Many industries, from retail to financial services to healthcare, have embraced technology to stay competitive in a rapidly changing world. This hasn’t been as common in real estate, which is as much as five years behind others, a new report from global engineering group Arup said. At Origin, we like to think of ourselves as exceptions, as new technologies have always been at the core of our business model. For example, about five years ago we recognized that over half of all renters start their property searches online, which led us to focus on technology that would raise the profiles of our assets.
Of course, today COVID-19 is posing fresh challenges for owners, property managers and residents and now what once was nice-to-have features are now becoming necessities. Now other firms are joining us to perfect their online presence through a range of digital strategies, from websites, social media and reputation management programs. But by far, top on the list of essential technology in real estate today are virtual property tours.
Most of our properties already had a self-guided tour program, in which prospects could make a reservation and walk the unit alone. We recognized early on that leasing center hours don’t fit everyone’s work or weekend commitments. Keyless entry technology, which we put in place in 2019, addresses security concerns, and gives leasing agents contact information for a follow up the next day.
Real estate video and 3D tours not only draw in more viewers, they also show the lifestyle attractions of a multifamily property to better effect. For that reason, we started offering virtual tours for our properties two years ago. Thanks to our focus on technology, when COVID-19 recently disrupted spring multifamily rentals and halted in-person walk-through viewings, we had already established tech-focused best practices for our 3,600 rental units under management around the country—including virtual property tours. Here’s how virtual property tours benefit owners and property managers.
Online tours draw higher views: Internet apartment listings are the point of entry for an apartment hunt, so it is critical for onsite property managers keep these sites relevant and up to date. Google favors virtual images in search results, though, so virtual tours provide a competitive edge on platforms that we don’t directly control. Viewers spend three times as long on property listings with 3D tours, the technology vendor Matterport finds.
On-site tours make first impressions more effective: Virtual tours can range from animated slide shows to enticing videos that get a prospective tenant focused on the property and less likely to continue comparison shopping. The virtual tour at our property Rosehill Preserve in Orlando, Florida, combines photos and floor plans in a 3D presentation. Viewers pivot around the room by navigating the image Google Earth style.
Virtual tours increase renter leads: Real estate video tours are more common in new multifamily construction projects, where owners must lease apartments that are still under construction and physical tours are not possible. It’s relatively new for established communities, yet extremely important right now; listing site Zillow saw a 191% increase in 3D home tours in the first weeks of March thanks to COVID-19, compared with the average number created in February. But even before COVID-19 hit, listings with a 3D home tour were saved by users 50% more, CBS reported in March.
Continuing leasing while sheltering-in-place: Before stay-at-home orders took hold, the property managers and leasing agents we work with to lease our properties already had videos for most of our units. We went back and took videos of vacant floor plans to hedge our chances of responding to prospective tenant emails with a true selection of the available inventory under lockdown. However, our experience has taught us that virtual apartment tours must be targeted and even personalized. Relationships and the personal touch have long been critical sales tools in the real estate industry and those aspects of marketing a property are even more important now that property managers or agents can’t always meet prospects face-to-face.
Personalized tours offer a better experience: Based on questions from the initial contact, our property managers and leasing agents can conduct FaceTime sessions or send personalized videos to a prospect’s inbox. Our leasing agents have learned how to best virtually show an apartment when walking through; opening refrigerators, cabinets and closets; turning on stoves and faucets; and highlighting architectural details and storage. They also tour building features and amenities, from gyms to garages. It’s a different skill from a holding a casual in-person walk-through. They must understand how to engage via smartphone, going back and forth between face-to-face communication and showing the unit—all while maintaining a conversation. We believe it is such a critical skill that we not only train our property manages and leasing agents in this effort, we secret shop their results to achieve the highest quality virtual showings possible.
Social media is the frosting on the proverbial cake: To convert online leads, though, prospects need to find not only a unit that fits their needs but also a sense of community that makes them feel welcome. Social media can help prospects picture a new lifestyle, and online reviews lend credibility to a marketing presentation. In 2019 we adopted Rentgrata, which lets existing residents answer questions about the community directly to prospects. These referrals quickly proved to be an effective closing tool, as the prospect can learn more from someone who lives there first-hand, while the resident builds ties with new community members.
Since leasing centers closed, we’ve found that proficient leasing agents can still do six or eight real estate videos a day and successfully show the gym equipment, the view from the balcony or whatever interests the prospect. While many other real estate firms may still be scrambling to put their virtual leasing strategy in place, we’re grateful that our diligent focus on technology enabled us to accelerate usage of technology we had already adopted. So far, we’ve found that our agents have been able to rise to the COVID-19 challenge, conducting many smartphone showings that have converted prospects to renters.