One of them was Tim Hyatt, who was preparing to take over as head of the firm’s UK residential business at the very moment the country’s housing market was brought to a standstill by the lockdown.

“Over three floors where we normally have a thousand people, we were down to five, with this dark cloud heading our way,” he recalls. “We had a huge wave of new optimism, three months of fantastic trading and then whoomph – I start my new job and [we] close 61 offices.”

Two months into his new job and the situation looks a little less bleak for Hyatt. The housing market has reopened, the lockdown is being eased and transactions are taking place.

Around half of Knight Frank’s residential team have been furloughed, but Hyatt says that since the reopening of the market, at least 10% of those not working have been brought back and more will return as the weeks go on.

“The London and country market were really beginning to come back and all indications now are that we are set for a relatively good year as long as there’s not a rebound [in the pandemic], but bear in mind we’ve lost eight weeks of trading.”

Hyatt is putting a brave face on things, but residential sales for the year are forecast to drop 38%, although he says the fall in prices is likely to be modest.

“Most of the readjustment has taken place already,” he says. “We’re now predicting property prices to drop 5% across London and the rest of the country, although it might be slightly less than that in London.”

We’ve done some very big deals in recent days with international buyers

Hyatt’s ability to accurately assess the health of the London property market comes from nearly 30 years of working in the capital. In 1992, he was given his first job by Jon Hunt, founder of Foxtons.

Hyatt rose up the ranks to head the group’s lettings arm, then left in 2003 to join Knight Frank as its new partner in charge of UK lettings and property management.

After 16 years running lettings, Hyatt took over as head of London residential in 2019 and was promoted this year to run the entire residential business.

Hyatt – who has spent most of his career doing high-end London residential deals – says the weak pound and popularity of London has kept Knight Frank’s prime residential business ticking over during the Covid-19 crisis.

“We’ve done some very big deals in recent days and they’ve all gone to international buyers,” he notes.

In terms of the London lettings market, to get a feel for how business will hold up in the longer term, Hyatt is closely monitoring what is going on in the City of London jobs market.

“The City is our barometer for lettings. If we see a big hit in terms of employment in the City – and there are talks of it – then that could have an impact on the lettings market,” he says.

In the meantime, as government restrictions ease, Hyatt is preparing a road trip across the country to see pockets of up to 100 members of staff to communicate his plans for the business. In the short-term, the aim is to protect cashflow and make sure deals go through.

In the longer-term, Hyatt intends to execute a “cradle to grave” strategy – building and maintaining relationships with customers, from finding student digs through to their first property purchase and into old age.

Country life

Hyatt also covers Knight Frank’s 30 country high-street offices and he admits that the initial signs are that its residential offices outside Greater London have had “a tough run of it”.

However, he adds: “People living in condensed masses in city centres are saying: ‘If another case of Covid came around, do I want to be living in this constrained space or might I move out?’ There will be a natural flow of some people moving from London and city centres further out.”

This could have consequences for the number of high-street estate agencies in densely populated urban locations and dovetail with another trend accelerated by the pandemic: homeworking. “My view is that the world of high-street agency will look very different in the next three to five years,” he says.

“I don’t think we will have as many estate agencies on the high street as we see now. Why would we not be looking at hubs? You could have a condensed group of agents operating out of commercial premises in a region or city centre that have the ability to start their day at home or to start their day at the office, but have a much wider catchment area than just the Canary Wharf office that just deals with Canary Wharf.”

Running estate agencies is just one part of Hyatt’s vast new role: his remit also includes the student sector, residential land business, consultancy practice, retirement living and new homes. Work begins at 7am and finishes at 7pm. Does he have time for lunch? “I did give myself time for a lunch break when I started but now I don’t… I’m the new guy on the block and I have an immense amount of responsibility.”

Starting one of the top jobs in residential property during a housing crisis is an unenviable task, but Hyatt seems keen to get stuck in. Whether or not his new role will be made any easier by a recovery in the market, however, remains to be seen.