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Woman looking at phone showing 360-degree home tour.

Virtual Real Estate Tours Ramp Up As COVID-19 Suspends Open Houses

Rachel Burris8-Minute Read
November 09, 2020

Read more on COVID-19 in our Resource Guide.

There’s no way around it: COVID-19 is changing the way real estate agents across the country conduct business. With social distancing in full effect and shelter-in-place orders sweeping the nation, real estate professionals are hastening to find new ways to keep their business moving forward.

Open houses have long been an advantageous tool for generating buyer interest, but now that the doors to listings have been closed to large groups, agents are turning to technology.

Virtual 3D real estate tours are not new, but they’re gaining a lot of traction now that COVID-19 has limited real estate professionals’ ability to market and show properties. If you’re a real estate agent who hasn’t started to incorporate technology into your business model, now’s the time to start learning how.

The Impact Of COVID-19 On Open Houses And Showings

When news of COVID-19 began circulating around the U.S., agents journeyed to listings, armed with bottles of hand sanitizer and containers of disinfectant. Many opened cabinets and doors for customers, while others instructed buyers to put on gloves and booties upon entering their listings. When social distancing became a greater necessity, many sellers, agents and brokerages began canceling open houses and offering limited showings by appointment.

However, as more states have mandated Americans to stay at home to help contain the virus, open houses have been suspended altogether. In some states, like Connecticut, Ohio and Illinois, real estate has been deemed an essential business, which has allowed some in-person showings to proceed.

On the other hand, states like California and New York have put an end to all in-person real estate practices, as the industry has been considered a nonessential service. Although business may not be proceeding as usual, agents in these states have been keeping busy, trying to find new methods for marketing and showing their listings.

“Open houses are nearly nonexistent and physically showing homes can be problematic,” says Jerry Clum, the founder and CEO of Hommati, a company that offers cutting-edge technology services to real estate professionals. “A virtual tour is as close as you can come to an in-person showing. Real estate agents across the country are implementing this as an alternative to physical showings. Many home buyers are staying home as a result of the pandemic but are still shopping for homes by utilizing virtual tours.”

The Rise Of 3D Virtual Real Estate Tours

Room presented through 3D virtual tour technology – Credit: Hommati

Although essential to any listing, photographs of properties have their limitations. They’re intended to entice buyers to view properties in person, but they can’t be expected to give consumers a clear grasp of the space as a whole.

“You have to use your imagination to link the images together to understand the flow of the space. A virtual tour allows the home buyer to explore each room completely with 360° movement,” says Clum. “You can see each room from every angle and perspective. You can look down to see the flooring and up to see the ceiling. You can move through the space however you want. You are able to walk up and down the stairs and hallways, giving you a feel for the flow of a home.”

3D virtual tour floor plan – Credit Hommati

Credit: Hommati

Clum adds, “We also provide schematic floor plans for each level of the house, as well as a dollhouse view of the entire home, providing buyers with a more complete feel and understanding of the home.”

Although such tools are undeniably useful, proptech has long been seen as a disruptor to the real estate industry. As technology has put more information in the hands of buyers and sellers, real estate agents have trembled, thinking that the future of their business may be in jeopardy.

However, now that COVID-19 has confined millions of Americans to their homes, real estate agents are becoming increasingly grateful that the technology exists.

3D virtual tour dollhouse view – Credit: Hommati

Credit: Hommati

“Orders for our virtual tours have increased 160% in just the last three weeks,” says Clum. “Hommati’s website traffic for virtual tour viewing has increased by 1,400% during the same time. Agents are telling us that they are writing offers for homes sight unseen except for the virtual tour, aerial video and photos that were viewed online. In many cases, they are including a contingency which is subject to the buyer physically viewing the property in the future.”

Rosamaria Acuna, a REALTOR® with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices in California, has had experience using virtual tours before but never to the extent that she is now. “The virtual tours were great to motivate a buyer to preview the property in person. The presentation in person is what always sold the property for me,” she says. “Now, we must adapt quickly to this new norm and present the properties, when safe to enter, with authentic photography and video.”

Creating Virtual Tours In The Age Of COVID-19

While many agents are starting to use the advanced 3D virtual tour technology, others don’t have the means to incorporate it, given the restrictive measures local governments have taken to protect their citizens. Still, agents are finding ways around the obstacles they face.

Instead of relying on advanced proptech to conduct virtual tours, real estate professionals are now using the everyday technology that’s already at their disposal.

“I spoke with an agent who videotaped all of her listings with her cell phone and posted them on her Facebook page and website,” says Tracey Hawkins, a former real estate agent who now teaches safety and security courses to real estate professionals. “The technology isn’t complicated, and cost provides no barrier to entry since it’s free, and people already have smartphone cameras.”

Through platforms like Facebook, FaceTime, Skype and Zoom, real estate agents have been able to quickly adapt to the times without having to worry about draining their marketing budgets or struggling to learn new technologies.

“It’s as easy as FaceTiming with a client,” says Michelle Sloan, broker and owner of RE/MAX TIME in Ohio. “While I walk through the property, I discuss many of the same issues and features as I would when we are doing a showing together.”

Real estate agents in Ohio have benefited from being designated essential, but that’s not the case for everyone in the industry. In areas where agents cannot get to their listings because they have been ordered to stay at home, professionals are getting even more creative.

“We noticed an increase in cooperation with the owners themselves to try to show properties virtually because brokers are not allowed to go to the building,” says Fritz Frigan, executive director of sales and leasing for Halstead Real Estate in New York City. “The brokers are talking to their owners and basically saying, ‘Could you use FaceTime, Skype or Zoom to show the prospective buyer your property?’ This way, no one has to leave where they are and violate the government order, and the showing can occur live, virtually.”

Tips For Creating Virtual Tours Of Your Listings

If you haven’t conducted a virtual tour in the past, you may be a bit nervous to try it out. But you don’t need to be a videographer to create something that’s useful for your potential customers. Of course, you may need a few takes or practice runs to get it right, but we’ve asked agents who’ve already gotten the knack of it to share their insights into how to create a strong virtual tour.

Remember, virtual tours are all about overcoming the limitations of still photography and highlighting the flow of your properties. So, before you create your virtual tour, make sure you are familiar with the layout of the home and consider what information about the home buyers are unable to see from your listing photos.

“Point out items that you can’t show in pictures,” says Natalie Alchadeff, a licensed broker with HB Group in California. “The virtual tours should focus on layout, so the buyer has a feeling of what is it like to walk through a house.”

Prior to shooting, you should also prepare the property. Make sure that all of the lights are on and plan the route your tour will take. “Have doors open before you start the video,” advises Nancy Brook, licensed broker and CEO of Billings Best Real Estate in Montana. By opening doors ahead of time, you can eliminate those awkward moments of fumbling with doorknobs and create a more seamless video of the properties.

To enhance the quality of your tour, be sure to clean the lens of your camera and turn your phone to airplane mode. You don’t want calls or messages interrupting your footage.

Once you begin to film, it’s crucial that you act professional and create context for potential buyers. “Start the video with you talking to the camera,” says Brook. “Make sure to show the outside of the house and the neighborhood at the start. Then, go inside and take your time. Open doors to closets, pantries, utility rooms. Take videos from different angles in the living room, kitchen and family room.”

As you present rooms from different angles, slowly move the camera up and down to show off the homes’ fixtures, floors and finishes. Make sure you describe everything the camera sees and highlight specific features that may be of interest to buyers.

If you’re unable to make it to your properties, you can provide your sellers with these tips. Once they’ve created the video for you, you can use basic video editing tools, like iMovie, to add a voice-over track.

Adding voice over to the virtual tour will enable you to describe the property, so potential buyers can further understand what they’re looking at.

There’s certainly a learning curve involved in creating virtual tours. The more practice you have, the better you get. However, there’s no need to fret over the quality of your first few virtual tours.

“It’s OK if you’re not professional,” says Brook. “People understand that you are an agent, so don’t be too stressed about getting it perfect.”

Will Virtual Tours Be Enough To Entice Buyers To Buy Properties Sight Unseen?

Many real estate professionals believe that virtual tours coupled with COVID-19 addendums will lead to a rise in the number of properties that are purchased sight unseen. Others view these virtual tours as a stopgap mechanism that’s unlikely to actually increase the number of homes purchased during these tough times.

Although difficult to predict, Frigan says, “I do suspect that on the rental side you may see sight unseen deals. Leases are happening virtually. And as of now, movers are considered essential staff, so as long as the building does not prohibit moving, the rentals are probably going to start happening. I see much less interest in the sale market because it’s a much bigger decision to buy something sight unseen.”

Time will tell how virtual tours affect real estate transactions. But for now, buyers are still searching for properties and browsing the listings they see online. Any method you can use to market and show your listings virtually will get potential customers’ attention.

Your virtual tours may not lead to sight unseen purchases, but they will motivate buyers to come view your properties once the nation is able to return to business as usual.

For other tips on how to successfully conduct business from your home, read our guide for how to work from home.

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    Rachel Burris

    Rachel Burris is a writer covering topics of interest to present and future homeowners, as well as industry insiders. Prior to joining Quicken Loans, she worked as an English teacher for the New York City Department of Education and a licensed real estate agent for Brown Harris Stevens. She holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Bucknell University, a postbaccalaureate certificate in psychology from Columbia University and a master's degree in English education from Teachers College, Columbia University.