Visitors take a tour of Sir Bani Yas Island in Abu Dhabi using virtual reality during an exhibition in Dubai. VR technology vendors say the experience can be authentic and believable. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Imagine being able to house-hunt from the comfort of your own home. Put on that virtual headset, click and wander around your chosen house and neighbourhood. Using virtual reality (VR) for property searches is expected to become the norm in the not-so-distant future, thus a lot of players in the real estate industry are getting ready for the big shift.

According to Nebojsa Zaklan, COO at Case3D, which develops virtual platforms, the experience is authentic and believable. There is no difference in emotion compared to the real thing, he avers.

“Once people try it, it’s as if they’re there. They become their first-person movie director,” says Zaklan.

The company is also working on placing a salesperson in the virtual world to serve as a guide, just like in real life.

“Still, I wouldn’t be as idealistic to say that people will actually commit to buy something without seeing it in person, if that option exists,” Zaklan remarks. “VR is great for off-plan sales where the building doesn’t exist yet, but for touring built objects, I think VR is not ‘try before you buy’, but more ‘try before you decide to see it in person’, and then maybe buy it.”


With VR, there is one catch: people have to actually try the technology to fully appreciate the experience. “Right now, the technology is still relatively new and not everyone owns a [VR] headset,” says Zaklan, adding that people can try free trials at malls, expos and the like.

But could VR offer an experience that may be too good to be true, especially for off-plan?

“It actually brings up a dilemma: isn’t VR the ultimate illusion of convincing people into loving something that doesn’t exist yet?” replies Zaklan. “Definitely, it’s the single best tool for engineering unforgettable experiences and perfect moments. Compare showcasing an actual, empty flat on a murky day to a virtual counterpart that’s exclusively furnished, shown during a breathtaking sunset.

“However, its purpose is only to make real estate shine at its finest, and at the same time not make any false promises.”

Zaklan believes there is no better tool than VR to recreate an immersive experience. “Yes, the vision can be enriched with appealing mood lighting, beautiful interior decoration and a captivating horizon. But as long you’re true to the actual design, the customer is going to get a pretty accurate representation of the real thing,” Zaklan says.

Raising expectations

VR would actually raise the bar for real estate developers, who would have to follow through with their promises in the virtual world. “The catch phrase here is ‘what you see is what you’ll get’,” Zaklan explains, citing how 3D visuals and plans cannot replace a virtual experience of space, and thus could lead to disappointment when one first enters a property bought off-plan. “They could say it’s too small, or they imagined it differently.”

He adds: “Very simple math is at play here: big investment equals big expectations. VR solves this.”

Lucy Bush, head of residential sales and leasing at Cluttons Middle East, part of the Savills Group, concurs that virtual house-hunting is a tool that requires a physical follow-up. “I would urge caution on purchasing a brokerage property that you have not inspected,” says Bush. “It is still an essential part of the process, such as discovering the changes at different times of the day, including light and road noise, which all influence the final decision.”

Although in theory a VR tour of a property can be done for all times of the day, it’s too much to expect it to deliver the same experience.

“I think it’s unlikely that ‘in person’ viewing would be eliminated completely, although I do think that as content becomes more sophisticated on virtual platforms, some of the initial viewing legwork by buyers can be eliminated and a shortlist can be reached more easily,” says Bush.

How it affects brokers

Virtual reality isn’t just the ability to walk through a property, but also includes other online tools, such as satellite mapping like Google Earth, which enables an inspection of the neighbourhood.

“Often buyers have not fully defined their criteria ahead of the viewing process. Online mediums can help buyers to really understand what they are looking for, and reach a realistic wish list, perhaps compromising according to budget or widening a search location to find the best matches,” says Bush.

Case3D says its tools empower the developer, real estate agent and buyer by simplifying the decision-making process. “It saves time and money, while boosting sales along the way,” says Zaklan.

Matthew Bate, CEO of Engel & Völkers, however, notes that brokers have to realise how technology is changing the way people approach real estate. “It is only natural that the services we provide must now reflect these new social norms and expectations,” says Bate. “Tech is also allowing us to deliver more accurate information instantly, and more importantly, we can provide a large quantity of highly targeted data immediately.”

However, personal interaction between a property consultant and a buyer will remain hugely relevant, he says, “although the experience and the customer journey of the buyer will change somewhat.”

A consultant’s journey would equally change to provide concierge-like services to make up for what clients can already find online. “The requirements for consultants will change, especially around tech fluency and regulatory knowledge,” says bate. “To keep up with competition and customer demand, life-long learning will be required to ensure sustainable success.”

Advertise your property

The beauty of VR technology is that it democratises power and influence, Zaklan says. A platform developed by Case3D called the Property Navigator is doing just that — it can be used by agencies and landlords alike.

“All a buyer, landlord or agent has to do is point and click and they immediately get all the apartment info, floor plans, pictures, videos, 360 panoramic tours — and, of course, explore their future home in VR. Anyone can use it,” says Zaklan.

Bate wants to see the technology expand to offer listings that feature interactive imaging, community information, estimated return on investments and mortgage options.

“Listings need to provide access to data and market intelligence, removing the opaqueness that has been a fundamental part of the real estate business for decades,” he says.

The quality of services, nonetheless, has already been improving, according to Bush. “Property portals are now working directly to reward best listings with a verification status and higher visibility on page,” she says. “Sophisticated online marketing is an essential part of selling or leasing property today.”