The COVID pandemic didn't stop people from buying houses. But it did change how buyers viewed homes, with technology sometimes replacing the in-person experience. Agents used virtual home showings, virtual home tours, and virtual staging instead of or along with their in-person counterparts.
That development has continued and is expected to keep going or even gain momentum. That means you can buy a home without setting foot inside it. And it also means you need to understand what you're seeing – and not seeing. And what questions to ask.
Here’s a look at the virtual options and some of the pluses and minuses of each.
Virtual 3D Home Tours -- Good for a First Look
With a virtual home tour, a seller’s agent looks to show off a property’s best features. This marketing presentation is what potential buyers see online at a real estate site. It may be a 3D tour or a gallery of retouched photos of staged rooms. Regardless of the format, it shows the property groomed, enhanced, and ready for its closeup. “A virtual tour tends to be roses and wine and all the good things,” says Matt Difanis, broker-owner of RE/MAX Realty Associates in Champaign, Ill.
For buyers, virtual property tours have limits. “Space is hard to translate into a 3D tour,” says Jill Friedland, an agent with Weichert Realtors in Warren, N.J. “You can’t get a feel for home size. You can’t get a feel for placement of the home in relationship to a neighborhood. A drone won’t take a photo of a traffic light one house away.”
Then there’s the issue of retouch magic. “Some of these photos are so highly doctored that they look whimsical,” Difanis says. “They’ll push your emotional buttons, but you get there, and the house isn’t what you thought.”
The upshot is, don’t make an offer based on a virtual tour. That’s like proposing to someone based on a photo on Match.com. Instead, use a virtual tour to decide if you want to take a closer look at a property, either in person or via a virtual showing, Friedland says.
Virtual Home Showings -- Look for the Warts
In a virtual home showing, an agent walks a buyer through a property, one on one, on Zoom or Facetime. It’s a more informal presentation that gives the buyer a more realistic view of the property. The showing is when buyers should “see the warts,” Difanis says.
This is when buyers should ask the hard questions, Friedland says. “Ask, ‘Is there something in the room that you are not showing me that would cause me to be unhappy?’” Have your agent check for signs of water damage, cracks in walls, or scratched floors, she says. Make sure your virtual showing includes the basement.
She recommends having your agent shoot videos or photos from the same angle in a room as the images you've seen online, so you can compare how they’re different. “You need to see if what you are looking at digitally is the same as what's really there,” she says.
Ask tough questions. Friedland has sold to people moving from another country who didn’t see the property till they took ownership. “As their agent, it’s my job to be their eyes on the ground and point out problems,” she says.
Difanis says he points out the flaws when he’s doing the virtual showing and representing a buyer. “If there’s going to be a buzz kill item, I need to identify it and show it to buyers then,” he says. “I don’t want them to show up [at the walkthrough] and say, ‘That’s not what I saw.’”
Virtual Home Staging -- Swap out Interior Design
Decorating a home to showcase its best assets, or staging, has gone virtual, too. It falls into one of two types. One is totally digital. A photographer shoots photos of the house, edits any furniture out of the photos, and replaces it with digitally created images of furniture. It’s a digital representation of how the house could look – not how it does look. These images are then used for a virtual home tour or virtual showing.
The second type mixes digital and analog. A professional stager looks at photos or does a Facetime walkthrough of the home with an agent. The stager creates a detailed plan for how to arrange the existing furniture. The homeowners move the furniture around themselves, executing the pro’s instructions. This hybrid form is popular with people who don’t want to rent furniture and don’t want strangers coming into their homes, Friedland says.
When you’re viewing a virtual tour or virtual showing, find out exactly what you're seeing. Most states require agents to disclose if a room shown has been virtually staged, Friedland says. But the info might be in the fine print.
Ask your agent if you’re seeing images of real rooms or digitally staged ones. And ask if anything has been retouched. Technology allows photographers to work a lot of magic in post-production. They can change paint colors, trim, or flooring to make these features look very real and very different from what’s actually there.
Friedland uses digital staging carefully. She prints out 18 x 24-inch hard-backed images of virtually staged rooms and puts them on an easel in the doorway of each room. When buyers look at the house, they can see the real room and a retouched photo of what the room could look like.
“I just did this recently with a house that looked like early ‘90s Boca Raton,” she says. “I did a virtual staging and removed the raspberry leather sectional and put in lots of traditional furniture in neutral colors. It sold in two weeks.”
The Future of Home Buying Is a Hybrid
Virtual real estate shopping is here to stay, agents say. “In the future, I see it as a hybrid,” Friedland says. “Buyers will do their shopping virtually to narrow it down to a few houses. They’ll look at 65 houses via 3D video to decide which three they want to see in person.”
Kerry Stanley of Baltimore is looking to move to Champaign, Ill., to be closer to her adult daughter. She had Difanis take her on virtual showings of two co-ops she had seen online.
“Virtual showings are great for an out-of-town buyer like me,” she says. “Matt did a good job of pointing out flaws in the properties,” she says. “I had seen all the good stuff in the online tour. He pointed out the problems: the building’s age and that it had surface-mounted electrical outlet boxes.”
Stanley will be driving to Illinois to see one of the co-ops in person before making an offer. “I want to drive the neighborhood, and then I’ll know for sure,” she says.
The hybrid approach may end up being more efficient for buyers. If you ask questions and use virtual viewings to see flaws, features, and potential, you may speed up the process – and still end up with a great house.