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How realtors are giving virtual home tours in the absence of open houses during the pandemic

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“I’ve been doing this for 47 years,” says Tom MacDonald. “I started when something electronic was the acceptance of a contract with a telegram.”

MacDonald heads up his own realty group in California’s Central Valley, and like most realtors, his business in recent months is depending on technology more than ever before. Jurisdictions across the U.S. have responded to the coronavirus with an array of restrictions, including a total ban on traditional open houses in California.

So in the absence of baked-cookie scents and mingling strangers, MacDonald and other realtors are turning to tools that help them show off houses online. This allows for more immersion than was possible just a few years ago, and makes it easier and less expensive for realtors to put a property’s best foot forward.

These new tools include so-called “virtual staging,” in which images of a property have lifelike decor added to them digitally using 3D modeling and Photoshop. They also increasingly include digital walkthroughs of various kinds, verging on full-blown virtual reality. And while many serious buyers still want to see the property in person before signing on the dotted line, realtors and entrepreneurs believe the new marketing tools will stick around well after coronavirus pandemic is under control.

“Because a lot of open houses and conventional staging companies were not operational during the lockdown … we were actually busier,” says Young Kim, cofounder of Vancouver-based Bella Staging.

Bella specializes in virtual staging, the digital evolution of the common practice of temporarily redecorating a house to impress potential buyers. But instead of renting real furniture and hiring movers to haul it in, which can cost into the thousands of dollars, Bella adds furniture to photos of an empty house using digital wizardry. According to Kim, his team of designers and photo editors can virtually stage an entire house for under $100.

Bella
The decor in this room is almost entirely computer-generated—just one example of how technology is helping sell homes during the coronavirus pandemic.
Bella Staging

That occasionally leads to confusion. “There’ve been times our clients have had offers on a property, and the buyers wanted the [virtual] furniture included,” says Kim—but for the most part, clients understand that virtual staging is an exercise of imagination. “We help paint the picture of what it can be.”

Another digital tool that has seen a surge in relevance is the virtual walkthrough, which gives potential buyers a more immersive sense of the space. At the very high end, those can be built as full-blown virtual reality experiences using a 3D-rendered simulation. But more common (and affordable) are walkthroughs created using 360-degree photos.

“It gives you a feel for the place. How big it is, what’s the layout,” says Bartek Drozdz, cofounder of Kuula, whose core product he describes as “like Powerpoint for virtual tours.” Users take their own photos, then use Kuula to arrange them into an immersive home-tour experience. (One downside is that Kuula doesn’t allow for the addition of virtual decor, instead capturing a house’s real-life appearance.)

Drozdz says he’s seen a significant uptick in interest and web traffic during the pandemic. But growth at Kuula was steady for years before the coronavirus hit, and Drozdz sees lockdowns as accelerating a longterm change in homebuying, rather than a temporary shift. That’s because of a simple reality: even in normal times, open houses aren’t always an efficient way to shop for a home.

“In L.A., with the traffic, you have to drive for an hour to see a house you don’t like the moment you walk in,” says Drozdz. While sites like Zillow have been shifting more of the homebuying process online for well over a decade, immersive experiences take that to the next level.

MacDonald agrees: “I think this will change longterm how homes are sold. People are becoming very comfortable with sitting in their living room, using their Apple TV to look at real estate.” MacDonald says most shoppers do still want to see their new home in person before committing to a purchase, but the new tools give added confidence to some, such as cross-country movers, who snap up properties without ever setting foot in them.

Thanks in part to these digital tools (but also a lot of help from record-low mortgage rates), the real estate business overall appears to be holding up during the pandemic. In May, according to the National Association of Realtors, contract signings were off just 5.1% compared to the year before. That’s a minor drop compared to many sectors of the economy.

In fact, with supplies tight, U.S. home prices have actually gone up on average in recent months. Combined with job losses and economic uncertainty, that might make it tough for some people to buy a new home, even as stay-at-home orders have highlighted the shortcomings of their current one.

“Almost everybody during this pandemic is learning how their space isn’t working for them,” says Sally Huang, who directs visual technologies for online home design community Houzz. The site offers an online visualization tool called “View in my Room” that lets shoppers virtually check the size and style of furniture against their living space.

So whether you’re on the hunt for a new house to love, or trying to love the house you’re in, you can do more of that work online than ever before.

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