Lining Up for Virtual Tours

25 Mar, 2007 By: Michelle Nicolson

One real estate company uses digital CAD floor plans and photographs to create online virtual tours for residential listings.

If "location, location, location" is the mantra of real estate sales, then it stands to reason that seeing a property firsthand is perhaps one of the most important aspects of connecting buyers and sellers. But how do you show a listing when many miles, or even an ocean, stands between a potential buyer and your property?

J.R. Crawford, a real estate agent with John L. Scott Real Estate in Vashon, Washington, wanted a better way to show her real estate listings to both potential buyers who don't live in the area and to other real estate agents who are looking for the right property for their clients.

Crawford joined forces with Steve Amos of FKR Tours in an effort to create virtual tours of residential properties, which she makes readily available on her Web site (click on Available Virtual Tours in the right navigation bar of the home page). The virtual tours consist of full floor plans augmented by numerous pop-up photos that display when a user clicks on flagged areas inside and outside the properties. Amos had recently purchased PowerCAD SiteMaster from GiveMePower to streamline and simplify a previously frustrating and arduous manual process of developing residential floor plans with a tape measure and paper.

Measuring Up
To help Crawford create the floor plans for her virtual tours, Amos takes room measurements with a Bluetooth-enabled laser measuring tool, which transmits those distances wirelessly to the PowerCAD SiteMaster software on his laptop computer. As the measurements are being taken with the laser, PowerCAD SiteMaster automatically and simultaneously creates a CAD floor plan of the property. Amos also takes directional photos that he embeds in the CAD file later. Then with a little HTML coding to get it Web ready, Amos creates a virtual tour of the home that can be viewed by anyone with a Web browser -- no special plug-in required. The result is a scaled depiction of the home's floor plan enriched by high-resolution photos.

A sample floor plan with embedded digital photos.

The PowerCAD SiteMaster software requires no previous CAD knowledge, Amos explains, so with a little trial and error, he was up and running. However, using the software did uncover one surprising factor in this process: "You really have to be paying attention to the details of the house while you are shooting the measurements," he says. "For example, the left side of the wall may be quite a bit thicker than the right side of the wall, if it's a long wall and is separating a number of rooms. PowerCAD SiteMaster is intuitive enough to let the user know, 'Hey, something isn't right here.'"

It's an important detail that can be frustrating at first until you know what to look for, Amos says. He had to learn how to "read a home" from the measurement side of things, although he caught on quickly.

Seeing is Believing
Amos' virtual tours have returned big rewards to Crawford's real estate business because it gives her the ability to attract potential buyers beyond the people who live locally. She has seen a dramatic increase in international clients and clients from other states. Although still rare, Crawford also has seen an increase in the number of buyers who purchase property without ever setting foot inside. The virtual tours increase the comfort level of both the buyers and their realtors in buying a home sight unseen, she says.

"Usually, if they are in town, they come for a showing," Crawford says. "But by then, they are so familiar with the property that it simply confirms what they already knew from the virtual tour --- that this is the home that they want."

The virtual tour enables buyers to know in advance that their furniture will fit in the desired space, and exactly what remodeling, if any, they want to have done even before they move in. In fact, Crawford also has overseen renovations for an international client as an extended application of the virtual tours.

Now attracting buyers from as far away as Hong Kong, Crawford's sales cycle has accelerated, given that buyers are able to virtually interact with the home, gain context and orientation of the space via the accurate floor plan, and develop a positive impression of the home even before she is contacted. Crawford believes the real impact is that potential buyers develop a positive emotional response and attachment to a home, even before they step a foot onto the property, as she estimates that 90% of homes are bought for emotional reasons.

Crawford also finds that the buyers' realtors really like the fact that they can view the property via the real floor plans and directional photos. It gives them a very good feel of the property and what will work for their clients, saving them time by screening homes via the Web, instead of driving around from house to house.

"With the virtual tour, the buyers' realtors will know if it's a fit for their clients," Crawford explains. "Then they show their clients the same virtual tour, which helps the clients really get to know the property."

On the seller's side, Crawford's clients love it because fewer "tire-kickers" are traipsing through their homes. The virtual tours speed up the presales side of things and the seller's realtor can get down to business negotiating the sale of the home with buyers who are serious about the property.

Crawford now includes a virtual tour in her standard package of services for all her listings, from multimillion-dollar properties to starter homes. Her success with this technology is evident in her sellers' satisfaction -- to the point that often they want to keep a copy of the virtual tour as a keepsake of their home.

About the Author: Michelle Nicolson

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