This is a guest article by Mike Rigby of MRA Marketing:

A recent John Lewis and Waitrose report on life in the lockdown makes interesting reading. The report* is based on a OnePoll survey of 2,000 representative adults combined with sales data and online searches from the two retailers plus insight from expert partners. Reporting a surge in online buying, it throws a light on what people have been buying and doing in the lockdown, and the experiences they crave.

Now we’ve been forced to spend lots of time in them, many of us have discovered how small and confined our homes actually are. And we’re not alone. We can look in colleagues’ homes via Zoom and other video conferencing tools, and watch TV journalists reporting from their living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, and sheds and see that most people live in quite confined spaces. Some seem quite crowded too, with partners, pals or pets coming and going behind the camera, and occasionally getting in on the act.

In the old normal, we lived most of our lives outside the home. Travelling, shopping, being entertained in other people’s homes, eating out, partying, weekends away, or holidaying in a hotel or spacious apartment somewhere lovely. We returned to an empty or half empty house for relatively short periods to sleep or get ready to go somewhere else. Or we pottered around, home alone.

Now, locked in and confined with a various mix of partners, friends, kids, parents, grandparents or grandchildren, the experience has been very different. Few homes were built for this. Certainly, for the last 100 years or so, people were expected to live most of their lives outside the home. So, it’s not surprising life in lockdown and working from home has been stressful and confining. No wonder people have been bursting to get out.

This isn’t just a sudden change in lifestyle, or perception. In the last sixty years houses have been shrinking, particularly in the last 30 years. As land values have risen, house builders and developers have squeezed more homes into smaller spaces to maximise plot values and returns. Continuing to do that successfully demands inventiveness and creativity, and a fine understanding of house buyers’ priorities and preferences, and the tradeoffs they will accept. The winners in the equation have been the master bedroom with ensuite, living room and kitchen; the losers everything else including storage space.

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Bedrooms have shrunk. Communal living areas often include the kitchen – not ideal if that is where someone works. Small bathrooms are a pinch point. Few bathrooms are designed for multigenerational living or regular frequent use.

Bathroom fittings may be suited to light, morning and evening, use rather than throughout the day. Opening shower doors, or leaving shower doors open, can be a hazard for young kids or those who are unsteady on their feet. Older or infirm members of the family may find it difficult to get in and out of the shower safely over high thresholds. They may need a grab handle, or a robust seat in the shower to rest on. Anyone can slip on a wet shower tray. Falling in the shower can be painful or dangerous. In new homes, more thought has probably gone into designing the bathroom layout for the stereotyped young couple, so it looks larger than it is, than into making it work for the mix of people who might use it. When total visits a day are few and fleeting as people rush off to work, or hurry back out in the evening, these limitations are less obvious and less important. And that’s just thinking about the bathroom!

Crammed in all day with other people, it’s not surprising homeowners think about improving their homes. Google searches for home improvements soared 42% in the first few weeks of lockdown and, where they could buy, they did. “The consumer market boomed. Everyone wanted to decorate,” says Paul Roughan, Trade Merchant Sales Director Dulux Trade and BMBI’s Expert for Paint. And it wasn’t just paint. Andy Scothern of eCommonSense, BMBI’s Digital Expert built a new website for TJ O’Mahony – a 17-branch merchant in Ireland – that went live in April. “With no warmup marketing, their new site took £200,000 in the first week, all paid by card, plus £60,000 in delivery charges,” says Andy.

If we expected a vaccine soon, or the Coronavirus to fade away, we could forget about it. But we’ll be living with the Coronavirus for two, possibly four to five years.

Many people, and many businesses, have decided that working from home, for all its small frustrations, is a lot better and more productive than an expensive daily commute. Improving the home, and the experience of working and spending prolonged periods in the home is a priority.

This is not a temporary disruption before we get back to life, business, and markets as usual. It’s a turning point.

Housebuilders and developers may decide to rethink their underlying assumptions about the amount, value, and distribution of living space in homes. Commuting distance may be less of a factor. In time, the resale values of new homes may reflect these changes, as buyers adjust to paying less for what they don’t value and more for what they do want.

Large numbers of homes that were designed, and later improved or remodelled, to suit the old normal have been found wanting in the new world. Many homeowners are already modifying or planning to modify them to suit how they live or plan to live and work.

That’s millions of existing homes to adapt and improve. That’s a lot of work in the pipeline.


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