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Virtual real estate tours have unquestionably proven their worth during the pandemic, and that has been the case not only in the multifamily sector but elsewhere, too.
Consider, for example, the fact that 97 percent of homebuyers searched for their new residences online in 2020, up from 93 percent the year before, and that those who searched for homes that way were five to 10 times more likely to linger on a site featuring a virtual tour.
It’s safe to say that the virtual tour is here to stay. Even after the need for social distancing subsides, prospects will want to examine properties in this fashion. And certainly, technology affords them a better look than ever, through 3D views or those enabled by 360-degree cameras, indoor and outdoor drones and (sometime soon) augmented reality and virtual reality.
That said, there simply is no substitute for an in-person tour. What better way to get a sense of place? What better way to consider everything that might be seen, not to mention heard?
That’s how prospects can best gauge the vibe of the neighborhood. It’s how they can best understand just how long the walk might be to Starbucks or the supermarket. It’s how they can examine the grounds or the common areas.
At the real estate investment firm I founded, where I also serve as a managing principal, we have found that it’s rare for a prospect not to check out one of our properties online before visiting in person.
They want to do their homework, and they want to make sure it is worth their while to see a place with the naked eye. In that way, it is not unlike a prospective car buyer pricing a vehicle online then visiting the dealership, paperwork in hand.
Stefanos Cheno, the New York Times’ real estate reporter, offered a thorough breakdown of the value of in-person visits in a September 2020 piece. First, he emphasized the fact that no matter how good the technology, it is possible to be fooled — that ceilings can look higher and a place’s lighting better than is actually the case.
Moreover, he added, room measurements can be fudged, and it can be hard to gauge the exact shape of a room online. Then there’s a matter of noise; he quoted one agent who said he remained in a room for 25 minutes, just to get a sense of what he might hear from other units.
In short, Cheno reached the same conclusion we did — that online and in-person tours go hand in hand. He wrote:
“Some questions simply can’t be resolved without an in-person visit, but ask to see how far away the elevator is from the apartment and listen for hum. Is there a trash chute nearby or the chemical fumes of a laundry room? Does the apartment face a busy avenue or loud mechanical equipment? You won’t know your threshold for irritation without a visit, but the virtual tour can help you decide if it’s worth making the trip.”
Spot on. A virtual tour lays the foundation for the in-person visit, and the property manager or owner hopes, something more.
And certainly virtual tours are slicker than ever; 3D tools have been available for a while now, and a more recent interactive option affords the user the option to move in different directions within the unit or the community at large.
It takes nothing more than a mouse click to, for example, walk to the virtual bathroom, head down a hallway to the fitness center or venture outside to the pool. This innovation allows the user to see what they want to see and when they want to see it — a marked departure from the tours that were available only via a static movie.
As mentioned, indoor and outdoor drones enable prospects to view properties from a different perspective. Outdoor drones give an idea of where a property is located within the surrounding community and provide a bird’s-eye view of a place that’s vastly superior to street-level photos. Indoor drones give an enhanced view of the floorplan, and establish how easy it might be to move from one place to another.
Great as the views may be, nothing can replace an in-person tour when it comes to assessing a community’s amenities and common areas.
Moreover, prospects are able to get real-time feedback from property managers when they meet face to face, and the parties are able to get a sense of each other. A manager can ascertain what a prospect’s needs might be, and a prospect can size up day-to-day operations.
To sum up, then, virtual tours are alive and well. In fact, they are improving all the time, as the technology continues to evolve. And while they proved to be particularly valuable when social distancing was the norm, they will continue to be widely used once the outbreak subsides.
They will draw people in and attract them to properties for the all-important, up-close-and-personal examination. That will always be of utmost importance and will always serve as the clincher.
Michael H. Zaransky is the founder and managing principal of MZ Capital Partners. Founded in 2005, MZ Capital Partners, based in Northbrook, Ill., deals in multifamily properties.