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Melbourne real estate during stage 4 lockdown: Settlement, end of lease services allowed

By Ben Jusufi

All services relating to a property settlement or an end of lease – including valuations, pest inspections and key collections – can still occur under Melbourne’s stage 4 COVID-19-related restrictions, the real estate industry body has confirmed.

But the peak body for real estate agents is still awaiting answers about how new tenancies can start.

The Real Estate Institute of Victoria is also lobbying the state government to again allow private inspections of properties – both for sale and for lease.

REIV president Leah Calnan said she believed agents should be able to show approved, vetted tenants and buyers through properties at a private inspection.

“We’re not anticipating a huge number of sales over the six weeks,” Ms Calnan said. “But buyers do not purchase properties without doing an inspection – even if it is during settlement if they bought it after a virtual inspection, they still want to see the property.”

The unresolved issue of how tenancies could begin – specifically if tenants could move in and how keys could be collected – was a big one, and Ms Calnan said many new tenants and landlords with empty properties were affected by this uncertainty.

As of Friday afternoon, the REIV had received advice that in cases where a lease had been signed and a bond had been paid, agents could hand over keys to new tenants using a contactless key collection system, where agents open the property, leave the keys inside, exit the property at which point the tenant could go inside.

Ms Calnan said it was still unclear if this would apply to new tenancies where an agreement had not yet been signed, but that the REIV was seeking further clarification on this point.

“The fines are so high, we just want to be clear,” she said.

Other approved actions include cleaning of common areas in apartment buildings, urgent repairs in rental properties, and condition reports for rental properties. Agents should combine similar trips to the same property.

Tenants leaving a property could also engage cleaners and gardeners to ensure their bond was returned in a timely manner.

Ms Calnan said it was still unclear whether agents could visit their offices for mail collection and invoicing paperwork, whether they needed multiple “permitted worker” permits for different days they were working out of home, and whether people in stage 4 lockdown could travel to stage 3 lockdown areas in regional Victoria for property inspections.

“The industry has shown a high level of agility across this process,” she said. “I feel like we’re back at Easter when there was so much uncertainty around what could be done.”

For landlord David Long, the uncertainty around getting a new tenant struck just as stage 4 restrictions came into effect.

He and his partner Catherine Lincoln have had their Prahran investment property as part of their self managed super fund for almost 10 years, their most recent tenants vacated at the end of July.

His agent had found him a suitable tenant on Wednesday evening – but because by midnight they had not yet signed a lease the tenant could not technically move in during the next six weeks.

“We’ve been caught on the cusp of this,” Mr Long said. “Leaving us to potentially lose the rent through that time, which is a significant loss to our super fund.”

He said the prospective tenant could not move into the property until the 28th of August – just over three weeks into the stage 4 lockdown period.

He said he had still not signed a lease, as it was still unclear what the rules around starting a new tenancy were.

“If you end a lease, normally you’re starting one as well,” he said. “We’ve got a well-maintained property that we can’t lease.”

Experts predicted the impact of the restrictions on sales would cut deep.

AMP Capital chief economist Shane Oliver said he was revising earlier predictions of a fall of between 5 and 10 per cent, to sliding 15 to 20 per cent by mid-next year.

“I would suspect the transactions will slow to a crawl,” Dr Oliver said. “It may have the effect of slowing down [immediate] price declines because there will be so few sales.”

The challenge would be when the market reopened in six weeks’ time, when people who could not afford to pay their mortgages because they had lost their jobs, or could not keep up payments for investment properties due to not getting rental payments, looked to sell.

The poor economic outlook would intensify in September as JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments start to wind down, and the pressure on small businesses would see some inevitably fold, he said.

“On the one hand there will be a bunch of buyers thinking ‘I can get out there and buy’, but on the other hand it opens up the potential for a sharper decline once the lockdown is over,” Dr Oliver said.

Before lockdown began on Wednesday night, agents had been scrambling to ensure they had photos and videos of properties recently listed for sale, but were expecting things to be incredibly slow for the next month and a half.

“It’s weird times,” Kay & Burton South Yarra partner Michael Armstrongsaid.

“A lot of our clients want a plan for the next six weeks and we’ve seen a combination of people that will withdraw from the market … and reboot later on and some who will stay the course,” he said.

But Marshall White Stonnington director and auctioneer John Bongiornobelieved there were properties that would sell sight unseen, including those in suburbs familiar to buyers.

“I just made an offer on a property in Armadale on behalf of a client and I haven’t seen the home and he hasn’t either,” Mr Bongiorno said. “I know the street and the property so I was happy to.”

The main changes of stage 4 restrictions so far include:

Vendors

For those planning to go ahead with their auctions, these must be done online.

Those who are settling on a property they live in or have purchased and need to move will be able to do so, remembering curfew hours still apply.

All activities relating to settling a property, including key drop-offs, pest inspections, valuations and lock changing can still go ahead. Agents can still visit the office to collect keys and relevant paperwork.

Private, one-on-one inspections with estate agents are banned for the next six weeks and buyers will need to inspect properties online.

Tenants

Tenants are still protected by rules introduced by the Victorian government in March, which placed a moratorium on evictions for those unable to pay the rent due to coronavirus. (There is a time limit of six months, meaning this will expire at the end of September.) They are able to end leases early if they are in financial distress because of the pandemic.

Tenants can engage cleaners and gardeners at the end of their lease if they are moving out and need to leave the property in good condition to get their bond back in a timely manner.

It is still unclear how tenants can start a new lease, collect keys and move into a new property.

Landlords

Landlords can negotiate a partial payment of rent with tenants to ensure there is still money coming in.

Those who do negotiate a rental reduction are able to apply for relief on their land tax bills to help with costs of their investment.

It is still unclear how landlords can get a new tenant into a vacant or soon-to-be-vacant property.

Source: Domain.com

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