Property sales go virtual to work around Covid-19
A house in central London recently sold to an overseas buyer for £6m. The sale is due to complete this month, but the buyer has yet to set foot in the place, having seen it via a virtual walk-through.
“Before Covid-19, buyers would often start their search with a 3D tour then carry out a viewing in person — but now some are prepared to buy without viewing at all.” The UK housing market is frozen after the government last month instructed people not to move home or carry out viewings in person until after the coronavirus crisis comes to an end. Across the world, flight bans and lockdowns are forcing entire populations to stay at home.
Despite a captive audience, the number of searches on property portals has fallen since the outbreak, with Google Trends data showing traffic on Zoopla and Rightmove falling 50 per cent since early January.
Nevertheless, the use of virtual tours, where buyers can navigate their way through a home using 3D images, is on the rise. During the first two weeks in March, Zoopla recorded a 215 per cent increase in visitors who viewed new-build homes virtually.
Many in the property industry are investing in the new technology. Since the beginning of March, sales of Matterport’s 3D cameras have jumped 630 per cent.
Using a platform such as Matterport — together with a 360 camera such as the Insta 360, or a virtual-reality headset such as Samsung Gear VR — sellers can create a “3D capture” of their properties.
This gives a navigable “doll’s house” view of homes, which shows the property with external walls removed. It takes precise measurements, which means estate agents do not need to visit.
Property sales go virtual
Buyers view the home on a mobile phone or computer, from various vantage points, marked by circles on the floor, from which they can pivot through 360-degree angles and click on points of interest for more information.
Until now, such technology has been regarded as a gimmick, particularly useful for super-prime properties likely to attract overseas and foreign buyers.
But virtual solutions are proving essential to keep transactions on track while the coronavirus pandemic renders face-to-face meetings impossible.
“Homeowners don’t want to even let an estate agent or photographer in their property now, let alone streams of viewers — and rightly so, as we don’t know who is a carrier,” says Utsav Goenka, founder of the property portal Vyomm.
Free for vendors (estate agents pay a subscription or revenue share), Vyomm allows them to create a professional-standard video of their home from their iPhone — “a lot like Instagram stories,” says Goenka — and to link communication among all parties in the transaction.
When Vyomm launched last year, it was adopted by high-end agents as a way to sell off-market properties. “We use WhatsApp-style encryption technology, so the link can be shared exclusively with a client in Silicon Valley or China, but no one else can see it,” says Goenka.
Now that buyers and sellers must stay at home, its potential applications are greater. “Self-isolation is likely to continue for a long time. While few people want to buy a £5m home based on a video, it will reduce the need for viewings in person considerably, so vendors don’t have to allow 50 people into their home [once restrictions are relaxed],” he says.
“It’s dynamic and interactive. Should the browser want to view something specifically, the vendor can easily augment the video,” he adds.
Not all virtual viewings require 3D technology, however. For unoccupied properties, including show homes, one of the simplest solutions to work around the Covid-19 shutdown is to offer viewings by FaceTime.
“Essentially, we talk [sellers] through the scheme using our smartphone camera for the visual experience,” says Ben Babington, director of Trilogy Land & New Homes.
Others have been using drones — handy for showing every angle of a large country house, says Harry Bethell of Knight Frank’s Cirencester office: “And social media loves drones.” vv
Last year, he sold a £3m house near Cheltenham with the help of drone photography and video footage. “It shows how private the location is. Drone technology has also become more accessible and more portable,” he adds.
Users of the latest iPhone 11 Pro can create a high-quality virtual tour of a property — such as one taken of a two-bedroom mews house in London’s Earl’s Court, priced at £2.75m through Russell Simpson.
The estate agency has hired National Geographic filmographer Laurence Hills to train staff in the use of the phone’s camera, and Hills will edit the results to be sent to interested buyers.
Whether the enthusiasm for virtual viewings will have any lasting impact on the way we buy and sell homes once the shutdown is over is hard to tell. According to Guy Bradshaw, from UK Sotheby’s International Realty, it could change the industry in some fundamental ways.
“If people get used to virtual working, perhaps this could signal the end of the ‘shopfront’ requirement,” he says.