'Virtual tours' are a reality

July 04, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

House hunter Erin Flavin toured more than 100 homes this spring - and she never left her computer chair.

Flavin, a 37-year-old mother of two, used "virtual tours" of prospective houses to pick her future address. The tours are making the way houses are bought and sold faster and more convenient for many shoppers.

"It is a way to connect agents and buyers in a way they've never been able to connect before," said Dave Gay, a former Realtor and chief operations officer for www.homedebut.com, a Web site that hosts virtual tours.

Virtual tours are Internet-based house listings enhanced with panoramic photographs that let homebuyers walk through a house room by room.

They often contain text descriptions, audio clips and e-mail links to the real estate agent. The tours are offered on about 10 percent of home listings, but the real estate industry expects the numbers to grow during the coming years as more shoppers demand the convenience.

"Buyers today are busy. They have demanding schedules. They don't have time to look at 20 houses," said Gina Gargeu of Century 21 Downtown in Baltimore.

Three out of four homebuyers searched for homes online last year - a 50 percent increase from 2001, according to figures from the National Association of Realtors.

They want quick, useful bits of information such as pictures of a home's interior, Gargeu said. Virtual tours ultimately save people time because the legwork is done ahead of time: No more schlepping through an endless blur of houses.

"We show only the houses they want to see," said Long & Foster real estate agent Creig Northrop.

And it's not just the million-dollar dream homes.

"That's a myth," said Cindy Ariosa, a Long & Foster Realtor and president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

Homebuyers of all backgrounds are using virtual tours. For example, a 2003 study by the National Realtors Association showed that the typical Internet homebuyer is married, 38, and earns $70,700. First-time homebuyers, too, are heavy virtual tour users.

"We can't eliminate anything, townhomes, small homes - anything," Ariosa said.

Northrop, a Howard County agent who sold more than $230 million in homes last year, has been offering virtual tours for five years. Since then, his practice has changed "significantly."

It has streamlined the process for him and his clients, he said, and in come cases, made the world seem a little smaller.

"I have sold houses [here] to people in Asia," he said.

A little closer to home, Flavin whittled her selection of prospective houses to four before settling on a Howard County home. That's a fraction of the 15 homes real estate agents say most people visit before they find the house they buy.

With a few more clicks, Flavin, who grew up in Montgomery County, also learned about her neighborhood and the schools her children would attend.

A friend who used a virtual tour to buy her own house turned Flavin on to the technology. "The whole thing was painless," she said.

So painless, in fact, that when she put her home up for sale - using an online listing with a virtual tour - to move to western Howard County, it sold the first day.

"There was no wasting time," she said.

According to Gay, virtual tours took off during the mid-1990s as California's housing market picked up steam and quickly spread to major Western cities and vacation spots in Texas, Arizona and Colorado.

As the rest of the nation's market heated up, and as software and Internet access improved and became less expensive, virtual tours gained popularity.

Nearly all Realtors now make their listings available on the Internet, a 2003 study showed. Yet only about 10 percent of those listings offer virtual tours, even though figures from the national Realtors' group also show that viewers look at listings with photos almost six times more than listings without photos.

Many real estate agents traditionally have shied away from embracing technology for a variety of reasons, including a fear of diminishing their own roles.

"The industry has always been about holding on to the information - they want consumers to come to them for it," said Erin K. Campbell, a spokeswoman for Homestore Inc., which operates the Realtor group's listings site, www.realtor.com.

They may need to reconsider that thinking, she said.

Despite the growth in Internet home shopping, studies also show that consumers still want to talk to a human being before buying a house.

About 90 percent of homebuyers who searched the Internet call an agent for help, the Realtor group estimated. That is, most buyers start out on the Internet but hire an agent for the sale.

It's all about marketing, Ariosa said. "[Virtual tours] are another vehicle for consumers to inquire about or find information about houses they want to buy," she added.

Busy people can't always reach an agent in the early hours before work or late at night after the kids go to bed. But they can - and do - use the Internet then, she said.

"Better-informed consumers know more, expect more, demand more," she said. "We have to keep up with that."

Gay, for example, has expanded his reach to the Eastern Shore. And this summer, Long & Foster plans to put virtual tours on all its Mid-Atlantic listings, starting with Maryland properties, Ariosa said.

For her part. Flavin said she and her friends are still hooked.

"It's sort of funny. I have already found my house, but I still log on to find out what is new in the neighborhood, what the prices are and things like that. It's very helpful," she said.

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