COVID-19 | Coronavirus and the Landlords' Code of Conduct. We are waiting...
Clare Christiansen & Kent Cliffe discuss the impacts of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on rental properties in Perth.
The Western Australian Government is still to provide a Code of Conduct for Landlords and tenants suffering financial hardship.
In this video we go through some issues we have faced as a property management company in Perth.
Video transcript & other resources.
Kent Cliffe (00:00):
Today we're going to discuss how COVID-19 has impacted the residential rental market in Perth. I have with me Clare Christiansen on a Hangout meeting due to social isolation. Clare Christiansen is the general manager of Rent Choice. Clare has over 15 years experience in residential rentals, but I'm sure that she's had very limited experience in pandemics. So, there have been some significant changes in our office, and there are also some significant changes in government legislation and possibly long-term structural changes in the residential rental market that may take place as a result of this. So, I wanted to open up a discussion today with Clare in asking her what does it mean for Rent Choice?
Clare Christiansen (00:44):
For many businesses like Rent Choice, we've had to adapt and innovate our business practices to ensure the safety and well-being of our clients, team and for the community, as well as the delivery of our high standards of client expectation. Our high standards are part of our Customer Service Guarantees, which can be viewed HERE.
Kent Cliffe (01:01):
Okay. So, I guess, the takeaway from that is it's important to maintain our level of service despite the situation. It's probably no excuse. And what will be the type of things that Rent Choice is doing to action this high level of client service?
Clare Christiansen (01:20):
We're making some changes to the way we do business in response to COVID-19. We will endeavour to make sure these changes affect your day-to-day interactions with Rent Choice as little as possible, and we appreciate your understanding as we continue to work together in this environment.
Kent Cliffe (01:39):
Okay, so the office is open and working. What's the current status?
Clare Christiansen (01:43):
So, in the last 18 months, we've been focusing on technology and solutions to work remotely. In fact, it's quite common that our property managers are working from home or on-site when possible. A property manager's job is fundamentally on the road (DMIRS has a good summary of a property managers roles on THIS PAGE)So, subsequently, we've already had the ability to work remotely and therefore, we have actually made our office by appointment only.
Kent Cliffe (02:08):
Okay, well I'm going to throw a question in there that's probably not to script. What types of things does Rent Choice use? You talk about technology, but what're some examples in the office?
Clare Christiansen (02:19):
Sure. So, we have a digital co-working space, which incorporates a whiteboard to see properties for lease. We also have checklists that we can pass tasks between team members and we can check off those statuses at any time, anywhere. We have Google Hangouts, which we have now migrated to our daily huddles too, so the team are meeting, as well as chat availability so we can keep up to date and also keep the team spirit high.
Kent Cliffe (02:51):
That seems like a lot of communication tools. Is that normal as a rental company? Is that an essential part of the job?
Clare Christiansen (02:58):
We feel that property management is more people management rather than a property management company and, therefore, it's more about being available to speak and chat and meet people where required. And then, in this environment at the moment, we're really working towards still delivering that on a remote basis.
Kent Cliffe (03:21):
Yeah. Cool. And so, how would you get in touch with your property manager?
Clare Christiansen (03:26):
So, as said, we're still working as usual, as business as usual, just remotely. So, it doesn't necessarily mean that we're always at home. We are still regularly on the road, or in between houses. Your property manager's able to assist you, as usual, so you can get in touch with them as you normally would, so by their mobile or better yet, email, SMS and our office number is also directed to our team on a rotating roster. So, you can still get in touch through our main office number, which also has an answering service should you not be able to reach us. To contact your property manager, all of their details can be found HERE.
Kent Cliffe (04:01):
And so, using all those different tools we're, obviously, happy to use them, but what would you suggest is the best medium for people to get in contact with our property managers in this environment?
Clare Christiansen (04:12):
I still believe that email is probably the best means. The reason why is then we've always got that in writing, we have the time and date to know what's been going on and ultimately, you can add to any additional information that you may need too. So, a video or a further open broken tap, or something along those lines can very easily be attached to an email.
Kent Cliffe (04:37):
And if you need to meet with a property manager, how would that take place?
Clare Christiansen (04:40):
If one of our team members can provide a digital environment for this to take place, so where a face to face meeting is vital, we do still observe appropriate social distancing strategies in main rooms or at properties that file inspections of private viewings, but we want to minimise the risk to all parties, so the best-case scenario would be trying to set up a digital meeting such as what we're doing today. Department of Health has a good guide on social distancing: https://www.health.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/2020/03/coronavirus-covid-19-information-on-social-distancing.pdf
Kent Cliffe (05:04):
And if you couldn't do that or in instances where meeting in person is important, I think possibly viewing a property or something like that, is there a change to how that takes place or is there anything that the property manager might ask above and beyond than they normally would?
Clare Christiansen (05:23):
That's any face to face appointments? We do like to ask a couple of following questions just to make sure that everyone's safe and that everyone is aware of any situation that might need to be addressed prior to the meeting. So, these questions can be if you or anyone in your household are self-isolating? Have you recently returned from overseas travel? Have you had close contact with a Coronavirus case? Are you unwell or do you have any virus symptoms such as fever or self hurt? Is there anything that Rent Choice needs to be aware of that may increase the risk of the virus? Once we've verified this information, usually by email, we can coordinate the meeting.
Kent Cliffe (06:08):
Okay. These all sound like front end meetings. So, whether it's a new business or meeting with an owner that's got a new property or it might be, for example, showing a property when a tenant is yet to move in. What about with ongoing operations such as routine inspections? How would you go about conducting those?
Clare Christiansen (06:28):
Different agencies are addressing inspections differently. We can still conduct one-on-one inspections if need-be however, with the wonders of technology, we have come up with alternative solutions. So, we can enable video walkthroughs or tenant driven inspections for the use of a specific app. Your property manager will be able to talk you through this and will be able to work out the best way to complete your inspections. We still are asking for the tenants to make sure the property's kept to a high standard, and we'll also help you guide you through this process. Ultimately, it won't be long until we're able to visit the property again, so we look forward to seeing you at the inspection next time.
Clare Christiansen (07:11):
So, the video walkthrough is guided by the property manager with the tenant. It's usually conducted either via mobile phone, tablet or laptop. Usually, the tenant's on the mobile or the tablet, and they effectively walk through the home with the property manager on the other end of the call and check out any key areas that the property manager would like the tenant to hone in on. Once we have completed that inspection, we then send the link, the video link to the owner for their review and any comments that are from the tenant in relation to maintenance is also discussed via an email report.
Kent Cliffe (07:49):
And with the outside of the operations, how does that work?
Clare Christiansen (07:54):
Sure. So, the app, once again, is tenant driven. We provide the tenant with a day and time in which we would like the inspection to be conducted. And then the tenant is able to prepare the home and ready for the inspection. This is all built by Google backend. It's built in-house. Therefore, it loads straight into our systems and processes and also is a secure product. Therefore, we know that the tenant has conducted that inspection on that day and that time and there is no modifications or brightening up or anything like that done to the photos, for the owner's confidence.
Kent Cliffe (08:32):
There's concern about not a proper inspection?
Clare Christiansen (08:35):
Look, to be honest, we do conduct inspections every three to four months, some owners six months, so really not going to be that long before we're out there again. So, I guess, we just have to work with what we've got at the moment. We haven't been in this environment before and hopefully, we won't be in this environment again in the near future, but we just want to make sure that the safety of our tenants is our number one priority.
Kent Cliffe (09:04):
Yeah, certainly. And I guess part of routine inspections is the maintenance side of things. So, what would you do if there's maintenance with the property?
Clare Christiansen (09:15):
As mentioned, if tenants are self-isolating at home and they really want the plumber or electricians to come over and do bits and pieces, some are happy for that happen. Again, it's just about the urgency. We definitely have tradespeople to assist, and they're also asking the same sort of questions that we're asking for access. There are many procedures that have also been adopted by the tradesman to ensure tenant safety is their number one priority as well. So, making sure that they are providing hand sanitiser or washing their hands regularly, coming in with gloves, making sure that they're cleaning their equipment and also minimising their contact as much as possible.
Kent Cliffe (10:00):
Okay. It sounds like you have the property management side of the operations really well systematised for this particular type of situation. If I'm an owner that has a property that's not yet leased, for example, I haven't yet got a tenant; I heard that home opens have been banned. What's the situation with that?
Clare Christiansen (10:20):
Sure. So, the prime minister Scott Morrison has announced that real estate home opens will save for larger groups. Home inspections for rental and property sales will cease from midnight Wednesday March 25, 2020. This doesn't cancel private appointments. They are still currently permitted. So, we're adapting our ongoing cases to the government, and we're still sourcing a good quality tenant and reducing the vacancy. We're utilising various other tools to be able to adapt interactive viewings. So, things that require online platforms such as YouTube or Hangouts or Facebook Live events. We're also private viewings, but this may change at a later stage.
Kent Cliffe (11:08):
Great. These types of tools seem, I guess, interesting, but what are the results like? Have you been finding that with listings that have been online?
Clare Christiansen (11:18):
Essentially, what we are finding that there is still loads of tenants looking around and looking at good quality homes. I guess, it's that whole thing of you're in isolation and you're confined to the home, you start wanting to make sure that your home's adequate for you and your family. So, we are still receiving a high level of inquiries. What we're doing is we are still proceeding with our existing process where we're able to accept online applications and checking these applications prior to either organising private viewing and organising the electronic link sign up and key hand-over process. So, we are still definitely seeing a lot of activity in the market and we have leased so far, 20 properties this month.
Kent Cliffe (12:07):
Okay. So, you can confidently say that we're still leasing properties despite the lack of home opens.
Clare Christiansen (12:12):
Kent Cliffe (12:13):
Great. And when we have, I guess, tenancies in place, there's been some speculation or discussion around the eviction process and the impacts COVID-19 might have on that. What have you heard?
Clare Christiansen (12:32):
The Australian government has announced a no eviction moratorium meaning that tenants cannot being evicted as a result of financial distress caused by COVID-19 for a period of six months. West Australia's real estate agency regulator, DMIRS, has put out a media release which can be seen HERE. The exact detail around this legislation is still to be finalised. However, it's not to be confused with a moratorium on rent over this period, but the premium has stipulated that rent should still be paid.
Kent Cliffe (13:00):
So, just clarifying that point.
Clare Christiansen (13:02):
Sure. So, the government are due to release more information over the coming days with respect to rental payments. The most important thing you need to know is keeping your property manager up-to-date with your circumstances. If you're a tenant and you're worried about missing a payment, communicate this with your property manager, and they can definitely speak to your owner in respect to pointing you in the right direction of parties that can be able to assist you in relation to payments as well as discussing your own circumstances with your owner direct.
"...if you're worried about missing a payment, communicate this with your property manager."
Kent Cliffe (13:33):
In this type of situation, what things as a general rule, are available to tenants or owners that are in, probably start with tenants, that are in financial hardship?
Clare Christiansen (13:45):
IMPORTANT: here is a good resource for COVID related financial assistance: https://moneysmart.gov.au/covid-19
There is a number of government initiatives to assist people in hardship affected by COVID-19. Some of these increased the job seeker allowance, change rules around asset and income tests, businesses are encouraged to bring back employees, and there's extra staff being employed in call centres and at Centrelink to help with the influx of people. In fact, we've already seen some of the tenants receiving rental assistant payments already.
Kent Cliffe (14:16):
Okay. And with chasing up the rent, what types of things can we say and can't say as a property management agency?
Clare Christiansen (14:26):
We have to be mindful of what advice we give tenants in relation to their financial situation. We do suggest that they speak to a financial planner with respect to their specific situation. However, we do want to help as much as possible, and we are happy to discuss what proposals they'd like us to present to owners and any payment plans or position in which they think that they should be able to pay their rent in the future.
Kent Cliffe (15:02):
Excellent. With owners on the other side, that are in financial hardship, what kind of tips can you give them as to things they might possibly consider?
Clare Christiansen (15:14):
Again, we can't provide financial advice, but what we have seen a lot of owners doing is speaking to their bank or a broker in respect to their current loans that they have on their properties. They're also staying in touch with us and seeing what we know about that sense and asking any questions we feel that there could be potential that their tenant could be experiencing any hardship. At the end of the day, we're all in it together. So, happy to facilitate our communication between owners and tenants.
Kent Cliffe (15:47):
When can we expect to see some new information come to light?
Clare Christiansen (15:52):
We are expecting an update in the next couple of days in relation to how the government would like us to enact this bill.
Kent Cliffe (16:01):
From everything you've discussed today it seems like business as usual, we're just facilitating more communication between owners and tenants, making sure that everyone's on the same page and working together as best as we can. But when push comes to shove, we have to look at what the legislation says and use that. What other points is worth raising to people watching this video today?
Clare Christiansen (16:31):
We'll regularly keep you up to date within any information that we feel is pressing to the residential property market. Ultimately, we are aiming to minimise face-to-face interactions, minimise the number of people in one space or in one property at a time and ensure any face the most acting direction to adhere to the strict policies and procedures set to protect the well-being of those involved.
Kent Cliffe (16:56):
I did have a question regarding landlord insurance. What're some common questions that owners ask us as agents?
Clare Christiansen (17:04):
First, one is: "can I get landlord insurance?" In the current environment, unfortunately, a lot of the big landlord insurance companies are no longer bringing on new clients. If you do have a current policy or any in place, we would recommend that you go look at UPS and have a look at your specific policy. We can't give you financial advice around what policy's best or what do you need in this current environment, in this ever-changing landscape and therefore we do recommend that if you have any concerns with queries in relation to your landlord's insurance specifically, that you contact your landlord insurer direct.
Here is EBM's FAQ about COVID-19 & landlord's insurance:
Kent Cliffe (17:45):If a tenant comes to you with a hardship claim, as the property manager on behalf of the landlord, what types of things do you discuss with the tenant to make that claim for them?Clare Christiansen (17:59):When we receive applications from tenants in relation to hardship, we do like to obtain further information from them to verify their circumstances so that we can present their case to the owner for their consideration. We might ask for additional information such as payslips to show reduced income or hours, we may also ask for information such as termination letters from your employer or any other supporting documents which might help with your claim. We then verify that information against your original application form and present all the findings to the owners so that they can help in these unprecedented times.Kent Cliffe (18:47):Excellent. Okay. Thank you very much, Clare, today. I really appreciate your time and it was good to catch up with you via the Hangouts function that we have at Rent Choice. And as always, if you have any particular questions about your property or property we manage, feel free to get in contact with your property manager and they would be able to certainly give you the latest information available that we have about what the impact COVID-19 has to the residential rental market here in Perth. Thanks again.
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