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Real estate sector opens new portal for sales

Agents and brokers embrace a once-unthinkable reality: selling homes without an in-person showing.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 11:32 a.m. May 15, 2020
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Neal Communities is one of several area homebuilders embracing virtual technology to sell homes.
Neal Communities is one of several area homebuilders embracing virtual technology to sell homes.
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The usual way of selling a home — in-person showings, mostly on demand — has long bothered Charlie Ashby. In the business for some 50 years, the president of Fort Myers-based VIP Realty says agent security and safety is a constant worry when one of the firm’s 150 agents are showing property.

“We lock our cars, [and] we put codes on our phones,” Ashby says. “But we open up our homes to people we don’t know [for listings]. It’s an old way and not a smart way to sell homes.”

With that as a backdrop, VIP Realty is using the coronavirus pandemic, which has sidelined most property showings, to emphasize its technology-based disruption to the traditional property showing process. Dubbed “Visit this house from your couch,” the program takes virtual home walk-throughs a step deeper, with a multi-angle agent-guided 3D view. Catering to people’s out-of-whack, pandemic-based schedules, the company is also using a technology called Call Page, which it says calls back a potential buyer within 28 seconds to set up a 3D appointment.

A potential buyer goes on the interactive property visit, both inside and outside, with the agent on the virtual tour to address questions and talk through highlights. “It’s just like being there,” Ashby says. “You are in the room. You can look up. You can look down.”

Other real estate brokerages likewise see a big future in utilizing virtual and 3D technology to sell homes. One of the largest brokerages in the region, Michael Saunders & Co., for one, recently began hosting virtual open houses. The first ones, held 2-3 p.m. May 3 on Facebook Live, included some 30 listings. They ranged from a downtown Sarasota condo listed for $4.09 million to a home in Venice for $195,000 to a nearly 8,000-square-foot, five-bedroom home in Lakewood Ranch priced at $1.85 million. The company ran a marketing campaign to boost interest, including placing a unique QR code on for sale signs.

File. Michael Saunders & Co President Drayton Saunders
File. Michael Saunders & Co President Drayton Saunders

Michael Saunders & Co. saw a spike in web traffic after the May 3 event, and plans were underway for more virtual open houses May 17, May 31 and possibly beyond. “People are curious,” Michael Saunders & Co President Drayton Saunders says. “And that’s the first step toward getting people down the road to buying property.”

Homebuilders, too, have begun to embrace virtual technology to sell homes. Centex, Kolter Homes and Lennar have all used online programs to connect with potential clients in the pandemic. And Neal Communities, the largest locally based homebuilder in the region, which has used virtual technology for nearly two years, has increased its reliance on it the past two months. That includes 3D virtual reality tours with VR goggles, using technology from software firm Matterport, which specializes in property showing technology.

Neal Communities Vice President of Sales Carlos Puente has also done virtual openings of communities by narrating online tours. To some extent, the virtual tours are working: Although Puente says April, for just about every builder, “was rough,” May has seen a slow improvement, and the company has now handled multiple virtual closings. “I think there will be a lot more of this going forward so people can view homes from the comfort of their couch,” Puente says, echoing the VIP Realty strategy.

Courtesy. VIP Realty President Charlie Ashby.
Courtesy. VIP Realty President Charlie Ashby.

Puente adds that Neal Communities eventually hopes to use virtual reality software to help customers with design and other parts of the entire new home-buying process. Others agree that even when people are out and about for good, post-pandemic shutdown, some elements of virtual real estate will continue. Drayton Saunders says MSC agents, while a little apprehensive at first about being movie producers, have been nimble and “really leaned into the videos.”

Ditto for the team at VIP Realty. The company has used Call Page for about eight months, Ashby says. Separately, a few months ago, it began working with a 3D software company, Nodalview, to add the high-tech virtual tours to about 100 listings from one Fort Myers office. The cost, Ashby says, had gone down from about $300 a house to $50 or so, making it a more reasonable volume-based move. “A lot of people think putting photos together is a virtual tour,” he says, “but a 3D tour is a real visit.”

Ashby also hopes the "Visit the house from your couch" concept has staying power beyond the pandemic. He can even envision appraisers doing virtual desktop appraisals through it. “We’d like to see more firms doing this,” Ashby says. “It’s safer and more efficient. It’s a revolution we hope we take hold in the industry.”


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