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Virtual Tours: The Next Best Thing to Being There

Karen Coville
It was love at first sight when Karen Coville discovered Melbourne Beach during a business trip in 1999. She was so sure she’d found “paradise” that after 15 years in the corporate world, she quit her job, and never looked back.

Now, instead of flying around the country negotiating land-acquisition deals, the sales associate with Premier Properties of Brevard works with prospects from Budapest, London, Prague and South Africa who want a slice of her local real estate market.

Obviously, Coville can’t afford to market herself to such a vast, international farm through traditional means (i.e., direct mail or print advertising). “Since, [my clients and customers] begin their search on the Internet, [I’ve found] that’s a great way to introduce our area and properties,” she says.

To do this, she creates a virtual tour for each of her listings. Virtual tours are 360-degree pictorial presentations that let viewers see interior and exterior photographs of listings as if they were standing in them. Viewing the virtual tours online, they can pan up and down, left and right and zoom in and out to get a view that’s the next best thing to actually being inside the house.

There are several virtual tour providers from which to choose [see box at right], but Coville selected CirclePix because she found their fees reasonable and their service user friendly.

Ordering a virtual tour is as easy as dialing an 800 number and reading off an address, says Coville. “Each tour costs about $100 and is useful as long as the listing is available.”

Here are some of the ways Coville can use this technology:

1. Give Buyers a Closer Look
“Our barrier island is unlike anything else in Florida,” Coville says. “You don’t have condo after condo on the beach. Most of the property is owned by environmental concerns, so essentially we’re living on a preserve. Melbourne and Brevard [County] have also been [promoted] as a great place to retire.”

Coville also finds the residents unique. “They call Melbourne Beach the ‘Mayberry by the Sea’ because it’s friendly and laid-back,” she says. “It’s also a huge surfing spot. Surfers from all over the world come to Sebastian Inlet.”

According to Coville, many of these visitors aren’t in town long enough to explore properties for sale. “They go home and investigate them through virtual tours,” she says. “Sometimes they’re planning a trip to Orlando or the [Kennedy] Space Center, and they’re checking to see what properties are like. It’s a great way to capture buyers that I wouldn’t get otherwise. The virtual tours show the quality of the homes that we have and the wide, sandy, pristine beach that’s very private. I think that’s probably what pulls most people in.”

She sold three properties to one out-of-town buyer with the buyer seeing the properties only via virtual tours, but she points out that “building a relationship is a very important component” of repeat sales. 

2. Tailor-Made Tours
Coville’s market area features a variety of properties, from million-dollar homes and luxury condos overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to unpretentious single-family homes and bungalows between state Highway A1A and the Indian River Lagoon. “Every property requires that you design [an individual] marketing plan,” she says. “The more expensive the property, the more you have to get it in front of people who can afford that [price]. Also, make sure you take [the photographs] at whatever time of day puts [your listings] in the best light.” She usually helps the virtual tour people stage the shots she thinks are important. “I stand in the house and do a 360 [-degree turn] to get an idea of which shots are going to be the most effective,” she says. “Location shoots usually take about 20 minutes to half an hour.”
 
3. Save Tours to DVD
Sometimes, sellers are very helpful in marketing their home, and Coville has found that having the virtual tour on DVD gives them a ready-made tool. “They’re proud of [their home] and how it’s being marketed so they send it to people [they know],” she says.

The DVDs also come in handy for some of the older people who tend to shy away from the Internet. “Being able to send them a virtual tour on DVD is a great option,” adds Coville.

She says that virtual tours help to generate interest in her listings that otherwise wouldn’t exist. For example, she once had two similar listings (i.e., brand-new oceanfront homes listed at the same price, with identical square footage and so forth), and the virtual tour for one of the listings malfunctioned and was down for about a week. “It was a mistake that let me gauge the way people are using this tool,” she says. “The one with the [active] virtual tour received three times the traffic within that time. Don’t hesitate to [use this technology]. Your buyers and sellers will appreciate it.”

This column, designed to offer examples of how salespeople and brokers are using technology in their offices, won first place in the 2006 Best Column category from the Florida Magazine Association. The column is for general information only. Opinions expressed here don’t necessarily reflect an endorsement of the views by Florida Realtor® magazine or the Florida Association of Realtors® (FAR).

Coville’s Tools

Desktop: Hewlett-Packard
Digital Camera: Olympus
Printer: Epson Stylus Photo R340; Hewlett-Packard (all-in-one fax, scanner, copier, printer)
Software: Microsoft XP Professional
Virtual Tour Provider: CirclePix

Virtual Tour Providers

1. CirclePix—from $79.99, (877) 390-6630; www.circlepix.com
2. hometour360°, Homestore, Inc.—price varies per local provider,(866) 483-4749; http://imaging.homestore.com
3. Obeo—price varies per location, (800) 729-6236; www.360house.com
4. RealBiz360, RealBiz360, Inc.—from $99, (888) 732-5294; www.realbiz360.com
5. VisualTour, TRF Systems—from $199.95, (800) 873-0700; www.visualtour.com