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The real estate market has gone virtual

Is South Africa ready?

By Zeenat Moosa

, |

The real estate market has gone virtual

Is South Africa ready?

By Zeenat Moosa

, |

Virtual property viewings in South Africa were few and far between pre-COVID-19, but they have been rapidly gaining traction, especially during the national lockdown. As we now begin to adapt to a new, post-pandemic, socially distanced normal, they could become part and parcel of buying and selling a home. So, what exactly does a virtual viewing entail, what are the positives and possible pitfalls, and is the South African property market ready for it?

What is virtual viewing?

Firstly, virtual viewings are nothing new. In fact, in some parts of Europe and America, realtors have been implementing the use of virtual tours for quite some time, especially in the residential property sector.

An example is London’s South Quay Plaza. When construction is completed in 2021, it will be one of the tallest residential skyscrapers in the UK, comprising 888 apartments in 68- and 36-storey tower blocks. Alongside the usual marketing arsenal of brochures and floor plans, a sample of apartments will be available to view in high-definition virtual reality. It’s all designed to woo the buyer, who is more likely to be persuaded to buy after seeing a fantastic top-floor view, as opposed to just being told about it.

In parts of America, realtors have been creating professional videos using 3D cameras that provide high-definition 360-degree walk-throughs, to give potential buyers a realistic sense of space. Some have even gone as far as adding GoPro footage as they travel to and from the property, to give buyers an idea of the neighbourhood, such as distance to shops, schools, medical facilities, and how the suburb is maintained.

The South African market

In South Africa, static photographs remain key marketing tools when selling a property, but the sector has been forced to embrace technological changes in order to survive during the pandemic. Uptake was slow initially, with most sellers and agents erring on the side of caution, preferring to shun virtual tours in favour of human interaction, perhaps doubting a buyer’s seriousness if they were not willing to view in person. Virtual viewings also require a different sales approach, which could be daunting for a realtor.

Attitudes have changed significantly on both sides in the last few months, though, and there is definitely a demand for online viewings, especially in the early stages of the buying or leasing process. It is very early days for the South African property sector, and most of the video content that has floated through the property sector until now has been quite amateur, often taken hastily with a smartphone, and lacking the production values that have become commonplace in more sophisticated markets.

What are the pitfalls?

There are some factors that cannot be accounted for in a virtual viewing, such as light, sound and smell. If a house is sited near a busy recycling plant for example, the impact of the noise and smell from the incinerators may be an important deciding factor that didn’t come up in the virtual viewing. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as no buyer or investor is going to sign on the dotted line without viewing the property in person. A virtual viewing is by no means an open-and-closed sale – but rather a vehicle to help whittle down a long list of properties to say three or five options.

Are we ready for it?

Currently no, but in the future? Hell yes! Just like increasingly sophisticated video games, virtual tours, which also have their roots in the computer gaming industry, are developing at an alarming pace. South African realtors who do invest in software and tools to enhance their virtual viewing experience can really benefit, specifically with regard to overseas investors or corporates seeking to shortlist space.

However (and this is a big one), virtual tours are data-intensive, and require sophisticated technology and equally solid underlying connectivity. As real estate becomes more digital, and people become more comfortable with new technology, we are likely to see a shift in the way properties are traditionally bought and sold in South Africa – and that is something that the data and connectivity sectors might not be ready for.

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