Surface water flooding – could you be at risk?

Is your home at risk from surface water flooding?

Could surface water flooding affect your home? It only seems five minutes since we were all complaining about the heat and already we have seen extreme weather result in flash floods in parts of the country. Surface water flooding, as opposed to rivers bursting their banks after sustained rainfall, is a risk to an estimated three million homes around the country. This type of flooding normally happens after heavy thunderstorms or rainfall when the volume of rainwater is such that it does not drain away or soak into the ground. What makes it worse is that due to its localised nature, it is very difficult to predict.

So the government is trying to tackle the problem with an independent review aimed at reducing the risk of surface water flooding across England and has announced it will implement 12 of its recommendations without delay. These will build on the existing Surface Water Management Action Plan.

The review highlights a number of ways in which the risks from surface water flooding could be more effectively managed, and it makes clear who is responsible for constructing and maintaining drainage systems – which is crucial in managing flood risk.

The recommendations aim to improve clarity over roles and responsibilities, ensure flood investigation reports take into account the views of residents and businesses and that lessons learned are shared widely. It also recommends that better advice is made available to homes and businesses at risk of surface water flooding to help them improve their own protection and resilience.

It is also good to hear that £1.2 billion is being invested in a state-of-the-art supercomputer to improve severe weather and climate forecasting which will help to more accurately predict storms. Let’s hope it doesn’t suffer from the kind of problems that too often beset government IT projects. There will also be changes in how funding is allocated to flood protection projects. The aim here is to enable surface water flooding protection schemes to qualify for more funding.

So good news for anyone whose home is likely to be at risk. But in the meantime, there are things that residents can do to protect themselves and their property, even from flash flooding. First, make sure you have buildings and contents insurance policies that provide flood cover. Second, talk to your property manager about emergency procedures in your block if there is a likelihood of it being affected by floodwater. And last but not least, make sure you know how to access the environment agency’s flood warning service. This may not always be able to predict surface water flooding but it should help to flag up areas that may be at risk. You can sign up for this free service here

An emergency bag under the bed or at the back of the wardrobe may sound daft but if you’re in a flood risk area it is a sensible precaution to take. Click here for some ideas as to what it should contain

We all hope the worst will never happen and the government is taking action to tackle flooding from all sources, but with more extreme weather being faced around the world, as people living on the Louisiana coast are finding out this morning, it is important to be prepared.
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Green Homes Grant Scheme – why quality really does matter

Quality assurance will be key to consumer confidence.
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The Green Homes Grant Scheme was announced in July. It promises homeowners and landlords in England vouchers covering a proportion of the cost of upgrading their homes to make them more energy-efficient. The aim is not only to improve the country’s ageing housing stock and help people keep their energy bills down but also to protect jobs in the trades sector as we start to feel the impact of the pandemic on the economy.

The new scheme will see the government fund up to two-thirds of the cost of home improvements of an estimated 600,000 homes.  The new vouchers are worth up to £5,000 for homeowners but households on low incomes will be eligible for vouchers covering the whole cost of improvements, up to a maximum of £10,000.

Green Homes Grants will give homeowners, including owner-occupiers and social/private landlords, vouchers to install one or more of the following:

  • solid wall, under-floor, cavity wall or roof insulation
  • air source or ground source heat pump
  • solar thermal

Vouchers can also be used for further energy-saving measures including one or more of:

  • double or triple glazing/secondary glazing, when replacing single glazing
  • upgrading to energy-efficient doors
  • hot water tank/appliance tank thermostats/heating controls

But it’s not so long ago that a similar Green Deal scheme, launched in 2013 to provide loans to improve domestic energy efficiency, turned out to be a dismal failure. According to press reports based on findings by the official auditors the initiative, abandoned in 2015, cost taxpayers nearly £400m and did not deliver energy or carbon savings. So what is being done differently this time around?

The difference with the Green Homes Grant seems to be that attention is now being paid to quality assurance – and rightly so. Consumer confidence will be key to its success. So builders, plumbers, and other tradespeople will need a government-backed seal of approval to provide their services. They must register for TrustMark or Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) accreditation to take part in the £2 billion programme.

Once the scheme kicks off, anyone who wants to take advantage of the Green Homes Grant will be able to get advice from the Simple Energy Advice (SEA) service. SEA will suggest home improvements that homeowners could make that will fit the grant criteria. They will then be offered a list of approved TrustMark and MCS registered tradespeople in their local area to carry out the work. Once the works are agreed, vouchers will start to be issued from the end of September.

Of course the big question everyone will be asking is, how much money could I save? The Government says this. For the installation of cavity wall and floor insulation in a semi or end-terrace house at a cost of around £4,000, the homeowner would pay just £1,320 – with the government paying £2,680. This could save the owner more than £200 on their annual energy bills and reduce their carbon footprint by cutting 700 kg of CO2 a year from their home alone.

So if the scheme works as it is intended to, there could be substantial savings to be made – up to £600 a year on average. Good news all round we think.
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Get on your bike – but where will you keep it?

Cycling is big news – but do we have enough bike storage to meet demand?

Get on your bike! This was the message from Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday as he launched ambitious plans to get us all off the sofa and out walking and cycling. As part of an initiative to help us all lose that lockdown flab, the PM announced that the Government will be rolling out thousands of miles of new protected bike lanes, cycle training for everyone, and even bikes available on prescription.

The new plan aims to build on the huge number of people who took up cycling during the pandemic. Everyone has been unearthing their old bike from the back of the shed. Buying a new cycle has been an impossible ambition as specialist suppliers like Halfords completely sold out all their stock and even decent second-hand bikes, usually readily available, have been like gold dust. The Government’s plans are clearly popular as the website set up to distribute £50 vouchers so that people could get broken bikes fixed, crashed within minutes of its launch.

But even if you can get your old bike back in working order, if you live in a flat, where are you supposed to keep it? Short of hanging it on the wall or from the ceiling of your flat – which could breach the terms of your tenancy agreement if you rent your home – many people have few options.

Modern developments often now include bike storage but are older blocks ready for a deluge of bike ownership? Anyone who has lived in a residential block has suffered a neighbour who insists on keeping their bike in the hallway outside their door. One of our property managers has even reported seeing a resident taking a motorbike up in the lift!

But bikes in common areas are a potential trip hazard and could block an exit route if a fire breaks out, so proper storage will be needed. Could developers build and demise secure bike stores for performance bikes with fully protected hinges and locks -and does a secure bike store need planning permission? These questions will need quick answers if we are all to buy-in to cycling.

Another big issue is the number of flat owners who don’t have the contents insurance that is necessary to cover a bike. Bike theft increased during lockdown but recent figures suggest that up to two-thirds of people living in flats don’t have their own insurance. Don’t just assume that your buildings insurance will cover theft. It won’t.

So don’t get caught out. Talk to your landlord or property manager about storage options. And make sure you cover your bike – if you can get hold of one – with the right insurance.
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It’s time for a town centre revival!

Could new planning laws bring life back to the high street? Photo credit: Metin Ozer

Can we expect to see a town centre revival in the next few years? The Government certainly hopes so. Changes to planning legislation, expected to be in place by September, will make it quicker and easier to demolish and rebuild unused buildings as homes, and to re-purpose commercial and retail properties to help revitalise high streets and town centres around the country. Other changes will also enable up to two additional storeys to be added to homes via a fast track approval process.

The aim is to bring people back into urban centres and make more space for new businesses, helping towns and cities adapt quickly to what consumers and business need, while at the same time reducing pressure to build on greenfield sites and deliver more homes that fit the character of their local area – but without the red tape. And if our national green strategy is to encourage people to use their cars less we need to live where our jobs are – another great argument in favour of living and working in our town centres.

The problem right now is that many of our town centres are rather depressing places to live in.   Institutional Build to Rent with flexible workspaces and amenities are coming – but not fast enough.

In reality, creating homes from commercial space can create problems for developers.  It is clear that our largely Victorian and pre-war high streets do not meet today’s requirements; parking provision is poor and expensive, units are often small with a lack of ceiling height or opportunities for mezzanine floors; basements are built on a grid system with a high number of structural partitions, and we have space to light and air-exchange requirements to meet. So retail buildings clearly present challenges. But conversely, frequently unused upper floors bring the prospect of creating on-trend loft-style units. And while we have ‘overlooking’ rules, with the appropriate screening this too could be a chance to open up atriums and create internal gardens.

With a little creative thinking, there are real opportunities for developer- led town centre initiatives.  First, one can achieve much higher densities in town centres, second, localism is unlikely to present any threats and third, making urban areas car-free is less likely to face opposition.  

We all saw the banks raise capital by auctioning off their freeholds and becoming tenants, with opportunities still remaining on our beleaguered high streets for more of the same.  Large stores could very easily downsize, lose some floors to residential, and with this autumn’s new legislation in place, have new penthouse floors on the roof.  Management company structures need not disturb the developer’s right to retail rental income, as the developer can grant his investment vehicle a head lease thereby making the retail unit a member of the management company, but removing the investment income.

So as well as loosening the planning laws, the Government needs to set a vision for the future for town centres; we need streetscapes, turnover rates, and a deadline for every local authority to put in place a town centre master plan.  We are now a ‘lifestyle’ society so the focus needs to be on what makes a town centre a place to choose to go to socialise and have a great day out.  Why can’t our town centres be dotted with children’s play areas?  Why can’t we encourage the private sector to put in free alfresco internet hubs on our high streets where once we had telephone boxes?   Why can’t this be the year that all national lottery-funded art simply has to go to our high streets?   Let’s encourage lifestyle providers to our high streets, such as hairdressers, nail salons and fitness centres, making the high street the place to go and get ready for a night out

And why can’t all building refurbishment in town centre development zones be VAT free?  That way there would be a presumption towards refurbishing our deserted department stores. Inevitably a number of lower rise buildings will need to go.  Our town centres lack people and we must bring them back. This new legislation, if used effectively, could make it possible.

It is so sad when you drive into a town centre only to see shops crudely bricked up and poorly repurposed as housing. It is time for a robust strategy and a design framework to re-claim these areas with housing that is as uniformly pleasing as our much-loved out-of-town streetscapes.

Arguably the world is now brand-driven. So if ‘Dreams’ and ‘Sports Direct’ can boast that acceptable percentages of their stores are ‘in town’ we need to tell British business that the best community initiative you can have is to send the message that ‘cool brands are in town’.

Out-of-town retail floor space has been increasing for decades, while in-town space fails. The economic fall-out from Covid-19 and the ever-increasing trend for online shopping is set to reduce retail footfall even further. So if by encouraging local government, planners and developers to work together to move the consumer into an experience-led high street within walking distance of home, then maybe we stand a chance of starting the revival we all want to see in our towns and cities.

What do you think? Will the Government’s legislation make a real difference to our high streets? We’d like to hear your comments.
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Flood risk homes to get more protection

Is your home at risk from flooding?

Flood risk is a major problem for millions of homeowners. So a new strategy to make homes more resilient and improve flood management is good news. Yesterday the Environment Agency set out a plan to better protect and prepare millions of homes and businesses in areas where flooding is a problem.

The Agency estimates that more than 5.2 million properties in England are already at risk, and climate change will lead to even more people being affected. With more extreme weather expected, including summer temperatures up to 7.4˚C hotter and 59% more rainfall by 2050, the new Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy sets out how to tackle the problem during the next decade.

Measures will include:

  • Expanded flood warnings by 2022 to all at-risk properties, with 62,000 more families to be added to the service
  • Increased investment in natural flood management schemes to better protect communities, tackle climate change and create new wildlife habitats
  • Further promote the use of property flood resilience measures to help homeowners recover more quickly from flooding
  • More collaborative partnerships with national road, rail and utilities providers to promote better flood resilience and benefit the public.

The new strategy was announced alongside details of the £5.2 billion that will be spent on flood protection up to 2027, plus a further £200 million for resilience measures in 25 areas around the country.

There will also be reforms to the FloodRe insurance programme based on a review of the scheme published last July. Flood Re is a government insurance scheme that gives access to affordable insurance for hundreds of thousands of homes at high risk of flooding.

The proposed changes include:

  • offering discounted premiums to households that have fitted flood resilience measures such as airbrick covers or non-return valves.
  • claims payments to include an additional amount to help homeowners refurbish their damaged property in a more flood resilient way.

This news is very welcome, especially as climate change makes widespread flooding likely to become more frequent. To read more about what to do if your home is threatened by rising floodwater, read our blog on this topic here.
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Why we say NO to cancelling rents!

Cancelling rents would be disastrous for landlords and investors says Ringley Group MD

Cancelling rents for private tenants without reimbursing landlords would be “stealing from people’s pension pots” says Ringley Group MD Mary-Anne Bowring in response to demands for more radical policies to help renters.

More than 4,000 Labour party members recently signed an open letter backing cancelling rent as a policy. The letter argued Labour’s five-point plan to help renters, which included extending the evictions ban by at least six months and giving tenants two years to pay back rent arrears, did not go far enough. Meanwhile, the London Renters’ Union and others are calling for rent strikes, claiming renters are having to choose between food and paying rent.

The government’s ban on evictions has been extended until August 23rd, which has calmed fears that thousands of tenants could lose their homes if the ban wasn’t extended.

However, Mary-Anne firmly believes that cancelling rents in the private sector would punish hundreds of thousands of pensioners, as well as risk halting the current appetite from UK pension funds who are investing billions into creating new high-quality homes for rent. The most recent English Private Landlord Survey estimates there are at least 1.5m landlords in England alone. Of those, nearly half said they invested in rental property to supplement their pension and approximately one-third are retired.

This means if a rent cancellation was to be introduced, at least 500,000 retired landlords would see their rental income wiped out entirely. This would also dramatically reduce rent revenues for pension funds, many of which have suffered losses from retail and office investments and rely on income from property to match their liabilities.

No one can doubt or deny that millions of renters are facing major financial difficulties or anxieties but cancelling rents is not the answer. Some renters may need more financial assistance from the government but cancelling rents or getting the government to pay would be hugely damaging,” warns Mary-Anne.

 Both private and institutional landlords would lose rental income unless the government stepped in to pay private residential rents, which could cost the taxpayer billions and is completely unacceptable.

That’s our take on Labour’s proposals. What do you think?
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What makes a great business leader?

You can listen to Ringley Group MD Mary-Anne Bowring talking about leadership in the property industry in a new podcast

What makes a great business leader? This is one of the topics of conversation between Ringley Group MD Mary-Anne Bowring and host Matthew O’Neill in a new podcast from the Leaders Council of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The network champions the hard work and achievements of British leaders across the political and business spheres and is currently in the process of talking to leading figures in an attempt to understand what leadership means in Britain and Northern Ireland today. The Council invited Mary-Anne onto the podcast to discuss tips and advice on how to be a great business leader and to take a closer look at the challenges faced by businesses during the coronavirus lockdown.

Lord Blunkett, chairman of The Leaders Council of Great Britain and Northern Ireland said: “I think the most informative element of each episode is the first part, where Matthew O’Neill is able to sit down with someone who really gets how their industry works and knows how to make their organisation tick. Someone who is there day in day out working hard and inspiring others. That’s what leadership is all about.”

Mary-Anne, who set up the business 20 years ago, is a regular media commentator and is frequently quoted on issues such as leasehold reform, building safety regulations and the UK housing market.

At Ringley Group we manage more than 12,000 homes across the country and have advised major residential investors such as Patrizia, Curlew and Moda Living. Most recently, we have invested over £2m in creating a suite of tech products for the property industry, and have just launched our automated lettings platform PlanetRent.

Mary-Anne was delighted to be invited to appear on The Leaders Council podcast in such a challenging time for the property sector. “Speaking with Matthew about the challenges I currently face in my day-to-day role and providing advice to the younger generation was brilliant,” she says. “We’re currently in a very challenging time for the UK’s economy and it was fantastic to give Matthew an insight into my career and where I am now.”

The episode also features an exclusive interview with England’s footballing legend, Sir Geoff Hurst, who remains the only player to score a hat trick in a World Cup Final. So if property, leadership – or football – are topics you are interested in, you can listen to the podcast in full on YouTube.
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Will we be repurposing property in the post-pandemic world?

Could we be about to see a post-pandemic trend for repurposing property in a really positive way?

Repurposing property could be a major post-pandemic trend. Since lockdown restrictions were lifted on estate and lettings agents in May, we are already seeing a growing trend for both renters and buyers to show more interest in out-of-town homes with gardens. And, with more of us likey to be working remotely for some time, properties with space for home-working are likely to become more desirable.

Offices too could be transformed as commercial tenants re-think their space requirements and rely more on technology than on face-to-face interactions, both with colleagues and clients. Research from vertical transportation consultancy, reported by the Institute of Residential Property Management (IRPM) reveals that lasting change could be on the cards for the office sector in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Mark Fairweather, managing director of D2E, thinks we could see a paradigm shift in the workplace, working practices, and commuting habits,  with almost half (44%) of workers polled by the company in a recent survey saying they will be asking their employers if they can work for at least some days of the week from home. 

The post-pandemic period may also signal the end of trying to cram more people into less space.   D2E expects the typical space allocation of 8 sq m per person to go up to something like 12 sq m per person on main floors, as more social distancing is needed at work. Lobby and reception areas are likely to expand too, and there could be a greater focus on stairwells and walking where possible, to help workers avoid crowded lifts and escalators.  With fewer people keen to use public transport, there may be more need for bike storage and shower facilities, and D2E also predicts changed canteen layouts for social distancing and increased natural ventilation, as well as a swing towards touchless technology in lifts and lobbies.

With all minds focused on the pandemic, it’s easy to forget that we are still facing a housing crisis. Property specialist Colliers International points to the possibility of repurposing hotels for residential use, creating much- needed homes as well as opening up redevelopment opportunities for the hard-hit hospitality sector.

In the beleaguered hospitality sector, rather than take the financial hit of waiting for a return to pre-pandemic operating conditions, looking at redevelopment options may be a more realistic route for some hotel owners. Colliers suggests this would require a relaxation of planning restrictions but it could provide a solution for local authorities, who could then deliver accommodation in Class C categories such as affordable housing, houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) and care homes.

At Ringley, we have been calling for some time for new and better use to be made of retail developments in our hard-hit high streets. We believe institutionally-led, integrated build-to-rent and co-working space is the answer. Not only should the demise of large swathes of traditional retail drive the institutions to get creative and repurpose their space but, as we are all facing a similar collapse in the value of our pensions, all those who pay into one should demand it!

We are leading the way by launching a white label flexible office management platform called Busy Living at our new co-working space in Camden and will be blogging about this in more detail soon.

We believe that, once the pandemic passes, we may find ourselves facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to genuinely rethink the way we use property to bring genuine benefits for us all. What do you think?
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Could London-based buyers drive out-of-town housing market activity?

Could Londoners choosing to leave the capital drive out-of-town housing market activity?

Housing market activity is definitely on the up – and London-based buyers could drive activity outside the capital. This is the view from estate agent Hamptons, as it publishes new housing market research. Last week we blogged about a possible ‘lockdown lift-off’ as agencies opened their doors again. Now Hamptons’ figures appear to be pointing in the same direction. “After seven frozen weeks, the housing market seems to be moving up a gear” they say.

The number of potential buyers registering with the agency has more than doubled, with new instructions and the number of offers trebling. This is a positive sign but the market has far from fully recovered and it will take some time before the impact of lockdown on pricing becomes clear.

Early signs are that London-based buyers are going to play a big role in housing markets outside the capital this year. Nearly one in five (19%) applicants who registered in a Southern Hamptons branch in April were from London, up from 12% in April 2019 and 13% in April 2016 when London outmigration last peaked. House prices in the country have lagged behind those in cities over the last decade, which means country homes now look relatively good value.  So as we and other industry commentators have been predicting in the last few weeks, it looks as if there could be an increase in people hoping to move away from urban areas in search of more space and a home with a garden.

“Over the last decade house prices in prime areas of London have risen 79%, almost double the 42% recorded in prime country locations.  This means that the average seller leaving London can gain an additional 953 sq ft by selling up and moving to the country, often the biggest pull for those making the move out of the capital,” says Aneisha Beveridge, Head of Research at Hamptons International.

Despite young people being most like to have lost work or seen their income drop because of the coronavirus pandemic (source: The Resolution Foundation) Hamptons data shows that first-time buyers are leading the increase in demand. In April, first-time buyers made up 44% of those searching for a property to buy, up from 24% in the same month last year. For those first-time buyers who haven’t lost their jobs or taken an income cut, that’s put them in a good position to save.

So if the government decides to add some stimulus to the housing market by offering a stamp duty holiday like it did in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, some first-time buyers may even find they are in a better position to get on the housing ladder than they were two months ago.

Hamptons also keeps track of trends in the rental market. Its monthly lettings index shows that restrictions on movement throughout April meant that most tenants decided to stay put. That meant those homes that were available to rent last month took longer to let than usual due to the fall in demand. It took 29 days on average to let a home in Great Britain last month, the longest time recorded in April since Hamptons’ records began in 2013.

It’s also becoming clear that the income squeeze is impacting rents. Hamptons says rental growth continued to slow last month, with average rents in Great Britain falling for the second month in a row. Rents on renewed tenancies fell -0.5% year-on-year in April, yet London and the South East were the only regions to record falls.

But activity has rebounded quickly. Hamptons registered 13.4% more applicants so far this month compared with the same period last year. That means just under six applicants looking per rental property, up from just over four a year ago.
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Is this the start of the housing market recovery?

Would you be confident enough in the new government guidelines to put your house on the market?

The housing market recovery could already be underway. That may be optimistic but it certainly looks set for a rapid post-pandemic revival. Early indicators are better than expected, with Rightmove reporting online property searches surging back to normal levels immediately after the government reopened the housing market last week.  The property website told Landlord Today that within 24 hours of restrictions being lifted in England, almost 5.2 million visits were recorded. That’s up 4% on the same day last year and is the busiest day for enquiries since last September.

With effect from last Wednesday:

  • estate agents’ offices are open
  • viewings – whether virtual or in-person – are permitted
  • show homes are open
  • and removal companies and the other essential parts of the sales and letting process are re-started with immediate effect.

All good news. But it’s far from business as usual for agents and customers. With new government guidelines in place, potential buyers and sellers, as well as property agents, are having to rapidly adapt to a new normal.

Here’s what the government says. “In the first instance viewings should happen virtually. When viewings do happen in person, we’ve set out a clear plan to ensure the safety of those already in the property itself, those considering moving in and the estate agents and lettings agents”.

The new guidelines are that:

  • Visits should be by appointment only. Open house viewings cannot take place and speculative viewings where buyers or tenants are not serious yet, are highly discouraged.
  • All parties must follow strict social distancing guidelines.
  • All internal doors should be opened where possible.
  • The current occupier should vacate the property for the duration of the visit, going out for their daily exercise, going out to the shops or standing in the garden, if possible.
  • Everyone involved in the process is advised to wash their hands on entering the property. And, once the viewing has taken place, all surfaces in the property including the door handles, should be thoroughly cleaned.

Miles Shipside from Rightmove thinks the guidelines are stringent but correct. The recovery of transaction volumes will rely on the fact that prospective buyers and existing and future sellers feel safe enough to get the market moving again, he says. We agree. Our Manchester-based lettings business Life by Ringley has adapted quickly to virtual viewings and they are now on offer to all our clients. We don’t see this changing and in fact, it may simply become the way we do business. It’s quick and easy and helps customers make a quick decision about whether or not they are interested in a particular property. Estate agents are rolling this out to their customers too and in a few years’ time, we will probably all wonder why we didn’t do it sooner!

It remains to be seen whether the surge in online interest from potential buyers will translate into a housing market recovery. If so, will we see new trends emerging towards out-of-town homes versus urban locations, as people fear that living cheek-by-jowl with others may increase their chances of catching a virus that shows no signs of simply going away? The next few months will be interesting, as well as challenging, for the housing market.
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