How coronavirus will change the way we buy property
Estate agents and house hunters are having to adapt with the tech used in video games and self-driving cars, writes Melissa Lawford
e are in Marbella. My guide, José Luis Leirós, is gesturing like a weatherman to a golf course on a map of the Costa del Sol. And then, as if he is Q and I am James Bond, the map flips, becomes threedimensional, and we zoom towards a windsurfer who is speeding across the Mediterranean. Leirós is now miniature in the corner of my screen. But, at the touch of a button, we are on the terrace of a white, new-build villa. “Big surprise!” says Leirós. “There’s someone in the pool and it’s me!” Video gamers might recognise a few things. Leirós is the director of innovation at Aedas Homes, a Spanish property developer, and he is the first to apply the technology Epic Games uses to make the virtual realities of online games, such as Fortnite, to the world of property. The result is Live, a platform that converts housing developments into navigable cyber landscapes. The twist is that, unlike video games, the technology can incorporate a real person. And unlike normal house viewings, Leirós is able to change the colour of the kitchen. As the global pandemic makes viewing homes impossible, and as the government advises pausing any house moves, coronavirus is pushing the property sector much further into digital realms. It is easy to imagine that this will be the future of real estate. A fleet of young companies specialising in virtual tours are booming. In the past two weeks, Zoopla has seen a 215 per cent surge in viewings of new-builds using its AdReach video technology. Remote tours of developments “are quickly becoming the new normal”, says Andy Marshall, of the property portal. Crucially, the tech is also getting much better. Live was designed simply to encourage Aedas’s clients to fly to Spain to view the properties in person, but Leirós cites a couple from Russia who recently made a €415,000 (£380,000) transfer off the back of a virtual tour alone. Though most buyers are unlikely to be persuaded to make the most expensive purchase of their life without seeing it first, technology might just be able to keep the property market alive for now. And it’s likely it will change it forever. Knight Frank’s Beaconsfield office started using a system called Matterport to 3D-scan homes at the end of last year, says Oliver Beales, of the agency. The result is a digital dolls’ house version of a home, which is suspended in your screen and can be zoomed around in a similar way to Google Street View, but with much more detail. The physical side of the market is going to get more streamlined. “Everyone is going to do a lot more groundwork and investigation before they visit a property,” says Jeremy Leaf, a London estate agent. Tech will hugely reduce the number of face-to-face interactions needed to secure a sale. There are lots of tech firms gearing up to fill the breach. Pupil, a London-based AI measurement start-up, aims to add certainty to floor plans and therefore valuations. In London, it is estimated that homes are missold by an average of £33,800 because the size of the properties on the market are estimated with such inaccuracy. Its first product, Spec, has a fleet of digital surveyors who make 3D scans of homes using the same technology that steers self-driving cars. It is currently used by more than 500 estate agent branches in the capital, and provides accurate, insured and certified floor plans, which can be used for valuations. As a by-product, the scans come with a 3D virtual tour. In the future, the property sector could also increasingly intersect with the gig economy. In 2016, Ed Mead set up Viewber, a system which is something of an ‘Uber for house viewings’. Prospective tenants and buyers normally need to view properties in the evenings and at weekends, and Viewber gives estate agencies constant access to a pool of freelance staff to host home hunters looking at properties. “Our biggest growth area is private owners employing people to look on their behalf,” says Mead. A Viewber agent can do an initial viewing (“no contact” options are available) and conduct video tours before the buyer does the final viewing themselves. The video tours are “our fastest-growing service by miles”, he adds. Once the coronavirus outbreak is under control, it is likely to have a longlasting behavioural impact. People will still need to buy homes, but sellers will be more wary of inviting strangers into their houses, and buyers will be less keen to travel to viewings. These changes will be here to stay.