Regional property investors given reprieve under NSW Covid-19 rule changes

Inspecting a property that could be a potential future investment is now a reasonable excuse to leave home during lockdown in many parts of NSW. Photo: Shutterstock
Inspecting a property that could be a potential future investment is now a reasonable excuse to leave home during lockdown in many parts of NSW. Photo: Shutterstock

Property investors based in regional NSW can travel throughout the state to inspect prospective purchases under tweaked public health orders, with the state's peak real estate body slamming the government for a lack of clarity on rule changes.

The changes, introduced by Health Minister Brad Hazzard, have removed the previous reference stipulating that the property in question be "a potential new place of residence for the person" and mean that inspections for residential, commercial and agricultural investment properties can now go ahead.

All of NSW is currently subject to stay at home orders, with limits on what constitutes a reasonable excuse to leave home.

Only investors currently based in a regional area can attend regional property inspections under the changes, with buyers who live in Greater Sydney, Wollongong and the Blue Mountains needing a permit in order to enter the regions.

Permits can only be obtained if the applicant has a "genuine intention" to occupy the property as a primary residence as soon as is practical.

Regional residents however can travel to Greater Sydney, Wollongong and the Blue Mountains in order to inspect investment properties.

Open inspections are banned regardless of where in NSW they are being held, with agents restricted to holding one-on-one inspections.

Regional NSW residents are subject to a five kilometre rule for exercise and shopping, but there are no stipulations restricting the distance investors can travel under the new rules.

Property inspections for owner-occupiers and investors in Australia's two other locked-down jurisdictions, Victoria and the ACT, are banned entirely.

Agent body calls for more clarity

Real Estate Institute of NSW [REINSW] CEO Tim McKibbin said that keeping up with the changing health orders had been an "absolute nightmare," with NSW government departments unresponsive to requests from agents and the REINSW for clarification on rules.

"On the rare occasions that we do get somebody to speak to us about it, they say to us, and this is only on a couple of occasions, we say 'I don't know what it means' and they say 'We'll have to make enquiries and come back to you.'

"It's a disgrace that they are publishing these things daily and not telling us what it means," Mr McKibbin said.

He advised all real estate agents making contact with NSW Fair Trading and the Department of Health to keep records of every conversation, including reference numbers, as advice from department representatives could be in conflict with that of police on the ground.

"When people in our industry contact Fair Trading and ask if it's permissible, Fair Trading will give them advice which is patently wrong," Mr McKibbin said.

A spokesperson for NSW Fair Trading said that the "NSW Government is engaging regularly with the real estate sector to help it understand the Public Health orders though its Property Service Expert Panel".

Mr McKibbin advised regional agents receiving calls for a one-on-one inspection not to request further details about the buyers' intention for the property or their personal circumstances.

"In relation to the consumer I have said to my people do not give advice on that," he said.

"I have said to them that everybody has obligations under the public health order and it is dangerous to you to be interpreting the public health order and giving advice to consumers," he added.

"As to whether or not you [the buyer] should be there is a question for you."

He advised agents not to look for "loopholes" and to seek to comply with the "spirit of the public health orders and mix in a good dose of common sense".

Local agents take different approaches

Ray White NSW CEO Andrew McCulloch said the agency had been grappling with the sudden changes to real estate inspection rules since the beginning of NSW's latest outbreak.

"Because these things seem to change daily we're constantly trying to chase our tails and get our heads around what you can do," he said.

Ray White currently advises its NSW agents to offer a virtual first inspection to any buyers from out of area, be they investors or owner-occupiers, and then a physical second inspection where it is legal to do so.

This approach meant that there was "a layer of the law and then a layer of best practice in relation to the local community," Mr McCulloch said.

The decision to hold a one-on-one inspection was always done in consultation with the vendor, with some vendors showing different levels of tolerance.

"Some vendors are more than happy to have them in and we've even had vendors who aren't comfortable with anyone coming in," he said.

A lack of supply and strong demand had meant that even in the absence of physical inspections properties had been sold without issue, Mr McCulloch said.

Agent Kent Shay at LJ Hooker Lennox Head said that he had been restricting inspections to local buyers under the previous rules and would continue to do so during the regional NSW lockdown.

"Obviously we do a lot of virtual inspections, a lot of enquiry comes from out of the area so there are a lot of virtual inspections.

"With local people it's just one on one inspections. We might take the wife through first and take the husband through later. We just adapt to it," he said.

The agency had paused one-on-one inspections during periods where there had been Covid-19 detected in the local sewerage.

"We obviously have a chat with our owners to see what they're comfortable with," he said.

Shena Jackson, of jacksonwall, welcomed the NSW government's amendments to the rules.

Her agency covers the Southern Highlands and coastal towns like Huskisson, and prospective buyers included those from Canberra and Sydney.

"Absolutely, it's great - it's clarity for us, before we were getting yelled at by everyone - vendors, buyers and tenants [because of confusion about the rules]."

"This way its a lot more easier for everyone to understand," she added.

To avoid stress on vendors, her agency had been arranging long inspection windows within which prospective buyers could book a viewing time.

"We're doing inspections by appointment but you can't have the vendors turning the house upside down every time someone wants to look at it," she said.

"When people arrive to inspect the property, if we do have a bank up we only allow one group out of the car at a time," she said.

This story Regional investors free to inspect property following NSW Covid-19 rule changes first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.