When COVID-19 first began to spread throughout the country, and people starting working from home, technology quickly become the heart of how many of us operated. It played — and still does — an important role in keeping business going by way of videoconferencing tools, virtual tours and live events.
So now that the world is reopening, we might be wondering what COVID-19’s lasting technology impact on real estate is and what will it look like, say, a year from now.
To help answer that question, I sat down for a Zoom interview with real estate agents, who have diverse technology and real estate experience from across the country. They shared how COVID-19 has changed their business and how they view the future of technology and agents in real estate.
Virtual 360 home tours
This technology includes 360-degree walk-throughs, virtual reality and “dollhouse” floor plans. During COVID-19, 360-degree tours are considered by some agents as “absolutely essential” for listings. Buyers gain a clearer sense of a property’s dimensions and the ability to focus on features of interest to them while virtually walking through the home.
Char Klisares, Realtor at RE/MAX Hilltop near Des Moines, Iowa, is adding a fun element to her listings’ virtual tours by using a “Where’s Waldo” type search. Viewers can search her 360 tours for a strategically placed “Where’s Char-do” pillow.
3D home-touring technology, such as Matterport, has been a real estate tech win during COVID-19, but its future is not guaranteed.
“Matterport 3D has been out there for a very long time, and it has been underutilized for a reason,” said Rob Carter of the Rob Carter Group at Compass Real Estate in Washington, D.C. “True confessions. Agents don’t like Matterport because we want people in the house. Because that’s when we get the opportunity to turn them into a buyer.”
With fewer in-person tours, agents may also have less opportunity to gain valuable feedback to improve a home’s sellability in respect to price, staging, updates, etc.
While walking through a listing using their cell phones, agents “iChat” tour homes and answer questions with their clients, allowing buyers to remain in the safety of their homes during COVID- 19.
IChat home tours also offer additional information about certain aspects of a home that a 360-degree tour doesn’t, like backyards, neighborhoods, noise levels and their agent’s advice. But buyers likely won’t give up an opportunity to a view home as in-person tours resume in the future.
Virtual open houses
Virtual open houses are livestreamed open houses during a set time, where agents tour and answer questions by online viewers.
Not all agents believe in conducting open houses, but those who do suggested that virtual open houses would be a great way to expand their existing open house to reach more people. Some MLSs have added a new field where agents can advertise their virtual open houses.
Online client meetings
Zoom, Google Meet and Skype, among others, are looking positive as long-term online meeting tools for agents and their clients. Agents can review documents, get electronic signatures and do face-to-face virtual interactions with their clients. “Something that used to take me about an hour and a half, now takes me about an hour,” Klisares shared. “I don’t believe that it’s any less personal.”
But there are some disadvantages, too. Carter prefers a phone call with clients, where the substance of the call is the focus rather than the visual distractions of online meetings.
Remote or “porch closings” are settlements that can be completed by pre-signing documents or using electronic signatures in a person’s home. In the age of COVID-19, this option allows clients to safely sign contracts from their porch (or living room) and with their own ink or electronic pen.
The agents interviewed felt that remote closings were ideal and will stay that way even after the pandemic. Jan Green of HomeSmart in Scottsdale, Arizona, said: “What’s really cool, I can open escrow remotely by taking a photo of the check. We know of title companies which are doing remote, online signings.”
Even if the demand is there, remote closings aren’t always an option, Carter explained. “Most lenders are not accepting remote online notarization, even though the technology is there,” he said.
This increased use of technology raises an important question — can it ever replace the role of agents?
Agent-less or “iBuyer” transactions were on the rise pre-COVID-19. Platforms such as Opendoor essentially streamline the process by buying the house outright and taking the burden of owning, marketing and reselling the home. Opendoor raised over $1.5 billion in funding, and competitor Knock raised over $400 million in 2019. Even Zillow had adopted the iBuyer model with its “Zillow Offer” platform, which was suspended temporarily during the pandemic.
While iBuyer platforms can reduce commissions and create buying and selling flexibility, most buyers and sellers still prefer the assurance of expert advice when it comes to getting the best return on their investment, filling out complicated contracts and knowing that everything is done — and done right.
Klisares has been working with one client during the pandemic who recently went through a divorce. She’s navigating that extra pressure of her client’s circumstance and need to quickly sell the home using her expertise and personalization.
Who decides what stays and what goes?
There is a natural tension between agents and technology. Current signs suggest that, because they provide real value, all of these technologies are likely here to stay in some form. And agents are not going anywhere anytime soon.
But as consumers get comfortable with these new technologies during the pandemic, agents will be under pressure to adapt more quickly. The main impact of COVID-19 may simply be accelerating the adoption of technology to streamline real estate.
Going forward, more information and ease may be expected. Zillow’s core success began with sharing listing information with buyers directly, which had been only accessible by real estate agents belonging to their local MLS. Reverting listings back to just photos and short descriptions may not be widely accepted by buyers who virtually toured homes during the pandemic.
Now, 360 tours and virtual open houses can help vet buyers’ seriousness and avoid the hassle of unnecessary home tours and open houses for sellers.
The agents interviewed are keenly aware that technology must continue to be part of their business in order to survive and support the buying and selling experience. But there is healthy skepticism that technology will be able to replace the complicated and evolving real estate process or fulfill the unique needs of individuals.
Jesse Boeding, Realtor at Keller Williams in Falls Church, Virginia, recalls a couple who insisted on touring a home that didn’t match their criteria. They mentioned that “George” would really like the home. Only after many home tours, “George,” Boeding found out, was her clients’ cat.
Her clients had been really searching for a home that fit the unique lifestyle of all three family members. At that point, Boeding prioritized finding a perfect home for George and his parents.
You’d be hard-pressed to find technology and an iBuyer platform sophisticated enough to locate homes that meet the standards of George, the cat.