A virtual tour—which gives you a 360-degree overview of an apartment—has been something of a sideshow in real estate, until now. With in-person tours and open houses canceled, (and all non-essential businesses in New York closed) renters are forced to rely on listing photos and where possible, 3D video tours, to get a sense of a new place before they sign the lease. Buyers are similarly restricted in their searches.
Usually, apartment hunters are discouraged from renting places sight unseen. You risk falling for bait-and-switch schemes, where prospective tenants are enticed with photos but find the apartment has been swapped out to a sub-standard one by the time they get the keys. But these are unusual times.
Renters are being asked to stay home to stop the spread of the coronavirus, in the same way that sales are being pushed online, so are rentals. Chris Kostoulas, founder of virtual tour software company peek which operates solely in NYC, says he's seen a "huge uptick in inquiries over the last few weeks from management companies, brokerages, and individual agents."
Even though virtual tours have been around for a while, there's still a huge range when it comes to the quality of the pictures. Teresa Stephenson, president of Platinum Properties, says the firm was doing virtual tours "very lightly" before the coronavirus hit but says in the past few weeks they have increased their 3D tour packages "in direct response to the pandemic."
If you are being offered virtual tours as opposed to in-person viewings as you search for an apartment, here's what you need to know about the process.
Editor's note: Click here for more of Brick Underground's coronavirus coverage.
Work with a reputable broker
Be careful where you shop. It makes sense to use a reputable real estate agent, preferably one that’s a member of REBNY. "From the website, you should be able to reach out to a manager who can confirm that the agent you are speaking with does, in fact, work for the firm," says Stephenson. You can also go to the Department of State's website and search the agent's name to make sure they are licensed.
Cross-check all information
It's always important to double and cross-check your information. Be sure the broker sends you the video in an email and make sure you confirm that the apartment you are renting is the apartment in the video.
"Be sure that the email they are using matches the email on the website," says Stephenson. It is also a good idea to get everything in writing via email.
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Ask a lot more questions
Even if most listing agents have video tours available, the standards can be inconsistent.
"Some videos lack quality and don't show details like the views when looking outside the windows," says Stan Broekhoven, a salesperson at Keller Williams. That means, more than ever, you need to know what questions to ask and how to read between the lines of an apartment listing. Don't get tripped up by net effective versus gross rent or bedrooms that are not considered legal.
Add some protections to your lease
Typically when you visit a rental apartment it's an opportunity to inspect it yourself and check it's in a condition you are happy with. Mark Hakim, an attorney with Schwartz Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas, says doing a virtual tour in lieu of a physical one, while it is important in the current crisis, can both enhance or hide certain features of an apartment. To cover yourself you might want your lease to go beyond the standard format.
"Everything that you would have normally covered by an inspection you now cannot do, so you have to cover it by the written word, guaranteeing it upon the date you move in," Hakim says.
"Without fail, everything should be in working order and not just in an as-is condition because you won't have had an opportunity to inspect it yourself," he says.
The future of 3D tours
Virtual tours require additional expense on the part of the owner or landlord and have previously been available largely at the high end or in new development. That is now shifting. "Video tours and videos are being offered as much as possible at all price points," says Broekhoven.
Kostoulas says his company is being asked to create virtual tours for all kinds of listings, "across all neighborhoods and prices ranges—from $1,400-per-month one bedrooms to million-dollar sales listings."
To keep business moving forward, NYC-based residential brokerage Elegran is offering VR tours of available units, like this VR tour of a model unit that has lots of cool functionality.
It's difficult to predict what will happen as the current crisis passes. Stephenson says she expects to see much more use of 3D video tours. Others aren't so sure. "It’s an amazing addition but it shouldn't be, for the longer term, used in lieu of physical tours," says Hakim.
In the immediate future, we are more likely to be heading to "peak lease renewal" says Jonathan Miller, CEO and founder of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel.
As inventory falls, tenants will probably "decide to stay put" says Broekhoven, and where necessary extend their lease on a month-to-month basis.
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