Photo: James Bombales

From online grocery orders to virtual meetings with colleagues, technology has played a crucial role in keeping our everyday lives moving forward amidst coronavirus social distancing rules.

Even in real estate, digital substitutes have stepped in, particularly in the realm of open houses. Under current provincial health and safety guidelines, open houses are still temporarily banned across Ontario. While this means impromptu in-person visits are prohibited, the opportunity has prompted many realtors to embrace hosting virtual open houses.

“Prior to COVID, this wasn’t something that would be on anybody’s radar, and yet now we’ve realized, COVID or not, this is a really great way of marketing to people en masse, with people being able to see properties from the comfort of their home, yet interact with us as we go through the property,” said Ralph Fox, broker of record and managing partner at Sage – Fox Marin Associates Ltd, Brokerage.

Recently, Fox and fellow managing partner and broker, Kori Marin, hosted an 11-minute virtual open house on Instagram Live for their loft listing at 455 Front Street East in Toronto’s Canary District. With Marin speaking in front of the lens and Fox operating the camera, the two showcased the 1,000-square-foot residence to an audience of 20, interacting with viewers while highlighting the property’s fixtures and features.

“I think that’s one thing that really worked and made it a bit more unique, is that it wasn’t just Kori talking to the camera — it was actually a dialogue between the two of us, interacting as we walked through the property, which I think was really helpful,” said Fox.

Photo: Vlada Karpovich / Pexels

Pre-pandemic, it was common for buyers and their agents to spend hours touring weekend open houses in search of the perfect property — in some cases, Marin and Fox say that open houses used to attract hundreds of visitors. While all of that has now changed, virtual open houses offer unique advantages. For instance, Marin explains that potential buyers who are intimidated by in-person open houses may appreciate the more anonymous interactions of the virtual counterpart. Even for agents, hosting online takes less time and allows realtors to cover multiple open houses in a day.

“I think the other thing that [is] great for agents, because the weekends are already so busy, is a two-hour open house takes up a huge chunk of time,” explained Marin. “But in 10 minutes, you jump online, turn some lights on, do a little spiel deal, and then be done and not have to deal with signs, get totally dressed up, setting up flowers, coffee, [or] guest book signings.”

Despite the virtual open house alternative, Fox says that the opportunity to see a home in-person before firming up an offer won’t ever be replaced. Through a screen, it can be difficult to forge the emotional bond buyers make with a property that they envision living in.

“There’s a huge emotional component to purchasing a home. You don’t get that emotional component when you’re doing it virtually,” said Josie Stern, a sales representative with Sutton Group-Associated Realty’s Josie Stern Team.

For Stern and her realtor colleagues, physical open houses present an important opportunity to talk to buyers directly, listen to their feedback, and share their unique agent knowledge of the neighbourhood and property — information that the buyer’s realtor wouldn’t exclusively know.

“And although we call many of them before they come to the property, it’s not the same as talking to their buyers directly,” said Stern.

While the effects of COVID-19 may linger for a long time, the use of virtual open houses could still find a permanent place in the marketing toolbox for realtors who see the advantages of them.

“I think the tool itself will be here to stay for a long time because it does have value,” said Fox. “The question of open houses and to what extent they come back are, at this point honestly, anybody’s guess, that it’s probably not going to be for a while.”

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