Disappearing tenants, cancelled sales: estate agents face coronavirus fallout

‘We’ve had tenants call us to say they’ve left the country and we’re not sure if they are coming back’

Dublin city estate agent Owen Reilly: ‘I’ve had the odd investor on looking for property bargains.’ File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Dublin city estate agent Owen Reilly: ‘I’ve had the odd investor on looking for property bargains.’ File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Cancelled viewings, cancelled sales and disappearing tenants – estate agents face an uncertain spring season as the coronavirus takes hold. The country’s two largest estate agency firms have closed their branch networks with staff working remotely and many of the properties on their books available to view by virtual tour only.

On Monday DNG chief executive Keith Lowe announced that all 80 branches in the DNG network will remain closed until March 30th and all staff will be working remotely using a live chat system to liaise with customers and virtual tours to show properties. The network has more than 5,000 properties available for sale.

Meanwhile the country’s largest estate agency, Sherry FitzGerald, has told about 300 staff to work from home while a further 300 franchisees, who run Sherry FitzGerald affiliate branches around the country, have been encouraged to work remotely where possible.

The company is offering a team of trained online personnel to deal with any queries from 9am - 9pm daily with a customer messaging platform to facilitate viewing and making offers digitally. Virtual viewings will replace all physical appointment viewings says director of communications Jill O’Neill.

“There are a lot of questions from people, particularly those who are in the process of agreeing or closing a sale, or who have moved out of their property in anticipation of a sale. We’re hoping to be able to answer all of them online or by phone.”

Dublin city estate agent Owen Reilly, who specialises in lettings as well as sales, has four branches throughout the capital – two in the Dublin docklands – and has just closed two of them. On Monday he and two staff members were taking a lot of calls.

“I’ve been surprised at how busy it’s been but we’re mostly dealing with tenant-related issues. People have been laid off and want to know about freezing their rent. There are tenants who are leaving for their own countries. I have had American tenants who have simply left already and they are not sure if they will be coming back. I’ve had landlords offering to stall rent payments if necessary. I’ve had the odd investor on looking for property bargains. There was even a guy on saying his shower wasn’t working and could someone come around to fix it.

Reilly has just more than 420 rental properties under management. “Extraordinarily people are still calling up enquiring about viewings. Last week I would have said yes. Now, today, business doesn’t seem that important,” he says.

On the sales side, Reilly is seeing some deals grind to a halt. “We have one property that was supposed to close today but that won’t happen until April now.” Another would-be buyer is actively trying to exit an agreed sale, he says. “I would expect to see more of that. “

As for prospective tenants, many of whom work in Dublin’s tech industry, Reilly’s staff is having to ask where they have travelled in recent weeks, and if they have been to affected regions, it’s unlikely they will be able to view properties.

“There is not a huge amount we can do until this period has passed,” Reilly says, though as it happens he was able to help the man with the broken shower. “We have a contractor who was nearby and able to go in, so that’s one problem solved.”

The Lisney agency has closed its Dublin and Cork branches to the public but will continue to show properties by appointment, according to a public statement today. “For now, all of the properties Lisney is offering for sale or to let will remain on view by appointment, but with social distancing precautions and at vendors’ and landlords’ discretion,” it says. The company’s property and facility management team will, it says, continue to provide services on location and manage buildings.

It’s not the time to put pressure on individuals whether they are buying or selling

Social distancing protocols have been introduced for property viewings, say Lisney, but elsewhere most viewings have been cancelled until further notice. At Bergins, a boutique Dublin agency, property negotiations are effectively being put “on ice” as the coronavirus situation unfolds. Director Nicola Williams says: “It’s not the time to put pressure on individuals whether they are buying or selling.” At the same time Williams has seen lenders holding back. “Last week there were some clients waiting for their loan offer letters to come through but they were not coming.”

Bergins also manages about 150 properties directly and sources tenants for a further 100 or so properties. “We’ve sent a message out to tenants asking them to be patient in such issues as repairs, for instance, but we’ve also had calls from tenants who have had to leave their rentals and also from landlords to see what they can do for their tenants. It’s not a discussion for just landlords and tenants at this stage. Bigger decision will have to be made, and banks and utility companies will have to get involved. We have to think of the human side of things, and that is my priority.”

David Cantwell of the Hooke & MacDonald agency, which specialises in new homes sales, says that the situation is unfolding and that the company is unlikely to be offering open viewings of the properties on its books. “Everyone in the business should be doing what is sensible and what is safe for their staff, and that is what we will be doing in the coming weeks. We will do whatever is right for staff and for clients. Of course it will disrupt sales, but hopefully policies will be put in place to help us all through this.”

Meanwhile in west Cork, veteran estate agent Charlie McCarthy working remotely though the agency now run by his daughter Maeve McCarthy remains open. “We’re lucky we live in an era of email and mobile phone, and jpeg,” he says. “Our properties will still be up on the web, and that is the first point of contact.” He’s noticed a slight uptick in enquiries from the UK, but acknowledges that there are also some sales that are in danger. “I have a few sales that are going to fall through. It will take some confidence out of the market.”

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