VR Lets Homebuyers Tour During Pandemic

But does that faucet leak in real life?

Key Takeaways

  • Millions of people are fleeing big cities, but social distancing measures make virtual reality an attractive alternative to viewing properties in real life. 
  • VR tours give a better idea of a property's scale and flow than a set of static pictures, experts say. 
  • But VR may not reveal the obvious details when touring a home in real life, and it still takes some technical know-how to use the software.
Someone looking around an empty apartment wearing VR glasses.
Westend61 / Getty Images

House and apartment hunters are turning to virtual reality to find their next pad during the coronavirus pandemic. 

With social distancing measures making it hard to get to open houses, virtual reality (VR) could be the next best thing to experiencing a new home in real life. Even before the pandemic, about 35% of buyers in 2017 made an offer on a home without seeing it in person, according to a report. The interest in new housing only has increased since then, as millions of people have fled large cities during the pandemic. 

New York City resident James Major and his wife have been talking about moving down south to escape the cold winters and the high cost of living. "Because getting in and out of NYC has been a hassle post-COVID, we've been using 3D tours on Redfin and Trulia to look at houses without actually needing to visit them in person," Major, the owner and founder of the site Insurance Panda, said in an email interview.

"Before making an offer, we will definitely need to visit the house we are interested in, but the 3D tours allow us to pre-screen them and eliminate the ones we do not like. When we do have the time to visit them, we won't need to waste time seeing places that would have been quickly eliminated after an online tour."

Dollhouses Say it With VR

One popular VR option for real estate shoppers is Matterport, which creates a 3D "dollhouse" rendering that is easy to explore, Deidre Woollard, an editor and real estate expert at Millionacres, said in an email interview.

Someone wearing a virtual reality headset with and empty apartment overlayed on the image.
Yagi Studio / Getty Images

Immoviewer is another software platform that emphasizes ease of use. "True VR in real estate is not as widespread, but some luxury estates are marketed using full VR tours created for Oculus and then sent to clients around the world," Woollard added, and pointed out that VR tours give a better idea of a property's scale and flow than a set of static pictures.

Perhaps the most crucial benefit garnered from VR technology is the ability to rule out a home visit before scheduling it, real estate agent Cyrus Karl said in an email interview. 

Distort and Disorient

Buyers beware, though, as VR can’t replace in-person viewings, some say. "The downside is that VR can distort some parts of the house, and the tours can be disorienting," Woollard said. "There is a lot of room for the technology to improve and accurately reflect the home." 

Buyers can only see the images provided on virtual tours, which may be less than comprehensive, pointed out Ben Delaney, the CEO of virtual reality advisory company ImmersivEdge Advisors, in an email interview. "For example, most virtual tours do not include full exterior views or the ability to take a look at the neighborhood," he added.

"Also, the buyer is limited to seeing what is included in the 360-video or 3D model, and the producers of that content may not include everything the buyer is interested in seeing. And, of course, in a virtual showing, it is not possible to test the water pressure, operate the lights, experience the elevator performance, or be sure the toilets flush properly."

A couple standing in an empty apartment wearing VR glasses.
Westend61 / Getty Images

Karl said that users have to be tech-savvy enough to navigate the sometimes clumsy software. "I feel that the primary drawback with VR technology is that it is not user-friendly enough for those who have limited technical knowledge," Karl added.

"This means that for the most part, older buyers are unable to view VR home tours, which is a shame because the 65-plus age group probably has the most amount to gain in terms of avoiding unnecessary exposure during the pandemic."

With the coronavirus pandemic still forcing lockdowns in much of the country, VR may be the safest option to look for a new home. Just keep in mind that virtual reality, like pictures, can lie.

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