"Planning ahead of the easing of lockdown has helped us to hit the ground running and clear that lockdown backlog"
We spoke to Rachel Griffiths, head of panel management at SDL Surveying, about what lockdown was like for the surveying market and the biggest challenges facing surveyors post-Covid.
FR: It’s been over two months since the lockdown was eased, effectively opening up the housing market in England. What is the current situation for the business?
That decision was obviously a big moment, and it’s one we’d put a lot of preparation into being ready for, so when the announcement was made we had surveyors back out conducting physical inspections within days, with all the right PPE and following the necessary guidance.
Planning ahead of the easing of lockdown has helped us to hit the ground running and clear that lockdown backlog, and I think for our lender clients it reinforced the service we were able to offer and the quality of both our panel network firms and in-house surveyors.
Judging the mood of the market is difficult because it’s still early days but we currently have a lot of work on the books, and with measures like the stamp duty holiday, we expect this to certainly grow throughout 2020. It’s why we’re looking to increase our capacity by growing our in-house team of surveyors but also our panel network via an aggressive recruitment strategy, and it’s why we want to talk to all potential firms right across the country about what we can offer and the benefits for them in joining us.
FR: What was lockdown like and what do you think you got right?
One area where I believe we got things right during lockdown was with our communication with both our panel network and in-house surveyors.
We committed to regular weekly updates on where we believed we were in terms of returning to work, how SDL was preparing for that, for example, PPE provision and the potential work available in their postcodes. We also held regular Zoom updates/Q&As with senior staff in order to give our views and to keep them informed.
That approach appears to have gone down well, especially when you hear from panel network firms that some of our competitors did not make any contact with them at all during lockdown. I’ve been told a number of times that our ability to resume our operations very quickly, and our strong communication strategy, resulted in our panel network surveyors carrying out our work first, which meant we were able to work through our backlog in a very short amount of time.
FR: What next for SDL Surveying? Can you prepare when the market does seem like it’s going to fluctuate for some time?
Market fluctuations are a constant in this sector, but I think we’ve proven the worth of the model many times over, particularly during the past few months. That ability to clear the pipeline quickly hasn’t gone unnoticed by our existing lender clients or those who are perhaps working with other panel managers who haven’t been able to do the same in anywhere near the same timescale.
We are actively looking to grow our share of this space – in 2019 it went up to 18% from 14%, and even with Covid-19, we have ambitions to take this further to 23-25% within the next 18-24 months. The way that we’ll do that is by forging new relationships with lenders and it’s an ambitious but very real objective for the business to increase the number of lender clients we have.
FR: What are the biggest challenges facing surveyors right now?
As per usual, I think it’s probably to do with workflow and securing strong levels of continuous business, but there are also the considerations around Covid-19 which are clearly heightened for professionals who are visiting and going into homes. Our guidance is however clear, and the measures we’ve taken mean that we’re focused on minimising the risk to all concerned.
A further ongoing concern is probably around efficiencies and ensuring firms are maximising their income. One of the big benefits we offer to our panel network firms is not just the costs we cover, such as technology costs and the like, but also the administration burden we can take away. For example, our booking team book all their work through the client management system, which also optimises the individual surveyor’s work, their location and the properties they’re able to visit in any given day. That takes on a lot of what firms tend to do themselves and it means that office time can also be significantly reduced.
There are also other challenges, one of them is the nature of the PI market at present which is tight to say the least, and firms are having to adapt to the increased cost of this. Again, we can help here, but we can also help businesses diversify into other related areas such as mortgages, estate agency or other parts of the property business. That diversification can have a positive impact on the PI side.
Finally, there is a constant need to keep on top of the training and competence requirements that come with surveying, so we ensure we cover all of this with our firms by hosting our own sessions. If you take all the developments in 2020 alone, you can see that firms have a big job on their hands to ensure they’re fully up to date and CPD-wise.
FR: If you could see one headline about the property market during the rest of the year, what would it be?
It will be interesting to see how the stamp duty changes play out over the next eight months. I think it’s likely that it will result in a significant surge in business which would be most welcome, but we need that to continue that beyond the 31st March 2021.
So, perhaps looking ahead to mid-2021 rather than this year, I would like to see, ‘Housing transaction numbers continue to soar’ perhaps with further good news about employment numbers and a growing economy, especially after what we’re likely to see during the rest of this year.
Stamp duty changes for the short-term are of course most welcome, but we need to ensure that appetite and ability to purchase/remortgage/move/invest, etc, continues to be the case. We all want a sustainable, vibrant housing market for the long-term.