‘My dream home hangs in the balance’

By Dearbail Jordan & Tom Espiner
Business reporter

  • Published
Paul and Rachel Pattinson
Image caption,
Paul and Rachel Pattinson should have exchanged contracts on a new home this week

The UK housing market has almost ground to a halt after people were advised to stay at home to limit the spread of coronavirus.

The advice from the government is to postpone a move if at all possible.

However, some people are so close to moving they would still like to go ahead with it.

Rachel Pattinson, 32, and her husband Paul, 37, were due to exchange and complete their purchase of a house in County Durham on Tuesday 24 March.

But the night before they were due to move, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced wide-ranging restrictions on movement.

"It was very upsetting," says Rachel. "My dream home now hangs in the balance."

They did not move on Tuesday because a removal firm for a person further up the chain pulled out.

Removals firms have all but stopped work, and are trying to release staff from the "coalface" as soon as possible, according to industry body the British Association of Removers.

Rachel says that, in theory, they could still move, but "in reality, I don't know" whether it will happen.

She works in academia, and her husband works for a firm that supplies accessibility construction services, and they fell they would still be able to pay the mortgage.

And they are not reliant on a removals firm, as they planned to leave the large furniture behind in their old house, and treat themselves to some new furniture.

But because the whole coronavirus crisis is so fast-moving, and there is so much uncertainty about what will happen in the future, Rachel really does not know whether the move will come to pass.

Out of pocket

Whatever happens, she thinks coronavirus will leave her out of pocket. If the sale falls through, they still would have paid solicitors and other costs.

And if the sale does go through, Rachel thinks there could be a dip in house prices compared to the price agreed in November last year, again putting them out of pocket.

Other families are in a similar position.

Until Thursday, Mehreen Ali's hopes of moving her young family into a new house in April were moving along nicely.

Image caption,
Mehreen Ali is concerned about legal action if her family's home sale falls through

Now, because of the coronavirus, the plan has ground to a virtual halt.

"Every bit of correspondence is taking twice, three times as long," says Mrs Ali, 36 from Sheffield. "The contracts have been signed and sent through from our side and we are still waiting for a response from the buyer's side.

"Everything is resting on one decision," she says.

At the other end of the chain is a newly-built house.

The government has advised that vacant properties can be moved into provided removers and the new tenants follow safety measures against coronavirus.

And the company building the Alis' new home said they will provide people to help move them and their two young children into the house.

Wiggle room

However, Mrs Ali says that if she and her husband - who works for the NHS - cannot exchange on the sale of their own home, they may not be able to complete the purchase of their new home.

She fears this could result in legal action.

"I think the biggest concern is what kind of protection do we have," she says. "Not financial protection but rather a legal clause saying 'because of the coronavirus and things taking longer, this is a clause saying you will not be taken to court. You will get so many weeks or so many months of leeway to give you some wriggle room'.

"That would be a really huge comfort for us really because otherwise what do we do?"

She says that they did have a back up plan - to re-mortgage their house and put it up for let - in case they could not sell their house in time.

But she says "obviously the letting market is completely down now, adding: "For re-mortgaging now the deposits have exponentially increased because of this uncertainty whereas up until maybe one week, two weeks ago perhaps we might have stretched ourselves to the maximum to be able to pay it."

Mrs Ali says that she has been in constant contact with the housebuilders.

"We haven't felt any kind of negative impressions from them," she says. "But they are very eager to push forward with the sale of the new property.

"From a big company's point of view I think there's just less at stake compared to one small family - we have everything at stake."