Home    Property sales go virtual to work around Covid-19

A house in central London recently sold to an overseas buyer for £6m. “This is a large property on a prime road that will be his family home,” says Jamie Hope, managing director of Maskells estate agency, who is handling the sale.

The sale is due to complete this month, but the buyer has yet to set foot in the place, having seen it via a virtual walk-through, made using the 3D camera system Matterport.

“Before Covid-19, buyers would often start their search with a 3D tour then carry out a viewing in person — but now some are prepared to buy without viewing at all,” says Hope.

The UK housing market is frozen after the government last month instructed people not to move home or carry out viewings in person until after the coronavirus crisis comes to an end. Across the world, flight bans and lockdowns are forcing entire populations to stay at home.

Despite a captive audience, the number of searches on property portals has fallen since the outbreak, with Google Trends data showing traffic on Zoopla and Rightmove falling 50 per cent since early January.

Nevertheless, the use of virtual tours, where buyers can navigate their way through a home using 3D images, is on the rise. During the first two weeks in March, Zoopla recorded a 215 per cent increase in visitors who viewed new-build homes virtually.

Many in the property industry are investing in the new technology. Since the beginning of March, sales of Matterport’s 3D cameras have jumped 630 per cent.

A close-up of a room on the Matterport platform

Using a platform such as Matterport — together with a 360 camera such as the Insta 360 (£400), or a virtual-reality headset such as Samsung Gear VR (from £50) — sellers can create a “3D capture” of their properties.

This gives a navigable “doll’s house” view of homes, which shows the property with external walls removed. It takes precise measurements, which means estate agents do not need to visit.

Buyers view the home on a mobile phone or computer, from various vantage points, marked by circles on the floor, from which they can pivot through 360-degree angles and click on points of interest for more information.

Until now, such technology has been regarded as a gimmick, particularly useful for super-prime properties likely to attract overseas and foreign buyers.

For example, on Belgravia’s Lygon Place, a six-bedroom mansion priced at £22.5m has been filmed by Reevo 360, a company that produces virtual tours. Tours can be arranged through the website of estate agent Beauchamp Estates.

But the arrival of more affordable options — such as a new beta version of Matterport — allows vendors to make virtual tours for free on a smartphone and means cheaper homes have started to be captured using this technology. Strutt & Parker is offering virtual tours on a two-bedroom cottage in Silverton, Devon. It is priced at £225,000.

The technology has shortcomings. Reevo 360, for example, charges £90 to create a 3D tour of a property — but the company must visit with its 4K camera rig, impossible during lockdown. What is more, for a large property, it can take several days to scan, edit and process the footage needed for a good-quality Matterport 3D walk-through.

“Some clients also feel we should leave a bit of mystery,” says Hope. “And matters of confidentiality arise: with a [standard] photo, we have complete control as to what the public can see.”

Two-bedroom mews house near Earl’s Court, London, £2.75m through Russell Simpson

Two-bedroom mews house near Earl’s Court, London, £2.75m through Russell Simpson

But virtual solutions are proving essential to keep transactions on track while the coronavirus pandemic renders face-to-face meetings impossible.

“Homeowners don’t want to even let an estate agent or photographer in their property now, let alone streams of viewers — and rightly so, as we don’t know who is a carrier,” says Utsav Goenka, founder of the property portal Vyomm.

Free for vendors (estate agents pay a subscription or revenue share), Vyomm allows them to create a professional-standard video of their home from their iPhone — “a lot like Instagram stories,” says Goenka — and to link communication among all parties in the transaction.

The Vyomm property portal mobile app and QR codes

The Vyomm property portal mobile app and QR codes

When Vyomm launched last year, it was adopted by high-end agents as a way to sell off-market properties. “We use WhatsApp-style encryption technology, so the link can be shared exclusively with a client in Silicon Valley or China, but no one else can see it,” says Goenka.

A new-build in Covent Garden, London shown on video made using technology at Vyomm

A new-build in Covent Garden, London shown on video made using technology at Vyomm

Now that buyers and sellers must stay at home, its potential applications are greater. “Self-isolation is likely to continue for a long time. While few people want to buy a £5m home based on a video, it will reduce the need for viewings in person considerably, so vendors don’t have to allow 50 people into their home [once restrictions are relaxed],” he says.

“It’s dynamic and interactive. Should the browser want to view something specifically, the vendor can easily augment the video,” he adds.

Not all virtual viewings require 3D technology, however. For unoccupied properties, including show homes, one of the simplest solutions to work around the Covid-19 shutdown is to offer viewings by FaceTime.

“Essentially, we talk [sellers] through the scheme using our smartphone camera for the visual experience,” says Ben Babington, director of Trilogy Land & New Homes.

Drone photograph of a period cottage on a country lane between Bristol and Gloucester, £675,000 through Knight Frank

Drone photograph of a period cottage on a country lane between Bristol and Gloucester, £675,000 through Knight Frank

Others have been using drones — handy for showing every angle of a large country house, says Harry Bethell of Knight Frank’s Cirencester office: “And social media loves drones.” vv

Last year, he sold a £3m house near Cheltenham with the help of drone photography and video footage. “It shows how private the location is. Drone technology has also become more accessible and more portable,” he adds.

Users of the latest iPhone 11 Pro can create a high-quality virtual tour of a property — such as one taken of a two-bedroom mews house in London’s Earl’s Court, priced at £2.75m through Russell Simpson.

The estate agency has hired National Geographic filmographer Laurence Hills to train staff in the use of the phone’s camera, and Hills will edit the results to be sent to interested buyers.

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Whether the enthusiasm for virtual viewings will have any lasting impact on the way we buy and sell homes once the shutdown is over is hard to tell. According to Guy Bradshaw, from UK Sotheby’s International Realty, it could change the industry in some fundamental ways.

“If people get used to virtual working, perhaps this could signal the end of the ‘shopfront’ requirement,” he says.

For the time being, agents say that while a virtual tour will motivate buyers, it will not close the deal.

Says Jonathan Bramwell, head of The Buying Solution: “There are certain aspects you simply can’t capture on camera — the feeling that space gives you is the primary reason for choosing a home and you really have to see it to feel that.”

Follow @FTProperty on Twitter or @ft_houseandhome on Instagram to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

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