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The Future of Homebuying: Virtual Reality

When Harry Schachter and Lily Sarno were looking at homes, they didn’t always have to wait for an open house. Instead, they were able to visit them virtually.

“We would walk down the street and we would see a for sale sign in front of a house and I would take out my smartphone and enter that address,” Schachter says. “There would be a website and sometimes the website would have video. So it was a great advantage to stand on the sidewalk and check out the house that way.”

“The virtual tour gave us an idea of what the house was like but we took into account that the camera can exaggerate the size of the rooms,” he adds. “To get a real sense of the dimensions of the rooms you have to be inside. If virtual reality can give you a sense of how you feel when you are actually in the room, then that is a magnitude beyond what we experienced.”

Canadian real estate brokerages have been using online virtual tours for listing properties for a few years and now real estate is one of the first industries to pioneer and adopt virtual reality (VR) technology in a significant way. If you haven’t seen the realism and total immersion that’s possible with a VR headset, (you’ll need a pair of $5 cardboard goggles to really feel like you’re inside that house).

Toronto-based Invent Dev has developed the virtual reality software that completely immerses the buyer and the seller into virtual worlds in 3D that until recently was the domain of video gamers. The company is using the latest tools, including the just-introduced Samsung Gear VR headset and the Oculus Rift virtual reality system. But you can also use Google Cardboard, a low-cost VR viewer, and a smartphone.

By putting on the headsets, homebuyers can tour available properties and upcoming developments without leaving home. They can essentially walk through a house, look up and down and sideways, and get an actual feel for the size of the rooms, without being deceived by a wide-angle lens. They are—in virtual reality.

“Our focus is to give people the closest thing to reality possible so that they can make a better decision,” says David Payne, Invent Dev’s founder and CEO. “You can do anything on your phone and that’s where it is pretty cool. We call it a virtual model home. You can walk up and down the stairs. We can change the time of day so you can see what it looks like during the day and in the evening. With the tap of a button, we can change different finishes and options. It is so fully interactive. Not only can you see the virtual model, you can change the virtual model.”

As VR technology becomes more affordable and ubiquitous, its popularity for the real estate industry is likely to grow. A new generation of tech-savvy home purchasers used to video games will be able to experience their potential home before investing the time to actually visit the home. It can help a prospective buyers eliminate some properties and reduce the amount of time they spend driving around looking at homes. With the sprawl in cities like Toronto and Vancouver and their traffic jams, it can take days to visit even a few houses. Instead of spending an entire Saturday and Sunday driving around the city looking at 10 or more properties, buyers can boil those 10 down to two or three from the comfort of their living room before they head out to the physical address.

In a typical home walkthrough, the buyer follows the agent’s lead, experiencing the home in a planned sequence with specific stops along the way. Virtual reality puts the buyer back in control and the potential buyer can loop back, meander, and experience the space at his or her own pace.

Foreign buyers will love the technology because virtual reality allows them to check out homes before they fly in to finalize a deal. With limited opportunities on a hurried visit to see potential homes and their neighbourhoods, relocation to a distant city can feel like a roll of the dice. Virtual reality provides an effective alternative to pricey travel.

This technology could also have significant impact for Canadians buying new homes from plans. Rather than building model suites, builders can create virtual reality mockups with the look and feel of something that isn’t even there yet. “Most people have a difficult time visualizing unbuilt spaces,” Payne says. “With virtual reality you can visualize what could be.”

Today, virtual reality works best for selling high-end homes because the cost of scanning a home for VR ranges from $300 to $700. Eventually, the industry predicts it should trickle down to lower-priced homes and become ubiquitous within five years. Realtors will be able to offer the opportunity to enter search criteria like price, location, and number of rooms. They can then present their clients with a reasonable number of homes to virtually tour.

VR can also offer a bigger picture for those who want to look beyond the four walls of their potential new dwelling. The neighbourhood is a critical piece of the home buying experience. Virtual reality could include tours of surrounding areas, either through a walk around the block or a 360-degree drive through the main streets.

While VR probably won’t ever replace a physical home visit, its depth of content will help homebuyers be better informed and more thoroughly prepared before they decide on their big move. But this isn’t the end. Even newer virtual reality technology is being developed employing the science of touch, called haptic technology. It will let house hunters use their own hands to open closets and feel the hot water from the faucet. Smells and tastes are the next stages of virtual reality and shopping for a home will be changed forever.

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Flickr: Nan Palmero