It’s vital to ‘think positive’ in the face of adversity - David Alexander comment

In times of crisis, there is a tendency for the British character to “muddle through”.

Encouragement has come in the amount of new business that has come our way, says the property boss. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

We play to our strengths – but recognise our weaknesses, in which case understatement becomes a virtue. Consequently, while mistakes are made we do get to where we want to in the end. Moving from a national to a local/regional commercial perspective, this very much reflects the environmental backdrop to running a business in the middle of the Covid-19 emergency.

In normal times, when things are going well, confidence helps a business grow. In the current environment, character-building and determination are essential for survival.

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Thankfully – and long before the threat of Covid-19 appeared on the horizon – we had taken the precaution of setting up a “business critical team” comprising a number of key workers who had been specially-trained to keep core functions going in the event of a major natural disaster, terrorist attack or – for that matter – a major health-related crisis.

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Since social distancing has more or less made standard business practice an impossibility, only 20 per cent of our staff are working as normal – or, rather, as near to normal as it’s possible to get in the circumstances. The remainder are at home on 80 per cent salary thanks to the Chancellor’s furlough scheme, which has kept an awful lot of people in jobs that otherwise would have gone by now.

In a difficult and uncertain time for individuals and commercial organisations, we are doing everything we can to protect and retain our staff and future-proof our business model. And even in lockdown, encouragement has come in the amount of new business – relatively speaking, of course – that has come our way.

As I predicted at the start of this crisis, parts of normal life would continue and this would still necessitate some house moves. In this respect, “virtual viewing” of houses and flats has been a godsend because it has enabled new tenants to feel more comfortable about their choice of accommodation than if they had to rely on photographs and text descriptions.

Changing viewpoints

Yes, I know, regular readers will recall how just a few weeks ago I showed little enthusiasm for virtual viewing – but this is just another example of how the crisis is changing attitudes, both socially and commercially.

Indeed, the fact of having more business than anticipated earlier has meant taking some staff out of furlough and back to our offices to cope with demand, which I have to say is warmly welcomed by the “returnees” who are delighted to get back to a semblance of routine. For obvious reasons, these do not include those with underlying health conditions or single parents.

Unfortunately, this activity is confined to the lettings sector. Few – if any – owner-occupiers are prepared to buy a property on the strength of a virtual viewing and, of course, literal viewings by vendors are suspended.

Thousands of sales, on the verge of being completed on the eve of lockdown, are currently in limbo and it seems inevitable that some transactions, in which missives were not completed, will fall through. The bigger losers in all of this are likely to be sellers. Some buyers will pull out for reasons like a drop in income or, worse still, redundancy; or simply fears over taking on a new commitment at a time of uncertainty.

However, other buyers fortunate enough to have secured a sale of their previous property pre-lockdown will pull out because they believe the price they originally agreed – the “pre-Covid 19 price” – is now way too high and that a more favourable deal can be achieved when the market starts to recover. But this raises another conundrum.

Even when the market takes a tumble, vendors are notoriously reluctant to drop the perceived value of a property from its “peak rate”. This raises the spectre of a new lockdown with neither buyers nor sellers willing to budge. Will this happen? Only time will tell. Meantime, our aim is to remain positive and focused on moving forward.

David Alexander is MD of DJ Alexander

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