Real Estate Agents Need To Consider Virtual Tour Security Implications
The lockdowns around the world have created the need for real estate agents to be able to better showcase their listings online to prospective buyers, especially since the traditional open show houses on the weekends are not the same anymore. Visits to properties for viewing purposes now have onerous conditions which make the notion of an open house very unattractive. In addition, the habits of potential buyers are changing, driven not only by fear of Corona virus transmission but also because they have now become more adept with on-line tools. This has come about out of necessity, driven by the lockdown regulations. Research has always demonstrated that the buyer journey invariably begins online but now, the amount of time spent in the online search is growing exponentially. (See the Forbes article entitled “COVID-19 Pushes Up Internet Use 70%”)
Estate Agents all over the world have moved to providing virtual tours as the best alternative to show houses and property viewings. The plethora of technology and service providers who are operating in the space is evident through the burgeoning advertising on social media and other marketing channels.
Whilst this is a superb alternative, it also brings its own set of security considerations. It is unnerving to think that the virtual tour makes it entirely possible for a potential criminal to really case out the property, with anonymity, from the comfort of their chair!
Here are 9 key considerations every agent should be thinking about when it comes to offering virtual tours. There is no silver bullet to mitigating the risk entirely but stopping to think through these points and act appropriately, will go a long way to reducing it as much as possible.
KEEP THE VIRTUAL TOUR SHORT
Obviously, a balance must be struck between having sufficient information on the property to entice the potential buyer to want to explore further versus providing the would-be criminal with enough details he needs to carry out his dark plans! One way to do this is to provide a buyer with just enough to begin building their dreams and imagining their new home and lifestyle, and not providing an exhaustive walk through the property where the valuables can be seen by the criminal and aid their planning.
REMOVE THE VALUABLES FROM THE VIRTUAL TOUR, WHEREVER POSSIBLE.
It is critically important to ensure that easily movable valuables are removed before shooting the virtual tour. It is surprising how often this is glossed over, and glaringly obvious articles of value are still visible in the virtual tour and also the still images. One needs to stand back, with a critical eye and make sure nothing has been overlooked. Don’t forget to check the virtual tour before posting it online and make any edits, where necessary.
BLUR OUT VALUABLES WHICH CANNOT BE EASILY REMOVED.
There will always be some valuables which, if removed, will have a negative impact on the viewing, as they are part of the overall setting and ambiance, and selling proposition for the property. Also there are those items, which are not simple to remove because they are “fixtures”, such as valuable paintings. Wherever possible, these items should be blurred out. All good editing software allows one to do this blurring.
ONLY DISCLOSE THE ACTUAL ADDRESS TO PARTIES WHOM YOU HAVE VETTED AND HAVE DETAILS OF.
Whilst there is a trend to show the address of the property on listing portals, this is not a prerequisite. The option exists on all Listing Portals to show or not show the address, although the listing ranking can be negatively affected if you do not show it on the site. One way around this is to rather show a geographic approximation, as is the case with Airbnb.
QUALIFY INDIVIDUALS WHO WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROPERTY OR VIEW IT.
It is critically important to obtain the details of the persons who want to know more about the property. True buyers with good intentions should have no reservation in providing documentation about themselves, such as proof of address and ID; the so called “KYC docs.” If there is a reluctance to provide these details, then one has to weigh up the risks in proceeding further. A good explanation of the reasons for asking the caller or online enquirer for their details, will go a long way to getting them to agree to do so. Most people have grown accustomed to the KYC doc requests and many have them readily available. Therefore, this should not be a big hurdle to overcome in your quest to improve the security for your seller and for also for yourself.
WEIGH UP THE MERITS OF FOR SALE AND SOLD BOARDS.
Do you really need them?
It is an age-old and well proven fact that For Sale and Sold Boards on property walls and gates do provide leads. I have actually heard an agent telling her new homeowner that the Sold Board is support tool for her livelihood and so could she please leave it up for at least 3 months. However, always bear in mind that it also attracts attention to a property during some of its most vulnerable periods.
THE TIMING OF FOR SALE AND SOLD BOARDS.
All agents are keen to put up the For Sale and Sold Board as soon as possible for a whole bunch of reasons which inter-alia include boosting the ego, showing the neighbourhood and competitors who is the successful agent and attracting additional leads. However, a property is especially vulnerable once the moving takes place as this may not always be on the same day. Empty properties specially attract the attention of criminals. Often the alarm system has been deactivated, awaiting the signup of the new incoming homeowner and also having no presence in the house just makes it a whole lot easier target. It goes without saying that a For Sale Board on an empty property also attracts attention, often for the wrong reasons!
There is a strong argument to be made to rather use digital marketing as an alternate to the Sold and For Sale Boards when it is inappropriate to use them in the cases described above. Reaching clients through digital channels is becoming the new normal and savvy agents are moving in this direction rather than relying on the Boards to reach sellers and buyers alike. Bear in mind that not only are clients NOT driving around looking for boards that much anymore because they know that the show house culture has largely stopped. Also, because people have learned to use the internet far more now when looking for answers to their questions, which include finding their next property and choice of real estate agent. Covid-19 has certainly grown this behaviour out of necessity and now entrenched itself in public habits having made this discovery. Read “How the consumer mindset is shifting during COVID-19”.
Real estate clients are now more in the online domain than they are driving around neighbourhoods, looking for boards. Real Estate 101 is fast becoming Real Estate e-101 and agents need to develop their skills in these digital channels to stay ahead of the game.
ENSURE YOU HAVE THE SELLER’S CONSENT IN WRITING.
Don’t assume that your seller has agreed to your virtual tour marketing simply because you discussed it with them. Ensure that you have drawn their attention to the facts related to security around their property, whilst marketing it. It is an unfortunate reality that if any security breach takes place the seller will often look to the agent to blame for the loss and some even try to claim their losses from them. It is therefore important to be open about the risks, what you are doing to mitigate these as much as possible and also get the seller to sign their agreement to your marketing and associated risks, to protect yourself and your agency.
REQUIRE A SIGNUP TO VIEW THE VIRTUAL TOUR.
There have been suggestions to require the online visitor to signup to see the virtual tour. This is an easy requirement to do digitally. Of course, one does not want to “scare” a potential buyer off by making it onerous to view the virtual tour but once again, one has to strike a balance between the ease of viewing and the security risk. One can argue that a well-intended buyer will have no problem signing up with their email address and name to view the virtual tour. Whilst this is not fool proof, as a criminal could easily sign up too, it does create a step which a criminal may think twice about and move on.
There is no watertight methodology to provide security for properties that are showcased on property portals. However, thinking carefully through these steps can assist in doing as much as is possible to mitigate these risks and impress your sellers in the process. Your transparency and communicated efforts to protect their properties will stand you in good stead for your professional reputation and referrals.
All the best for your successful selling