What Virtual Tours Can — and Can't — Tell You About a Home

by Ari Bendersky |May 27, 2020

Buying or selling a home can take months — time spent seeking out and touring properties can seriously clog your schedule. And, if relocating to a new city, your search just became a bit trickier.

However, there is a more convenient way to find your next home: Enter virtual tours.

These 3-D tours are changing up the real estate world, allowing buyers to initially evaluate homes — and help weed out candidates — without physically visiting them, while giving sellers a leg up in marketing their property.

Yes, a virtual tour can give a peek inside a property without having to visit but, of course, it can't show you everything. Rarely does a virtual tour step inside a closet, look behind a shower curtain or walk down into a basement. And sometimes the proportions you view aren't exact.

Regardless, virtual tours can help home buyers make an initial assessment and reject properties that just don't make the cut. Following is a breakdown of the benefits and potential drawbacks of virtual tours and the tools being used to help in your home search — without ever having to leave your couch.

What’s it like to virtually tour and purchase a home? 

In early March, Bianca and Ryan Sasscer put their home in San Diego, CA, up for sale in anticipation of relocating to Denver, CO, for Ryan’s job. The couple sold their California home faster than planned and needed to find something quickly in their new city.

Their Compass real estate agent in San Diego, Chris Martin, introduced the Sasscers to Jon Mottern, a broker associate with Compass' Basecamp Homes Team in Denver. To make the virtual search easier, Mottern set up the couple with the Compass Search Tool, which aggregates multiple listing service data as well as private listing site data into one pool of inventory.

Mottern says that this tool makes it possible for clients to view listings via email and the Compass app. “The benefits are speed and agility," Mottern says of helping the Sasscers find their new Denver home via virtual tours. “The ability to respond quickly and maneuver a really competitive market is the main advantage."

The Sasscers reviewed images and virtual tours, narrowing the search to homes in downtown Denver. While this technology can show a space, one thing a virtual tour can’t offer is an emotional connection often gained when seeing a property for yourself. “Something Ryan and I talked about is how important it is to go in person,” Bianca says. “The virtual tour … it’ll never be the same as being there in person.”

A work-around is to have someone local go into the home — whether that's your agent, a friend or relative — with a video-capable smart phone and show you more of the nuances a virtual tour doesn't dive into. To give a better sense of the space, Mottern did a walk-through of the home and roof deck with the couple over video chat.

“I really like to be able to explore the neighborhood to see what’s close by,” Bianca says. So her brother also recorded a video tour over his cell phone of the area. “After that virtual tour, that’s when we decided to put in the offer.” That final step sealed the deal in helping them settle on a historic loft building in the hot LoDo neighborhood that checked many of their boxes.

The ability to respond quickly and maneuver a really competitive market is the main advantage.

Woman surfing a 360 degree view in her smartphone

Technology advancements boost virtual tours

3-D and 360°-view tours have been around for many years, but they have been heating up the real estate world of late.

According to a report by Zillow, the number of 3-D home tours added to its website in March 2020 versus the previous month showed a 188% increase. Rosemont, IL-based VHT Studios, which creates virtual tours and virtual staging for real estate agents, saw a 30-fold jump in 3-D tour creation in April 2020.

"All searches start online and it makes your home searches so much easier," says Emily Santos, a senior broker with @Properties in Chicago, IL. "For the seller, it's a better way to market your home." A virtual tour provides buyers the ability to browse online, sure, but it also helps sellers get the most eyeballs to create buzz.

Real estate agents can work with professional photographers and videographers to create high-quality galleries that include 360-views. In many cases, the realistic quality of a video walk-through looks as if you're being led through a home in-person.

Compass, for example, has introduced a suite of tools for its agents called Virtual Agent Services, which includes 3-D staging, virtual open houses, interactive home tours and virtual neighborhood walks. This all helps give a more robust view to buyers, whether looking from afar or seeking to pare down their search.

Virtual tours can also help eliminate the need to schedule additional on-site tours. "A lot of buyers are looking for a specific type of property and they'll know it when they see it," Santos adds. "They've done most of their search online and have eliminated many properties. They'll see a property in person after a virtual tour and then write an offer right away."

New technologies are constantly evolving and, while 3-D walk-throughs can show more of a space, the user experience can sometimes be cumbersome. To address that challenge, Chicago-based Doola Creative Shop launched indoor drone tours in early 2020, offering the "ability to show someone a home in one click," says Zach Dulla, Doola's director of digital strategy.

They use FPV (first-person-view) drones, mini drones that allow the trained drone pilot to capture the entire home without even entering the space. That said, this pre-recorded technology is currently limited to the drone's view and doesn't allow someone to look around a room in more detail like 3-D tours.

Virtual staging can create panache for less

Santos notes that that for buyers and sellers it’s important to properly stage a home and make it look free of clutter. This can help turn a virtual tour into an offer. Which is why Santos hires professional companies like VHT Studios and Realvision, which operates throughout the U.S. and Canada, to help showcase her clients’ properties. 

Santos says that clients will often stage a space with physical furniture, but that can cost a few thousand dollars. Virtual staging companies can help make a room look professionally furnished through interior design software at a fraction of the cost. This is helpful if you’re working with pre-construction properties people may be looking at virtually, but virtual staging can also transform a property into something much more marketable.

“It [shows] the buyer the potential of the home,” says Dennis Miller, Virtual Staging Solutions co-founder, who is based in northern New Jersey; his partner is in Austin, TX. “We can remodel a room so people can get an idea of what it will look like.”

Vince Collura, VHT Studios’ chief operating officer, adds that it can be challenging when a property is decorated with the current owner’s tastes. Virtual staging, if done properly, will usually watermark photos to differentiate it from actual staging, which lends an agent more creative freedom to showcase a home.

Virtual staging companies can help make a room look professionally furnished through interior design software at a fraction of the cost.

Work with a trusted agent

Virtual tours are informative, but working with an experienced real estate agent familiar with a particular market will help present the full picture.

For example, Santos, a Chicago native who has worked in real estate for 15 years, has become the go-to agent for Kevin Jackson and his husband David Purpura. Santos helped them purchase two homes in Chicago and they are now looking to purchase an investment property.

Santos generally uses virtual tours, balanced with her knowledge of the market, to help the couple eliminate options. With the Santos as their guide, the couple have come at the process with a critical eye, knowing a virtual tour can only show so much.

“It’s not reality; it’s virtual reality,” Jackson says. “They can be deceiving. You know the wide-angle lenses they're using to manipulate the space ... the room isn't as large [sometimes]. But the virtual staging helps to see past people's stuff, but it's photoshopping and glamour shots. As long as you know what you’re dealing with, you can look at it from a relative perspective.”

That’s where having a trusted broker who can visit a property for you becomes helpful, especially if you live out of town — or in another country. Andre Teixeira, a Miami, FL-based real estate agent with London Foster Realty, works with many South American clients.

Teixeira, a skilled videographer, will often shoot his own virtual tours for his clients, where he can also capture specific things the client desires to show areas an otherwise professional 3-D tour leaves out.

He admits, however, that virtual tours generally work better than if it’s your first home purchase. “In the end, people want to see what they’re buying,” Teixeira says. “A young couple buying their first home, they want to see the property and walk around before they make their decision.”

“Virtual tours and staging bring the home to life for someone who may not have otherwise had the opportunity to tour the home in person,” says Sabrina Evans, Compass’ Houston, TX, regional marketing director. “Virtual tours allow buyers to experience the home on their own time.”

This is important, because when you've exhausted your search and it ends in your new home, you know you saw all the right places with the right tools.


Ari Bendersky

is a Chicago-based writer and has written for the New York Times, WSJ magazine, Men's Journal, Departures, Wine Enthusiast and Crain's Chicago Business.

The content reflects the view of the author of the article and does not necessarily reflect the views of Citi or its employees, and we do not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in the article.