Wednesday 22 May 2019

Virtual Reality home-hunter on holiday

Do agents' VR tours make it easier to find a new home from anywhere? Only if you have good WiFi

You can view a house from anywhere, subject to wifi ...
You can view a house from anywhere, subject to wifi ...
The cafe in Ravenna
The exterior of the house
The hallway and staircase
Katy McGuinness on holiday
The sitting room
The dual-aspect sunroom
Katy McGuinness

Katy McGuinness

It's hot and humid in Ravenna, a city founded by the Romans close to Italy's Adriatic coast, and in the Piazza del Popolo the locals have the right idea: the old fellas are clustered in the shade discussing the latest political crisis - will there be further elections? Is this the end of Italy and the EU? - while teenagers eat gelato and flirt on the way home from school and women cycle home at a leisurely pace, their panniers laden with good things to eat.

It's far too sweaty to be queuing up to visit the tomb of Dante, nor to view any more of the mosaics dating from the fifth century that decorate some of the city's chapels and basilicas, extraordinary though they are. So I find a spot under an umbrella outside a cafe, order a cocktail, and set about trying to view a house in Dublin that - theoretically - might meet my purchasing requirements.

I've (hypothetically) been house-hunting for months and haven't had any luck so far; I travel a lot for work so it's not always easy to schedule appointments to view properties as they come on the market. And I'm far too busy to want to waste precious free time viewing houses that I know are wrong as soon as I set foot across the threshold.

So I've decided to see if new improved VR (virtual reality) technology, which is just breaking out into the mainstream for house sales in Ireland, could help me with my quest. Can I be on hols abroad, whether on the beach, in the taverna, the restaurant or even at the airport and conduct a virtual tour of a house at home in Ireland? Time to test it out.

The cafe in Ravenna
The cafe in Ravenna

Hooke & MacDonald has a link to a house on its books that I think I might like; there are photos and a written description, of course, but there's also one of the spanking new virtual reality tours available.

It has increasingly added them lately for selected properties land more will be offered going forward. For those who aren't clued in, VR means you can not only do a visual "walk through" with your computer, but also look all around, moving forwards, backwards, sideways - as if you were there (almost). This particular VR house tour has been produced by Matthew Altomare of Prestige Media Ireland. We all know how deceptive photos can be, so I'm curious to see if I can get a truer sense of the property from this virtual tour.

The battery life on my iPhone 6S leaves a lot to be desired - it's 18 months old and I'm due an upgrade - and there's no WiFi in the pleasant Italian café in which I first try to take that tour, nor any 4G I can hook up to in Ravenna. So I give it a go on 3G and get nowhere fast. Or, should I say, slow. After a few minutes watching the battery plummet I give up.

This of course isn't the fault of the virtual tour but rather the sort of sporadic coverage you're likely to find on hols abroad and the sort of device you're likely to be VR touring on from abroad.

A few hours later and a flight delay on my return home to Dublin from Bologna gives me another opportunity to try.

There is free WiFi in the airport and I perch up at one of the stools at the charging station to have another go, but there are lots of people using their devices to download movies meaning slow internet and by the time that I've looked at the static photos and specifications of the house again it's time to board. Again not the fault of the VR, more the sort of WiFi argy bargy you'd experience in any airport.


I finally get to take the virtual tour safe at home in Dublin the next morning where I have the WiFi to myself. It works fine, so now it's down to my own navigation skills. I'm not a gamer and it takes me a while to get the hang of manipulating the screen to get to look around the house. You touch and drag to look around the space, tap on rings throughout the space to move around, and use a pinch gesture to zoom in and out. The house is No 6 Thormanby Hill, a new 3,358 sq ft property in Howth which has been staged for sale. I'm initially not sure whether the weird perfection of the interiors is the actual house or a computer-generated version of what one of the finished houses might look like. It's real furniture. So once I've adjusted, and I figure out how not to make myself feel seasick by flipping the POV too quickly from floor to ceiling it takes about five minutes to give myself a reasonably comprehensive tour.

So now it's time to judge the tour itself. The level of detail is impressive and, short of being able to open the kitchen cupboards and feel rather than guess at the quality of the finishes, it's a helpful tool. So that's all good. I'll likely be using it again.

No 6 Thormanby Hill has a reception room on either side of the entrance hall - one designed to be used as a formal space and the other as an informal one. There's a large kitchen/dining/living space to the back of the house. This opens out onto the patio and gardens. Also on the ground floor are a study, utility room, and guest lavatory with shower. And so I zoom in on detail upstairs. There are five double bedrooms, three of which are ensuite, and a family bathroom. The main bedroom has a huge walk-in wardrobe and the hot press is massive.

What the tour doesn't do, obviously, is put the house in context, by placing it in its surroundings. Of course you can revert to Google Streetview for that and while new homes may not yet have been snapped by the Google Cam's last driveby, the general area routes and surroundings are there for all to see.

I know from the brochure copy that Thormanby Hill is a development of large detached houses built by the Cosgrave brothers on an elevated sloping site off Thormanby Road, close to the Summit Inn and within walking distance of the village of Howth, with its plentiful shops and restaurants. Each house has its own private garden and is set in landscaped gardens that feature wooded parkland and a children's playground.

It sounds like a place that I might (hypothetically) want to live, and so I'll make an appointment to view it in real life and see if the reality lives up to its virtual equivalent.

6 Thormanby Hill,

Thormanby Road, Howth, Co Dublin

Asking price: €1.475m

Agent: Hooke & MacDonald (01) 6318402

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