Streaming Ahead

Virtual open houses were quick to appear during the coronavirus, but will they remain once the pandemic subsides?

By: Tonya Bell, MLS Director of the Greater Chattanooga REALTORS®. Contact her at tonya@gcar.net or 423-702-7425.

COVID-19 has disrupted typical daily life across the country, and in a profession that relies on relationships and face-to-face interaction, real estate professionals have had to adjust quickly to a new reality. Conducting business nowadays means digging deeper into the marketing toolbox.

Virtual tours and videos have been a part of listing information packages for decades, but virtual open houses weren’t seen widely before COVID-19. Adoption of the practice sped up as a result of the pandemic, as brokers and agents observed stay-at-home orders and put in place the precautions recommended by health officials when scheduling showings.

When the pandemic worsened, MLS vendors worked quickly to stage virtual open houses. MLS governances could not ban in-person open houses or showings outright, but it was their duty to support participants trying to weather such unusual circumstances. MLS executives talked about the challenges posed by COVID-19 and their solutions at a webinar hosted by the National Association of REALTORS®.

Satisfying the Sellers

Real estate pros have historically individualized their marketing approaches according to sellers’ expectations. But the decrease in in-person open houses during the pandemic is not necessarily an indicator that virtual open houses will replace them.

I think consumers want to see properties in person, and I think our members want to show the properties in person.” - Ani Pollack, MLS director, Santa Barbara Association of REALTORS®, Calif.

“The focus here should be on the sellers and what best serves their needs,” said Nicole Jensen, RCE, CMLX3, vice president of business technology at the MIBOR REALTOR® Association, which serves 8,800 participants and subscribers in central Indiana. “The most realistic future will likely be a hybrid of in-person and virtual showings and open houses. In-person creates greater relationship-building opportunities, and virtual offers convenience and larger geographical reach.”

Virtual open houses are an example of how technology can help expand the resources available for practitioners to market properties. Using 3D scanning software to give virtual tours and videos a fresh perspective might be the next tech tool to catch on with a wider audience.

“I don’t think we will see more virtual open houses after the pandemic,” said Ani Pollack, MLS director for the Santa Barbara Association of REALTORS®, which serves 1,600 participants and subscribers in California. “I think consumers want to see properties in person, and I think our members want to show the properties in person. But I think 3D virtual tours, such as those created using Matterport, and videos that can be edited before distribution will grow in popularity.”

Adding to the Mix

A steep learning curve might explain why few professionals have taken advantage of the virtual tool so far. Staci Wood, vice president and chief product officer for REcolorado, a regional MLS serving 23,000 participants and subscribers in the Denver area, said she anticipates that virtual open houses will grow in popularity as agents become more comfortable with the technology. “It is great to be able to offer these virtual tools and add another element to an agent’s marketing mix.”

Prior to the pandemic, agents used recorded media in virtual tours and videos or hired professionals to do the work for them. But virtual open houses are a different animal, said Jensen: “The greatest opportunity for learning was in differentiating a virtual tour versus a virtual showing versus a virtual open house.” 

Pollack agreed that it’s the responsibility of MLS administrators to communicate the distinction between virtual tours and virtual open houses to participants and subscribers. “There’s still confusion over the difference between a virtual tour and a live, scheduled event that is held via Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting, or some other, similar service,” she said. “We only have a handful of agents who have used the open house function.”

Richard Gibbens, MLS director of the Central Panhandle Association of REALTORS®, which serves 1,600 participants and subscribers in the Panama City, Fla., area, said his organization has provided education for participants and subscribers via video. The association uses the MLS platform to advertise virtual open houses rather than relying on social media.

“Tech-savvy members caught on fast, and many have been doing Facebook Live virtual open houses,” he said. “I created a video explaining what a virtual open house is, how it is different from a virtual tour, and how to hold a virtual open house using Zoom.”

Ramping Up Fast

MLS software vendors responded quickly with virtual solutions. A vendor working with the Santa Barbara Association of REALTORS® had virtual open house capabilities programmed within days after a stay-at-home order was issued by the state of California. Larger portals such as Zillow haven’t always been so nimble.

A potential barrier is the difficulty in supporting different videoconferencing software. For example, Facebook Live doesn’t offer interactive audio, so prospective buyers have to ask questions by typing them into a chat box. Zoom and Skype offer immediate, two-way conversations.

Some MLS governances responded to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations by disabling the in- person open house feature on their platforms to emphasize the importance of social distancing. “The open house and caravan function was disabled the same day the stay-at-home order was issued by our governor,” Pollack said.

Some markets saw more of an impact than others. While many MLS systems have reported decreased activity, it’s difficult to discern how much the slowdown is attributable to low inventory versus the pandemic. “To gauge the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on our market, we are producing weekly housing market statistics,” Wood said. “As compared to last April [2019], both closed listings and new listings are down 26%; average sale prices for April 2020 have held steady and are up 1% compared to April 2019.”

Given the uncertainty over how long the pandemic will last, it’s not clear how business practices will look in the future. But virtual open houses are becoming a viable option for occasions when an in-person showing isn’t practical.

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