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Home sweet home: After a year of staying at home, how has the pandemic changed the housing market?

12:43 31/03/2021

The coronavirus crisis has made the last year challenging in many ways, not least of all in buying a home. While the market ended 2020 with pretty average figures compared to previous years, the fluctuations were enormous, providing extra challenges to buyers and property professionals.

“We were out of business for nearly two months, and then when the market opened up again, we had a boom,” says Kristien Viaene, managing director of the Dewaele (formerly NOA) real estate firm in Ixelles, which has a 70% expat client base. “It started up again at warp speed.”

She saw both expats and Belgians react the same way to the crisis when it came to buying and selling: reconsidering how and where we live. “People started looking at their own properties in a slightly different way,” she says. “They noticed things they hadn’t before or that hadn’t bothered them before.”

This included not having a terrace or a garden, or not having an appropriate workspace. “We saw families who suddenly decided their two-bedroom apartments were too small. They started to look for different types of properties, including outside the city. People suddenly wanted access to nature. For parents with kids living in an apartment, that’s more understandable, it’s a natural evolution. But for people who’d been living in the city for like 10 years and now suddenly want to go to Waterloo or Pajottenland, that’s dramatic.”

Frederic Millares understands that feeling, if somewhat ironically. Right before the pandemic hit, he put his house in Etterbeek on the market, having decided to downsize to an apartment, which he and his partner had already bought. He had been commuting between his house in Brussels and his job in Paris for six years. “I was working at home during the lockdown and kind of rediscovering my house and living together in the same space after all those years. And I thought, you know, it’s really not a bad place to live. It was a very strange feeling.”

Now at home in his new apartment, he wonders if they would have made the same decision after Covid-19 as they did prior to it. “A lot of people are wanting to move from an apartment to a house because they want more space and a garden,” he says. “And we had just done it the other way around! If we’d known this could be the future of working, we might have taken a different decision.”

In practical terms, buying and selling during the pandemic was a nightmare for Millares. Unexpectedly, his house sold within a few days of hitting the market, and papers were signed. A few days after that, the country was in lockdown. But the clock was already ticking on the four months he and his partner had to vacate the premises.

Their new apartment needed extensive renovations, but those couldn’t start either. “During the lockdown, we had no idea where the country was headed,” he says. “The renovations were supposed to take two months, but suddenly it could take four or five months, they didn’t know.”

They were eventually forced to move out of their house. “We were homeless, basically.” With Millares’s job in mind, they took an apartment in Paris. “Our furniture went into storage, and we talked to the workers remotely. A friend of ours went by regularly to make sure that everything was OK.”

The plan was to move to the new Brussels apartment when renovations were done. But then France went back into lockdown at the end of October. “We didn’t want to be in a situation where we were stuck in Paris, so we moved into a hotel in Brussels for a month. That drove me crazy. It all finally became too much. I was like, I want this story to end – now.”

While he and his partner are thinking about how to live in the future, they won’t be moving anytime soon. “I don’t want to go through this process ever, ever again! Without Covid, it is challenging, but with Covid, it was just that much worse.”

Johanna Mallat (pictured), from Finland, was only buying and hadn’t made any commitments before Covid-19 hit, so her situation was infinitely easier. She noticed, however, that many real estate agents did not follow public health measures, showing properties to groups of people rather than individuals. “It was the same agents who didn’t take other things seriously,” she says. “Some estate agents were responsible and following the rules and some just didn’t.”

This viewing in groups is a new trend, according to a large notary firm in Brussels that works with many expats. Estate agents are trying to catch up with the backlog so are showing properties to several people at a time. Aside from breaching coronavirus regulations, it has “fanned the flames of the bidding wars”, a spokesperson says.

Confirming Viaene’s statement that the property market skyrocketed over the summer, he points to holiday homes. “Apartments at the coast, that was total madness,” he says. “In Belgium, the asking price is usually the maximum, and you try to negotiate a little less. These days in the hot markets – holiday homes and starter homes – you get bidding wars. Buyers see so many people there, and everybody goes nuts and starts bidding over the asking price, by considerable amounts. It is unprecedented.”

It seems short-sighted to buy a holiday home based on the coronavirus crisis, which will come to an end. But the notary says there’s more to it than that. “Travel is no longer a given. Even after Covid, some restrictions could remain; it’s going to get more expensive; airlines are going bust. Last year, there was no vaccine in sight, and we were starting to hear about variants. I think people were thinking that this could be the new normal for five or 10 years.”

Another factor, he says, is that “people have sort of rediscovered their own surroundings, their own country. And they are saying ‘hey this place isn’t so bad, why not spend some more time at our coast.’ It’s a reawakening.”

Still, those group viewings are making it difficult for young buyers to find an affordable home. The notary thinks this method will eventually stop. “Ethically, not everyone is happy with it. You can imagine a twentysomething couple looking for their first home and getting outbid every time.”

Notaries close the deal that buyers and sellers have made, with or without an estate agent. It’s a legally required step in buying property in Belgium. They make sure the paperwork is handled correctly and that the sale is legal. So they often have very good advice, and this is his: if possible, wait about six months before starting the search for a home. “Some banks are predicting that prices are going to stabilise or maybe even decline in the next year or so. I would suggest waiting until at least the autumn.”

Advice from the experts

Thinking of buying a home? Here are three top tips.

1 Finance first
“This is the starting point,” says estate agent Kristien Viaene. “It’s impossible to look at properties if you don’t know the budget. Go to the bank and see what kind of mortgage you can get.”

2 Notary: Don’t dawdle
“Talk to your notary early,” says a spokesperson from a large Brussels firm. “I know from experience that we have a lot more work on an expat case.” Aside from language barriers, expats don’t usually know how things work in Belgium. “We give a fair amount of explanation.” Don’t sign anything before taking it to your notary, he warns. “People come in having already signed stuff, and then we sometimes have to try to mediate. Usually that goes wrong. So talk to your notary first.”

3 Blur borders
Don’t get too obsessed with one specific commune in Brussels, says recent homebuyer Johanna Mallat. “Prices vary greatly between communes, and looking just 100 or 200 metres further can make a lot of difference.”

This article first appeared in the Expat Time magazine, spring 2021

Written by Lisa Bradshaw