood years ago because I was earning extra money from freelance newspaper and magazine design and needed somewhere quiet to do the work. I regarded it as a necessity then. When that work dried up, the idea of having a study dropped back down the list again. So, for my next house, in Orpington itself, I didn’t worry that there was no obvious study space.

Next house, on King Hill, West Malling, did have a study and I made good use of it. But, I won’t take you through every house I ever owned, you will be relieved to know … fast-forward to today. If you are going out house-hunting soon how important would a study be to you? Is it in column 2, nice to have, or a column 1 essential? I would say that such a room, or the ability to convert a small bedroom perhaps, should now be regarded as a must-have.

That contention only strengthens if you always have one eye on “who would want to buy this house from me when I’m ready to move on?”. I am of the opinion that WFH is here to stay. If that (none too bold) prediction proves correct, and WFH is well on its way to becoming the norm, then I expect the study to firmly root itself in the “essential” room category alongside (and maybe even ahead of) such considerations as en suite bathrooms.

Fortunately, I am not alone in thinking this (about studies not en suite bathrooms). I ran the following comment past a couple of developers who have interests in Kent. It said: Given the impact of the pandemic and the resultant increase in home working I should imagine that housebuilders are looking more intently at including studies or a bedroom that can convert in their future home layouts.

Here are a couple of the replies I received:

Louise Norman, associate sales and marketing director at Dandara South East, who are behind the Willow Grove, Collier Street, project (pictured below) said: “We have experienced a greater demand for homes with a flexible layout that could accommodate home working and for homes with outside space, be it a garden or balcony. Location has also been a factor, with a notable desire to move out of the city, but still remain within commutable distance. All our developments represent the best of town and country so we have been able to accommodate this trend.” This website recently featured the Willow Grove development, making specific mention of the claim that is has “perfect work-from-home facilities with spacious and light living areas”.

Another comment came from Barratts. Natalie Perry, sales and marketing director for Barratt Kent, said: “Over the past six months, there has, unsurprisingly, been a shift in what buyers want and need from a new home. We recently carried out some research throughout London and the south-east, and found that, in Kent, more than two-fifths (41%) of homeowners have searched for a property online since lockdown, demonstrating an increased interest from buyers looking to make their next move. Pre-Covid, we were perhaps working from home once or twice a week, so buyers were happy to forgo a study and set up at the kitchen table – but this is a thing of the past, and we have seen that buyers in Kent are now prioritising new homes that include a separate study or flexible rooms that can be converted into a workspace.”

The Barratt Kent development at Chilmington Green, Ashford. These three-bedroom houses feature a separate study

So Covid-19 has much to answer for. But, in terms of home design, I think aspects of its influence will prove to be for the best, long-term. By the way, if you need to stay put, but would like to improve your study area, see this article.

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David Buckley

Dave Buckley is a career journalist. “I once went painting girders for a week and discovered I didn’t like heights,” he says. “Apart from that it has always been journalism for me in one form or another.” Past local weekly publications he has worked for include: the South-East London Mercury* covering the Borough of Greenwich as a junior reporter; Orpington-based News Shopper as a sub-editor; and the Kent Messenger when based in Larkfield, Maidstone, as deputy chief sub-editor. He has also worked for the following dailies/nationals: Daily Express, Today*, News of the World* and Hong Kong Star*. All those marked with an asterisk no longer exist (trend emerging?). He owned and edited a Thailand-based property magazine before returning to England and currently works as a production editor on a car fleet magazine. His first foray into property ownership saw him move from London to Rainham (the Gillingham, Kent, variety). He has subsequently lived in Chislehurst, Petts Wood and Orpington in the Borough of Bromley (which he still regards as being in Kent). In more recent years he owned three different properties on the Kings Hill (West Malling) development.

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