Every so often a disruptive technology appears, promising to radically change an industry. Whilst the taxi industry has been revolutionized by innovations like Uber and Lyft, other more traditional enterprises have been slower to benefit from the huge strides in technological innovation. The real estate market—which has long relied on a show-and-tell model for viewing homes—is now beginning to adopt the newest virtual reality technology to provide guided virtual tours of its listed properties.
One notable company, leading the (VR) transformation, is Guided Virtual Tours. Headed by Christopher Vasilakis (Marine Corps veteran and American Mensa member), the company is helping redefine the house-viewing experience.
Vasilakis explains that the key difference between the Guided Virtual Tour and the traditional virtual tour is the fact that there is an immersive element. Previously, clients would have had to click on a particular icon to proceed to the next room. The experience ended up feeling like a PowerPoint presentation, shuffling from one slide to the next. Now, clients wear a VR headset and are immersed in an experience that is much closer to real life. Wearing the headset, listening to the commentary, and looking around the rooms, gives them the feeling that they’re actually visiting the property. The slick transitions, from one part of the property to another, inject fun into what was a banal experience.
The ability to send the guided tours directly to clients’ mobiles, or post them online, is key to this growing market. A 2020 study, from the National Association of Realtors, found that online house searches had crept up 4% in a year—from 93%, in 2019, to 97% by the end of 2020. The report also highlighted the fact that homebuyers were spending less time searching. A representative from the NAR said that some had bought a home without ever setting foot inside—the entire process was conducted online. The average person viewed 9 homes in ‘real life’ and a further 5 via virtual tours. To summarize, the process of buying a house is speeding up and moving online, thanks in part to the advent of online tours.
This not only makes the whole process more convenient but also more efficient. Arranging appointments, driving to different properties, and keeping track of all the relevant features takes time and effort. With thousands of properties being added to the market each day, and time at a premium, it seems logical that buyers are gravitating towards an online solution. The question is whether Guided Virtual Tours will eventually eliminate the need for realtors altogether?
Vasilakis feels that the answer is a foregone conclusion. In a recent interview, he said, “This is the future of touring all property, allowing thousands of prospects to tour each day while reducing the need for human leasing agents. It’ll be global—and it’s going to change the industry.” Vasilakis is able to use his countrywide network of photographers to quickly produce cost-effective tours and sees no end to the potential.
“This is the future of touring all property, allowing thousands of prospects to tour each day while reducing the need for human leasing agents. It’ll be global—and it’s going to change the industry.”
Nevertheless, realtors contend that they still add value to the house-buying process. The realtor not only provides hard facts, as in the number of rooms, materials used, or facilities available, but they also provide soft facts: that the next-door neighbor has a five-year-old kid, or that there’s a grocery store five minutes away. A ‘machine’, in their estimation, can’t add that kind of personal touch.
Figures from the NRA—through to the end of 2020—suggest that the traditional realtor isn’t ready to bow out just yet. The report found that 88% of buyers used an agent to buy their homes. Over 50% relied on a referral or returned to the agent they had previously used. Furthermore, 91% of those who did buy through an agent were adamant that they would employ the agent’s services again. The NAR President, Mr Vince Malta, was reported as saying that he was unsurprised by the record numbers of people buying through agents. In times of uncertainty—which COVID-19 certainly is—people want experts who can guide them through the pitfalls associated with the biggest purchase in life: a home.
Perhaps the best solution is a hybrid one: a collaboration between humans and machines. There’s no doubt that the technology can assist in servicing greater numbers of clients than ever before. With so many new properties flooding the market, and the demand so high, something has to give. However, people still appreciate the human touch: they want to feel like they’ve received a personal service. Moreover, realtors still have a wealth of knowledge about residential areas and can guide the buyer through the process. For realtors and VR to co-exist, business owners will have to decide what the perfect blend of human and machine is for their particular needs. Currently, VR tech still relies on a human ‘guide’ to host the viewing. Perhaps it will spawn a whole new demand for specialist realtors who can provide engaging content.
Vasilakis comments, ‘The pandemic has made our technology more prevalent than ever. With many companies allowing employees to work remotely, we are seeing thousands of families migrating to ‘cheaper’ states. VR allows agents to cope with the sheer volume of enquiries and requests: everyone wins.”