How do virtual property viewings work? Our guide for buyers and sellers
- By Bertie Russell
- 22 May 2020
Would you buy or rent a house you’ve never set foot in? Ever since the housing market was frozen a month ago, increasing numbers of locked-down househunters have carried on the search for their next home virtually.
At first it seemed as though estate agents’ efforts to adapt overnight were simply a way to keep business alive in a hostile environment. However, virtual viewings have proven so popular with buyers and sellers that it looks as if they are here to stay.
The government lifted the ban on in-person viewings in England last week as long as everyone involved obeys social distancing rules. The new guidance says: “Initial viewings should be done virtually wherever this is possible and property agents should help you to do this.” Online viewing options are now widely available on request and most estate agencies are adopting a “virtual first” approach before arranging physical viewings.
“In line with government guidelines we continue to offer virtual viewings as a first option and have had little resistance from clients to this approach, with some actually preferring to begin their search this way in the current circumstances,” says Andrew Perratt, head of country residential at Savills.
He adds: “Virtual viewings have proven their worth during lockdown and I believe they’ll continue to play a role for buyers doing their market research and in helping them draw up a shortlist of properties to see in person.
“Lockdown has shown us the value of family time, and we’ll probably think twice about running up and down the country if not absolutely necessary. So I expect we’ll see people narrowing it down to two or three properties for viewing in person instead of spending a whole weekend viewing twelve.”
There are three main ways for viewers to see homes online: virtual viewings, video tours and virtual walk-throughs.
Virtual viewings are by far the most popular. Sellers show buyers around their home on their smartphone or tablet via a video conferencing app, such as Whatsapp, Facetime or Zoom, often with an agent on the call too.
Knight Frank, an estate agency, says it is now in a position to show all of its properties — more than 3,500 listings nationwide — virtually, via “live, agent-led tours”. Hamptons International, part of the UK’s largest estate agency group, says the number of its virtual viewings increased tenfold in the first five weeks of lockdown, and the vast majority of its homes and almost all of its vacant properties are being marketed virtually.
“We were very active. We asked loads of questions,” says Liz Parnell, 47, who virtually toured a four-bedroom converted stone barn in Overthorpe, Oxfordshire. She relocated to the UK from Dallas, Texas, last summer and has been renting in the local area with her husband Richard, 57, and their three sons, William, 20, Elliot, 17, and James, 16.
The Parnells, who both work in IT, fell in love with the property — which was on the market with a guide price of £715,000 — and had their offer accepted at the beginning of May after two virtual viewings conducted via Whatsapp with the sellers and an agent from the Banbury branch of Hamptons International.
“The first tour was quite quick — about 40 minutes — so it gave us an initial impression and the second one the week after was close to an hour long,” Parnell says. “We could even ask the owners whether they could pan up and show us the ceiling line and the views outside the windows.
“It is harder to get a feel for the property. You’re looking at the architecture, fixtures and fittings and you’re not getting that emotional response when you first walk into a house. I think it takes a brave person who knows what they want and what work they want to do to make that decision.”
While the majority of buyers will still want to visit the property in person and conduct a survey before making an offer, some have pressed ahead based on virtual viewings online.
One buyer bought a £1 million house in Surrey before lockdown was lifted following an hour-long Whatsapp video call with Darrell Hughes, a partner at Jackson-Stops’s Dorking branch. The home was vacant as it was being sold by the children of a deceased parent and the buyer had been renting in the area for a long time.
Hughes says: “The type of properties that are going under offer after virtual viewings are quite consistent. They’ve been family properties in strong, private residential locations; they’ve needed work so you’re not buying into a lifestyle or the decor; and the buyers we’ve dealt with have moved around a lot and they know what they want.”
“Unseen” agreements are far more common in the lettings market, where the pressure is on to make decisions quickly and less money is at stake. David Mumby, a regional partner at Knight Frank, says, “Since lockdown, we have also had in excess of 100 tenants who have signed rental agreements and are waiting to move into the property, having never seen their new house or flat before.”
More than 12,000 renters have watched video tours of rented homes on Movebubble, a rental app that launched its Walkthrough feature the week after lockdown. Letting agents upload 15 to 45-second clips of each room on a smartphone or tablet. Renters can secure the property in 30 seconds by tapping a “Rent it” button that opens up an instant messaging chat with the agent. Its Walkthrough tool has had a 20 per cent daily increase in users since the housing market reopened. Aidan Rushby, the company’s chief executive, predicts that physical property viewings for rentals will be a thing of the past for many people by 2025.
Open houses are banned as social distancing rules cannot be followed, but some agents are turning to Gavl, an Australian auction app, to take multiple buyers on a virtual tour at once. Users have to register their details beforehand, making offers easy to follow up, and it’s said to add a competitive element to househunting.
Professionally filmed video tours have been around for much longer than virtual viewings. These are usually accompanied by tinkling piano music or upbeat dance tracks and are uploaded to view with the property’s listing online or shared with a potential buyer on request.
More agencies are now investing in them to attract buyers online, even upmarket ones. Russell Simpson, a London agency that mainly sells multimillion-pound properties in Chelsea, Mayfair and Belgravia, filmed all of its properties before the lockdown. Its video tours are now included in its standard marketing package. Most agents we spoke to said they did not plan to charge clients or raise their existing fees for video tours as it is now an essential part of the selling process.
Sellers and landlords are also being encouraged to make their own video tours. London agency Daniel Cobb says it received a lot of interest for a home owned by a BBC producer who shot their own video, and its properties with video tours were the only ones that received requests for physical viewings during lockdown.
Fine & Country estate agency launched a tool at the end of March for its licensees and members of the Guild of Property Professionals that allows agents to drop a video into its system and use a template to add logos, branding and backing tracks.
The most high-tech — and the most expensive — option is the virtual walkthrough, where estate agents buy virtual 3D imaging cameras that create an interactive “digital twin” and a floorplan that buyers can explore in their own time.
Matterport, based in Sunnyvale, California, is the leading provider of virtual walkthroughs in the UK. Among its users are Strutt & Parker, Winkworth and Foxtons and they usually provide a link to the 3D tours on request. Matterport’s technology is also backed by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors as a way of taking accurate digital measurements and sales to UK property companies of its Pro2 camera, which costs £2,830, have increased 630 per cent since March.
Video or virtual reality tours are well established in the new-build homes sector, where many properties are sold before they are built, or are marketed to overseas investors. However, according to Zoopla, a property portal, the number of visitors watching its new-build video tours has increased by 215 per cent since lockdown began.
“There are certain things that a virtual viewing will not be able to provide — a feel of the place, a feel of the neighbourhood,” says Jade Kent, a solicitor at JMW, a law firm. “But if the property purchase is a business rather than an emotional investment, a virtual viewing may be able to provide enough information for a potential buyer to proceed.”
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