Holding of showhouses came to a complete standstill during the early lockdown stages in 2020. With Covid-19 still prevalent, safety remains a vital consideration and under the Level 3 Disaster Management regulations, most reputable agencies are conducting home viewings by appointment in keeping with the protocols set out last year by Real Estate Business Owners of South Africa (Rebosa).
Estate agency heads agree that 2021 marketing strategies need to include a mix of virtual property tours and modified traditional showhouses, with the necessary health and safety protocols in place. These strict protocols are designed to protect sellers, buyers and estate agents as far as possible.
“We are seeing more in-person viewings to qualified buyers only. The viewings are strictly by appointment and with the express consent of sellers and landlords. Agents follow the Covid-19 protocols published by Rebosa when taking qualified buyers through any property,” says Tony Clarke, managing director of the Rawson Property Group.
Dr Andrew Golding, chief executive of the Pam Golding Property group, says the agency continues to hold modified showhouses, as the physical inspection of properties by prospective buyers remains a very important component of the property buying process.
“Under level three lockdown regulations, with stringent health and safety protocols being adopted by practically the whole real estate industry, showhouses are undertaken in limited circumstances by appointment only. A maximum of two potential buyers are taken through the home at a time, with all safety protocols adhered to.
“This underlines the importance of appointing the right agent and agency to market a property, based on their ability to effectively vet buyers and bring only qualified buyers to any on-site viewings.”
Arnold Maritz, co-principal of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, says the agency has found both real and virtual showhouses to be valuable parts of a marketing mix that needs to cater for a changing world.
“Initially we started with only virtual showhouses, where we hosted Facebook events and broadcast short videos of each of the selected showhouse properties. Once the health and safety protocols were clarified, we started supplementing our virtual showhouses with real world showhouses viewed by qualified buyers.
“We now have a mix of virtual and real showhouses each Sunday. At the real showhouses, agents record viewer attendance and Covid19 questionnaires are filled out by prospective buyers. Agents ensure that hand sanitising, mask wearing and social distancing measures are adhered to. Buyers are also requested not to touch anything inside the homes.
“With virtual showhouses agents forward links of the property walk-through videos to viewers who make enquiries. Appointments are then made to arrange physical viewings for serious prospective buyers.”
Although the Coronavirus pandemic has had many unfortunate consequences, it has also forced business to rapidly evolve and implement changes that will immediately benefit consumers and which would probably have taken several years to implement, says Golding.
Buyers are now doing far more research online, narrowing down their property choices before actually viewing properties. Understandably, they want clear and detailed pictures of their selected properties before drawing up a shortlist of homes for final inspection.
Clarke says that live, interactive virtual tours have been a massive time-saver for buyers, significantly narrowing down their property searches. They also make it far easier to buy property from a distance, when relocating or buying an investment property, for example.
“For sellers, virtual tours and virtual showhouses minimise the number of times they need to prepare and vacate their homes for showhouses, removing one of the most common drawbacks to the sales experience.”
“Online home viewing is the way forward for the real estate industry, and quite a large percentage of buyers who are moving to another town or city are already prepared to buy just off virtual tours rather than a personal viewing, if they are dealing with a trusted agent,” says Berry Everitt, chief executive of the Chas Everitt International property group.
“In addition, the majority of home buyers are now using online listings and particularly virtual tours to identify and narrow down prospects to just a few properties that they will book to view in person.”
Maritz says the benefits of showhouses for buyers, sellers and agents remain unchanged, and he expects the ‘new-normal’, once Covid19 has been overcome, will consist of a combination of traditional showhouses, together with ever-improving virtual showhouses.
Virtual tours protect sellers from being exposed to numerous unqualified buyers and also minimise the risk of exposure for buyers. They help buyers select the properties in which they are most interested which means they will have to physically view fewer properties. But traditional showhouses are likely to stay because people generally believe they are able to get a better ‘feel’ for a property if they are actually standing in it rather than viewing it online.
Golding says that although virtual viewing is now one of the most important tools in the estate agent’s marketing arsenal, they don’t necessarily replace the requirement for buyers to physically view properties.
“There are several legal consequences to buying a property without viewing it, because much of the law of the sale of immoveable property has evolved out of the concept of taking delivery or transfer of the property in the same condition it was in when you viewed it. So physically viewing and inspecting the property is integral to the way in which properties are bought and sold in South Africa,” says Golding.
Everitt points out that online house hunting has definitely been given an extra boost by the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting increase in remote working. Many more people now have the time - and inclination - to scroll through the property portals in search of new homes.
“The accelerated move online has also been good for the real estate industry, as both buyers and sellers have adapted quickly to having digital meetings whenever possible rather than face-to-face encounters. Restricted home viewings by appointment are preferred to showdays, which everyone understandably wants to avoid right now.”
He believes it is unlikely that things will go back to the way they were, now that so many agents have discovered how efficient technology is in enabling them to list properties, advertise, respond to enquiries, conduct virtual viewings and conclude sales - all from their laptops.
“Offers to purchase, transfer and bond documents still need to be signed physically, and we recommend that any payments to attorneys are also made personally. But personal contact is limited and can be easily controlled in line with the Covid-19 protocols.
In addition, digital interaction does not in any way diminish the role of the agent in home sale transactions. In fact, it best serves agents who have already built respect and loyalty among an existing client base, and who have the backing of a brand that consumers recognise and trust.
In the near future, says Everitt, the industry is also likely to see greater adoption of immersive virtual reality technology, which will enable viewers using Smart glasses or a VR headset to feel like they are actually inside and walking around the property they are viewing. Virtual staging, which digitally adds furnishings to an empty space, is also likely to undergo more development and become more realistic – and easier for even digitally challenged homeowners to use.