While homebuyer demand has plummeted, there are still some out there who may need to move, and either purchase or rent a home. So, much like all interaction in the age of COVID-19, home touring is moving online, using robots and going solo.
Zillow, a home listing site, said it saw a 191% increase in the creation of 3D home tours in the first weeks of March compared with the average number created in February. Even before the coronavirus, listings including a 3D Home tour were saved by users 50% more, and those homes sold on average 10% faster.
Redfin, a real estate brokerage, saw a 494% increase in requests for agent-led video home tours two weeks ago and at the beginning of last week 18.9% of tour requests from Redfin.com were video-chat tours, up from 0.2% at the beginning of March, a 94-fold increase.
At Rently, a software company that makes digital lockboxes that allow individuals to tour empty homes all on their own, demand is soaring. A renter or buyer can register with their information and credit card online, then go up to the front door with their smartphone and valid ID, and get a one-time access code to the home. Self-touring data shows that for the month of March 2020, the company is expected to facilitate 197,964 self-tours, a 30% increase annually.
"That's really helping now with the COVID-19 because property managers and those that are selling properties can still place people in homes even when an agent can't meet them at the property," said Merrick Lackner, CEO of Rently. "We don't know how long this social distancing will stay in place, but with rates coming down the way they have, we're probably going to see another homebuying surge, and if agents can't meet to show those properties for sale, they can still be purchased with potential buyers seeing them on their own."
Rently has also seen a surge in demand for its devices, which nearly tripled in the second week of March with more than 1,500 devices sent to real estate operators. The company works with large landlords like Brookfield, American Homes 4 Rent, and Pegasus Residential.
"Our shipping center, as an essential service, has stayed open, and we have added more shipping and receiving hires to facilitate the outbound shipments," added Lackner.
Another real estate start-up, Zenplace, provides both virtual tours and tours with robots. The robots have a screen, where the real estate agent can speak to the customer in a video chat and lead them around the house.
"We are seeing unprecedented demand for our platform across 35+ states, across both large urban areas that have been most affected, to smaller cities where people are increasingly practicing increased social distancing," said Jason Green, a spokesman for Zenplace.
It has seen a 293% increase in interest for its smart automated lockboxes and self-serve showings and a 278% increase in its video, online and 3D tours since March 11.
While buyers and renters may be touring virtually and individually now, it's not exactly a swift switchover. Home sales this spring are expected to drop 35% , according to a recent analysis by Capital Economics. Rental demand, however, may increase, as those who might have thought about buying this spring no longer have the economic stomach to follow through.
There is no question that, like everything else, the move to social distancing will change how the real estate market operates even beyond the pandemic. Real estate agents as well as homebuilders report anecdotally that those who are out shopping now are the more serious buyers, so their pull-through rate is higher.