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Multifamily Owners Go Virtual to Get Leases Signed Amid COVID-19

New technologies let apartments shoppers to check out potential homes without ever being in the presence of a leasing agent.

Virtual and augmented reality have been available for some time and had seen sporadic use, but the mass COVID-19 precipitated shutdowns nationwide have led to rapid adoption of the technologies by multifamily owners in order to get leases signed during the pandemic.

“Owners of apartment buildings across the U.S. are looking for new ways to have contactless touring… anything to decrease one-on-one touring,” says Georgianna Oliver, founder of Tour24, a technology company based in Medfield, Mass.

New technologies let apartments shoppers to check out potential homes without ever being in the presence of a leasing agent. That includes virtual tours, video chats and even “self-guided tours” that let potential renters make an appointment to see a real, physical apartment without a real, physical leasing agent being present.

These technologies are likely to be helpful, even in places where the rules of social distancing, meant to slow the spread of the virus, have begun to relax. “It’s here to stay for some time,” says Dan Russotto, vice president of product for Apartments.com, based in Atlanta. “Even as things re-open, there are going to be people who want to practice social distancing.”

Apartments.com creates virtual tours in which potential renters can move through a three-dimensional computer rendering of a model apartment. 

Potential tenants can turn around to get a panoramic view, back into and out of rooms, and even look out of windows. They can take these virtual tours from the comfort of their own homes. The effects are similar to those in computer games in which players move through three-dimensional spaces. Apartments.com uses its “Matterport” technology to wrap a three-dimensional computer rendering of a model apartment with photographs of that model apartment.

These virtual tours are becoming easier to create. Apartments.com used to have to send photographers to create the specialized images needed to create a virtual tour. The company is now creating technology that allows property managers to take their own pictures.

“You can do it with your phone now instead of having these wide-angle cameras,” says Russotto.

In May 2020, Apartments.com also plans to introduce an online leasing office. Visitors to its website will be able to press a button on the webpage to start a video chat with a leasing professional.

Other property owners and property managers are using video chats and online tours to attract potential renters.

“We have always used these tools in our lease-up efforts… We are ramping it up,” says Jordan Brill, partner at Magnum Real Estate, based in New York City, the center of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. The firm is using virtual tours to lease-to-own condominiums at it new-constructed properties at 196 Orchard in the Lower East Side neighborhood and 100 Barclay in the Tribeca neighborhood.

Potential residents can also now let themselves into an apartment and receive information about the unit and the community without needing the presence of a human leasing agent.

“In the last couple of months the interest in the product has grown tremendously,” Tour24’s Oliver says. The firm launched its technology less than two years ago. Today it provides self-guided tours at over 100 apartment communities, averaging 250 units each.

Apartment shoppers sign up to tour an apartment online and chose an option to take a self-guided tour. These potential renters download Tour24’s app onto their smartphones. They submit an image of a picture ID and a credit card number, which is verified by Tour24’s system.

At the time appointed for the tour, electronic locks let them into the apartment. The geo-location function on their phones track their location as they move through the apartment and the tour the amenities in the community, while listening to recorded information through the Tour24 app.

“You can have a message for the kitchen and another for bedroom,” says Oliver. “We provide a curated experience similar to a museum tour.”

So far, existing residents have not been too worried about having potential residents visiting their community unattended. “It hasn’t been an issue,” says Oliver. “With all of the short-term rental activity and deliveries, there is already a lot of traffic in and out.”

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