Lockdown break-ups, job losses and urgent relocations are thought to have led to a surge in the rental sector.
Demand for lettings in Great Britain is up by 22% compared to last year, according to property giant Rightmove.
Experts say the lifting of lockdown restrictions has released “two months of pent-up tension” in the market.
The supply of new rents is not keeping up with demand, however, prompting fears the surge will push up costs and leave some struggling to find homes.
According to data provided by Rightmove, demand for all kinds of property plunged during the height of the lockdown.
The restrictions prevented house viewings, surveys and searches from taking place, while removal companies were also temporarily closed.
People were urged to stay in their current homes during lockdown unless absolutely necessary. Evictions were put on hold until 25 June.
Since estate agents were allowed to reopen on 13 May though, demand for rental homes has increased at a quicker rate than the sales market, according to Rightmove.
Many people have been left with an “immediate housing need” as a result of the pandemic, housing expert Miles Shipside said.
The sector is also coping with a backlog of people who have had to cancel planned moves during lockdown.
Chloe Arnold and her housemate DJ Branch are two of hundreds searching for properties in Bristol, which has emerged as one of the most-searched-for places on Rightmove after moving home was allowed again.
“It’s been really difficult if I’m honest,” said Chloe, 25, who works in recruitment. “A lot of the time landlords want couples.”
The South West has seen the biggest surge in demand for new rental properties with a 34% increase compared to last year, according to Rightmove.
It classed demand as the number of times website visitors clicked through to the details of a property listed online.
“One of the reasons it has been tough is because a lot of the houses aren’t doing viewings,” Chloe said.
“Obviously because of the social distancing, a lot of the places we are looking at, you have to decide whether you want it based on a virtual tour.
“It’s so easy to miss things that way. In Bristol a lot of places have a problem with damp you aren’t going to see on a video tour.”
Rent demand overtakes sales in Great Britain
Demand measured by web visitors clicking on details of a listing
Former banker Renecia Thompson, 35, and her four-year-old daughter moved from Anguilla in the Caribbean to the West Midlands before Christmas.
As she had only just received her National Insurance number by the time lockdown was imposed, she had been unable to find work.
She was turned down by eight landlords because she was claiming Universal Credit and had to stay with a friend during lockdown.
“I was in competition with others who were in a better financial position than me,” she said. “Some landlords wouldn’t even talk to me.”
Renecia has recently been accepted for a house in Wolverhampton after putting out a plea for a property on the Gumtree website.
Wednesday 27 May saw more than six million people visit the Rightmove website, its busiest day ever.
“They may need to move for a job,” said Mr Shipside. “In this environment we are in now, there is a need for people with specialist jobs to be in a certain place – just think about the Nightingale hospitals that have sprung up.
“Where some people have enjoyed lockdown, others’ relationships haven’t survived it and this has had knock-on consequences.
“There could be people who need to move because of job losses too.
“And working from home has left a lot of people looking for a change in surroundings.
“Effectively we have two months of pent-up demand that needs to be satisfied.”
Rental market returning to pre-pandemic levels
Sales market taking longer to recover from lockdown slump
However, supply is struggling to match demand.
The number of new rental listings on Rightmove is 4% below 2019 levels. It dropped to a level of 64% below during the week of 6 April.
Landlords are “exiting the market” Mr Shipside says, due to Covid-19 and the uncertainty over tenants being able to afford rent.
Thinktank the Resolution Foundation found one in eight renters were struggling with housing costs as a result of coronavirus.
“They [landlords] are going to pick those with the best references and who can move in immediately. Those whose credit record is not the best tend to lose out,” Mr Shipside said.
More people bidding for fewer properties was almost certain to push up the prices of rented accommodation, he said.
Estate agents, having closed for two months, are now reporting an increased workload to manage the backlog of people needing new homes.
“The number of new listings for sales has gone through the roof, but when it comes to rentals there is nowhere near enough stock,” said Stephen Groves, who runs the Home estate agents in Greater Manchester.
“Days of working from nine to 5.30 have long gone. I was doing emails at 11 last night – everything just takes a lot longer,” he said.
While his company is offering virtual appointments to prospective tenants, the ability to offer house viewings has been restricted.
Staff members have to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during them and homes must be cleaned before and after the viewing.
“Where we could do between 20 and 30 viewing of a property in a day, we are now doing four where the home is still tenanted,” he said. “Understandably people don’t want people coming to visit their homes because of the virus.”
However, some who opted to sign an agreement on the strength of a virtual viewing have seen the benefit.
Husband and wife Paul and Poppy Carr of High Wycombe needed to move out of their two-bedroomed apartment quickly but they could not go for any viewings in person during lockdown.
They opted for a video tour of a new flat and negotiated a £200 reduction in their rent – partly because they noticed a de-humidifier in one room.
“I was really surprised by the quality of the virtual viewing,” said Poppy, aged 25, a researcher who works in London. “We could see that it had been recently renovated and they had already done a deep clean.
“I think we were lucky really because we got in there before demand boomed.”
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