Trend Report: Virtual showings reshape home shopping |

Trend Report: Virtual showings reshape home shopping

Photo by Getty Images
Virtual Showings make it easy to experience a home from the comfort of your home computer.

Want to see what a room looks like in different lighting, or painted a different color? It’s easy as a click.

COVID-19 may have sped up the process, but for a while now virtual home showings, which are broadly thought of as showings done online instead of in person, have been on their way to becoming a standard part of home-buying.

According to a 2019 survey by the National Association of Realtors, even before COVID-19 appeared on the horizon nearly 80% of prospective buyers said they would switch to a real estate agent offering immersive 3D virtual tours, which are akin to a cross between a virtual reality video game and an indoor version of Google Maps.

The main appeal of virtual home showings is that a buyer can get a deep understanding of a property and its potential without having to step foot in it. Buyers and sellers still need a real estate agent, for all the usual things a professional does, such as advising on market conditions, helping get a home ready for sale, and determining a fair price.

Yet despite the growing enthusiasm for this new kind of home-buying experience, the technology is developing so rapidly that even many real estate pros are still struggling to clearly define the various types of “virtual” home showings there actually are.

What most people think of as virtual home showings fall into two basic categories.

One, often interchangeably called a virtual or livestream tour, showing, or open house, is not really virtual. (Strictly speaking, “virtual” is a computer-generated simulation meant to look real.) Instead, it is an online, live, hosted video tour in which the prospective buyer, who can be physically located anywhere in the world, can see the property and ask questions in real time of the host, who is physically at the property site.

The other type, a true virtual tour, commonly known as an immersive 3-D virtual tour or walkthrough, is not live and is not technically real. It is an online, un-hosted, prerecorded tour of a 360-degree 3-D simulation of an actual house. (An industry leader in the technology, Matterport, calls the simulation a digital twin.) It allows the buyer, who can also be physically located anywhere, to look at the property from almost any perspective imaginable, including with virtually staged furniture or a cutaway re-creation known as a dollhouse view.

The video tour is the more common of the two, in part because the technology is relatively simple and inexpensive, and in part because it most closely resembles the traditional home-buying experience. With a smart-phone video camera, a video conferencing site such as Zoom, and a good internet connection, the agent walks through the home with camera in hand while the buyer, watching from their own phone, might ask the agent to focus in on the kitchen countertops or draw back the living room curtains to see the outside view.

If it is worth the agent’s time, such as with a luxury home, or in a particularly competitive market, a live video tour might be arranged for a single prospect. But more commonly, it is set up as a video open house. The open house is a scheduled, live event, announced and promoted in advance by the agent, and is open to anyone who has signed up. Viewers of the live video tour can ask the agent questions and request specific camera shots. Usually, the event is recorded as it takes place, and stored online, so that later on anyone can look at it.

The pre-recorded 3-D virtual tour or virtual walk-through is more technically complicated, more expensive to create, and is often put together by a 3-D technology professional.

Creating a 3-D virtual tour is a two-step process. First, every corner of the home, after being staged (or emptied of furnishings) is photographed with a special tripod-mounted 360-degree camera. Computer software “stitches” the photos into a 360-degree panoramic view of the home’s interior and converts it to a digital rendering that can be manipulated in a nearly endless number of ways.

Want to see what a room looks like in different lighting, or painted a different color, or with different tile in the bathrooms? It’s easy as a click. If the house is empty of furnishings, you can virtually stage the rooms any way you want, and re-stage them if you want to try something else. If you’re unsure whether a sofa or a dining room set will fit, you can measure the space, precisely, from anywhere. You can access an interactive floor plan that will take you to any room, switch your perspective to look from the bottom or top of a staircase, and click on tags that might tell you, for example, that the living room floors are real hardwood, and were refinished less than a year ago.

To make the online experience even more useful for buyers and sellers, real estate agents are more often offering both live video showings and 3-D interactive tours. They are even adding enhancements such as drone tours so that buyers can see for themselves what the seller means, for example, when they say the property is ski-in. 

Even if a miracle vaccine has been discovered between the time this was written and readers are looking at it, no one is sure how the world is going to change as a result of COVID-19. But a safe bet is that no matter what the outcome is, the ever-more-powerful tools virtual technology is putting in the hands of agents and clients will change the world of home buying forever. 

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