Cover A glamorous living and dining area of an apartment in Nouvel 18 with interiors crafted by local design firm SuMisura

The popularity of online viewings rose rapidly during the pandemic, but are they the way forward? We investigate the benefits

“Only 22 per cent of the people who bought our properties in 2021 physically inspected the location or the physical building,” declares Johannes Weissenbaeck, founder and CEO of OXO Living, an Indonesia-headquartered property and design company that develops and manages estates, villas and other luxurious homes around the world. Indeed, Weissenbaeck’s statement harks at the roots of a new beginning for realtors and prospective homeowners alike.

One of the first ways the real estate industry adapted when the Covid-19 pandemic halted travel was to step up its digital offerings. Tammy Fahmi, senior vice-president of global servicing and strategy at Sotheby’s International Realty says that with consumers digesting most content on their mobile devices, including searching for a home, it was only a matter of time before such a move took hold. On their part, real estate firms put up “listings that possess high-quality images, but also ones that prioritise compelling video assets that best showcase the lifestyle of the home”, says Fahmi.

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1. Skip the need to travel

In the case of Graphite Square in central London’s Vauxhall district—located on the South Bank of the River Thames—it offered everything that new-normal buyers were looking to tick off their list. Acquired last year by Australian developer Third.i Group, this 279, 900 sq ft mixed-use development has notably sold 50 per cent of the units in its first phase to high-net-worth (HNW) Singaporean buyers.

Along with an off-market VIP prelaunch campaign, what attracted buyers were the enhanced virtual reality (VR) offerings, which made up for the prospective owners’ inability to attend physical viewings. Luke Berry, co-founder of Third.i, says that one of the things foremost on their minds was ensuring that issue did not get in the way of prospective buyers making informed decisions on their property purchase. 

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“We want our buyers to know what they are buying. With VR, they can take a tour of the building, walk through their chosen apartment and get a feel of their next home, all in 3D,” he says.

Adds Victoria Garrett, head of residential at Knight Frank Asia Pacific: “It is incredible to see how quickly the property world and buyers have adapted to virtual viewings. We have seen sales being closed at all levels of the market via this method, even at the £10 million (S$18 million) level.”

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2. It saves time during the initial search

One of the biggest advantages for realtors such as Sotheby’s International Realty was recognising the importance of technology in the industry long before the pandemic struck, making it easy for their agents “to quickly adapt during lockdowns and shift to a virtual environment that benefited their clients and kept business moving”. The process of creating the assets may be time consuming, but the payoff is well worth it, adds Fahmi.

For one, it has shortened the house-hunting process by more than half, says Gerald Sim, CEO and founder of real estate digital platform Mogul.sg. ”Searching for a home used to be an arduous process of looking at classified ads, reading descriptions and then inferring more information from a 2D map before physically visiting a property. The home search process used to be up to a year-long affair given our busy schedules.”

Interactive 3D maps and immersive digital guides now help reduce prospective buyers’ shortlisting time by providing more information. However, there are limitations. “As many of the viewings are of the internal construct of units and buildings, users cannot appreciate external factors such as the surrounding environment and the amount of sunlight in the home,” says Sim.

3. New technology makes viewings even more desirable

Earlier this year, Mogul.sg launched an interactive 3D tool that replicated the entire real estate map of Singapore using geospatial technology.

“Users are looking for as much verified and accurate information as possible. A 3D model of the building they are interested in gives them knowledge of the view from the unit, the design of the building, and the building height in relation to surrounding buildings. After this, they look at surrounding amenities such as malls, transportation and parks. Once they are happy with the location, they then move on to look at the VR of the unit’s internal design,” explains Sim.

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The ability to view the surrounding amenities and “even shadows of buildings at different times of the day” gives users more spatial context. “Such information is useful to home sellers, buyers and real estate agents, and even more useful to those hoping to invest in Singapore real estate but can’t travel here,” he adds.

The rise of mechanisation is an all-rounded trend in real estate. With the more time-consuming manual tasks now managed by robotic process automation (RPA) technology, real estate professionals can spend more time on things that add value to the business, says Ken Yim of property and technology company CM Square. His firm’s strength lies in combining artificial intelligence (AI) and RPA technology to provide real estate solutions such as property evaluations for investors, brokers and financial institutions. 

From being able to source undervalued deals to identifying new listings and updating existing ones, AI helps real estate stakeholders understand the property market on a larger scale. While Asia has great market potential, the adoption rate of such technology is much slower than in Europe and the United States, observes Yim.

However, he feels it is just a matter of time before it picks up on a wider scale in Asia given the benefits of using AI “for instant property valuations and rent estimations, keeping track of the changes in the property conditions itself, changes in the economic climate, and differences in other factors such as mortgage rate changes or population movements”.

Such digital developments have also changed the way interior designers work. “Design processes and discussions have been shifted online,” says Angela Lim, principal designer of boutique studio SuMisura, which works on show apartments and showrooms for luxury developers in Singapore. “Digital animations, digital material boards, 3D renderings, video walk-throughs and collaboration tools such as Zoom have also taken over the once-important face-to-face meetings with your trusted designer.”

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