Getting ready for a more virtual way of working - David Alexander comment

Forgive me for starting the column, as I did last week, with another tourism analogy – but once again it seems particularly relevant.

Eventually literal viewing among buyers will return – although not for some time, Alexander believes. Picture: Jane Barlow.
Eventually literal viewing among buyers will return – although not for some time, Alexander believes. Picture: Jane Barlow.

Since the internet became the most popular method of booking a package holiday the process usually goes something like this. Decide a budget. Choose location. Pick accommodation – and click to pay.

If the accommodation is operated by one of the larger chains, then one facility likely to be offered is a “virtual view” of the rooms available. Unfortunately on arrival, many find that their room is a lot smaller than it appeared. It is partly for this reason that I have resisted offering virtual viewing to clients because it is simply not a proper substitute for the real thing.

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To fully appreciate the dimensions and positioning of various rooms in a house or flat, any potential buyer or tenant needs to literally, not virtually, experience them. My position has always been that while most tourists can make do with a smaller-than-anticipated hotel room for seven or 14 nights, the same does not apply to a home – whether the client is intending to stay for a decade or leasing for no more than six months.

The one exception applies to investment buyers based outside Scotland who, clearly, are not using their purchases for their own personal purposes and are therefore not interested in the minutiae. Their concerns are confined to the structural state of the property, interior condition and the potential for providing an acceptable overall yield based on the price paid.

But needs can as needs must, as the old saying goes. Just now, virtual viewing is the only type available to those seeking to buy or rent (yes, there are still some of them around). It may not be ideal but what is the alternative? And initial success has been encouraging too; over Thursday and Friday of last week we secured 20 new tenants as a result of virtual viewing.

Fundamental changes

Had lockdown been a temporary phenomenon (say, no more than a fortnight) then I believe the commercial world would have mostly returned to normal almost straightaway. But after six weeks and with only a gradual (very gradual) “easing” on the horizon, fundamental and permanent changes now seem likely.

How people view houses will be part of these changes. Initially, this will come about through consumer choice because potential buyers will, for safety reasons (whether justified or not), be wary about entering the homes of strangers. “Real viewing” may quickly return to more normal levels in the rental sector where properties do not become available until the previous tenants have departed and the house or flat will be cleaned to a level thought unnecessary a few months ago.

Eventually literal viewing among buyers will return although not for some time (and probably not until the emergence of a proven vaccine for Covid-19). But virtual viewing is also now here to stay and it will become incumbent on agents to facilitate this so that online impressions of a property are as accurate as it is possible to make them.

I can think of several other areas where change is almost inevitable once lockdown ends, but – unlike virtual viewing – it could only be speculation at this stage. There is, however, one silver lining based on the saying “out of adversity comes opportunity”. For example, improvements in virtual viewing has to come initially from the technical sector, for whom an unexpected opportunity has now arisen.

One outcome of World War I was previously unthinkable improvements to motor vehicle and aircraft technology. In 1919, within months of the Armistice, air passenger services were launched – just ten years after the first flight (solo of course) over the English Channel when most believed flying would be no more than a “rich man’s pastime”.

So the Covid-19 crisis is likely to lead to technical improvements to working practices in the estate agency sector as elsewhere. The full consequences of this on profits and employment levels have, however, yet to be defined.

David Alexander is MD of DJ Alexander

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