Virtual property viewing: could this tech give house hunters their weekends back?

Any experienced property hunter knows the routine: you’ve flipped through numerous photos online, forensically examined countless floorplans and eventually after a bit of shall we/shan’t we you’ve decided: “this one’s worth a look.”

And so begins the process of contacting the estate agent, finding a time that works for all parties and then squeezing in the actual viewing during the precious minutes before or after a hard day’s work/looking after the kids and attempting to have something resembling a social life.

Then the moment of truth arrives, you optimistically cross the threshold with bated breath and within seconds there’s a quiet, sinking feeling of “oh well, never mind.”

Here we go again...the agent is enthusiastic but most viewings end in disappointment

Here we go again…the estate agent is enthusiastic but most viewings end in disappointment

The problem with viewings are that the properties often don’t look or feel much like the photos that were carefully created by a professional photographer with a fish-eye lens and a diploma in Photoshop.

This ‘photo-bait’ approach to property marketing can be great for getting buyers interested from afar, but each time it goes wrong they can lose a little more trust in the agent and enthusiasm for the whole process itself.

That’s the familiar problem, but with online property technology (PropTech) moving on apace it’s no surprise that someone has finally decided do something about it. One of the most innovative solutions so far has come from Virtual Walkthrough, a central London-based software company.

The Virtual Walkthrough solution involves a photographer or estate agent armed with a special 360 degree camera creating a 3D photo model of each property which its software then automatically turns into an “immersive virtual tour” that can be embedded in any website.

The user experience is very similar to Google Streetview but you get to walk around the property instead of just wandering up and down the road. The virtual property tour lets you click your path through all of the rooms, climb stairs, pan up to the ceilings, glance down to the floor and so on.


Screenshot from a next generation Virtual Walkthrough property tour. The circles on the floor are guides suggesting where the viewer should click to move forward (still photo, not clickable)

The user experience is not yet perfect – at first attempt you might bump into a few walls and perhaps get stuck briefly in the occasional corridor. But it’s easy to learn and certainly feels like the closest thing yet to a viewing without having to do a viewing – and it could be about to go mainstream. spoke to James Morris-Manuel, co-founder of Virtual Walkthrough to find out how the technology was being used today and where he sees it heading.

“The product is always being developed. The tech that’s there today is fantastic but it’s got so far to go. We will continue to build on our technology and see where we take it,” he said.

Interestingly, Morris-Manuel doesn’t just see his innovation as a way for viewers to cut out wasted viewings, but rather as a tool for ruling-in great properties that otherwise they would have dismissed.

“I work long hours and if I am going to view a property I will only go if it looks perfect for me and there are loads I don’t bother to see because the photos aren’t good enough,” he said.

Virtual Walkthrough co-founder James Morris-Manuel

Virtual Walkthrough co-founder James Morris-Manuel

For sellers and estate agents, he argues, the virtual viewing concept “speeds up the sales cycle”, adding: “in all of our case studies we have found it increases the number of actual viewers, as people feel they can justify the time.”

Morris-Manuel’s logic seems to be that virtual tours can not only reduce the number of wasted viewings (good for buyers) but also increase the number of successful ones – in other words those that lead to offers (good for sellers).

If the buyers, sellers and estate agents are all set to benefit, surely someone’s got to be losing out – could it be the photographer whose sole job is to turn that spatially-challenged bedroom into a Honeymoon suite? Are their days numbered if virtual tours become the standard way to peruse property online?

“I don’t think that it will do photographers out of a job,” said Morris-Manuel. “Photographers can actually make money from it.”

He explained that photographers would have to outlay an approximate £3,500 for the bespoke camera, and own an iPad to run the software, but once in their possession they can charge a premium for creating the tours.

Estate agents are going to have to be willing to invest too – either directly or indirectly – in the equipment and recording time needed. The initial scanning process is supposed to take about one hour per 1000 square feet.

As well as the upfront camera cost there is a fee of (at the time of writing) of $19 for the software to process each tour plus a 50 cents per property per month hosting fee which pays for Virtual Walkthrough to store the tours on its cloud servers.

Until these prices come down and unless high end cameras get replaced by mobile phones that can scan rooms in 3D (Google is working on one called Project Tango), cost could well be a factor in deciding how widespread and popular virtual tours become.

In an age when traditional estate agents are under pressure from fixed fee online competitors will they see virtual tours as a luxury expense?

No, says Morris-Manuel, who positions the product as one that justifies its costs by adding value, and especially for those budget online agents who are not set up to conduct physical viewings at all.

“For online agents where the whole point is to replicate the sales process online they need to get as much of the content online as possible in the hands of the users,” he said.

If you were wondering why the prices above are in dollars and cents, the answer is that Virtual Walkthrough was bought out in July by a larger American company, Matterport, creator of a very similar product that is looking to expand into Europe.

Matterport is a market leader in virtual tours in the States and the acquisition means that Virtual Walkthrough’s clients – which include UK online estate agent – will soon be offering a more advanced version.

The Matterport 'doll's house' view of a property - coming soon to all Virtual Walkthrough tours

The Matterport ‘doll’s house’ view of a property – coming soon to all Virtual Walkthrough tours

The original Virtual Walkthrough tours allow viewers to move room-to-room plus use an interactive flat floorplan as a guide, but Matterport’s software also creates a 3D ‘doll’s house’ view of the property.

“The benefits to the end user of the Matterport system is that there is a much smoother user experience and also the doll’s house view,” added Morris-Manuel.

According to research by energy company E.ON, the average buyer sees eight properties before finding ‘the one’, and of course some of those will have involved two or more viewings each.

For anyone with a busy life, the upshot of all these viewings is an awful lot of weekday evenings and Saturdays dominated by property hunting car journeys when they could be doing something they actually enjoy.

It’s very early days for virtual property viewing but if enough buyers start to use it and then come to expect it, estate agents will be under pressure to upgrade to win instructions. In the end that could hopefully mean a lot of evenings and weekends being returned to their rightful owners.

  • Want to try it out for yourself? Go to SellMyHome and search for properties with Virtual Walkthrough tours.