In the late 1990s at a time when less than 10pc of the Irish population ventured online, I wrote an article for this newspaper about the future of the internet for marketing and selling homes online. In those days the house buying process involved homebuyers dropping into an estate agent's 'shop' in much the same way as they did to the butchers or to the chemists. Brochures were printed on paper and photos were glued on to them by hand. Ultimately, making your mind up involved visiting many homes.
In the 1990s article I speculated that home hunters of the future would not only search for a house online, but could also conceivably end up buying a property in principle before seeing it. Many said these claims were fanciful.
Today portals are our means of search. Online film links, 3D and virtual view technologies have for some time helped us familiarise ourselves with homes. Online bidding has allowed us to buy a property and recently, technology has even come to the fore to allow us to the completion of the transaction through the legals and deeds, all to be conducted virtually. And we started buying homes unseen, off the plans, during the boom years.
But until recent weeks, despite huge leaps in online viewing methods for showing and marketing homes, estate agents generally have relied on bodies turning up on doorsteps to view properties in person. Given this reliance, it might surprise many to learn that in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown, the residential property sector is still moving along.
A survey of estate agencies this week determined that house sales are still closing, that people are still buying and selling albeit in a market in which agents are working remotely from home and viewings have been greatly, if almost completely curtailed for obvious reasons. One effect of the coronavirus lockdown has been a marked increase in the viewing of properties online. Last Thursday and Friday traffic to the Sherry FitzGerald website from social media channels was up by 31pc and average time spent on the company's MySherryfitz remote correspondence function increased by 16pc.
The network has all staff working remotely from home and has curtailed all physical viewings bar none. However, it has moved seamlessly to online live viewings. In its viewings, the agent is available at an allotted time to answer queries and questions of interested parties via an online link at the same time as the house is being toured virtually. Meantime a number of its regional franchise branches are running online-only auctions to sell properties instead of attendance events.
The other one of the 'big two,' networks, DNG has massively increased the properties subject to virtual viewings with over 100 properties expected to be 'on view' this weekend in 3D virtual. DNG is also entering the realm of the virtual valuation - for the first time it is offering free virtual valuations to home owners based on eircodes and online data. "The homeowner mails us their Eircode and our team of valuers will look up the property on Google Streetview and send them a valuation," says Keith Lowe of DNG. "Send us internal photos and/or a film and we'll give you a more detailed assessment."
For its part the Lisney agency has turned to YouTube to post films of its homes for sale on its channel in numbers. Meantime smaller independent estate agencies are still sticking with on-site viewings, but in accordance with the new distancing and hygiene norms. Roger Berkeley of Berkeley & Associates says: "We obviously don't have open viewings and don't admit more than one person or a couple at a time to a property. If the house is empty, it's not so much an issue. But viewers will be issued with gloves and social distancing norms will be observed. If a family decides they don't want people through, so be it."
Pat Davitt of the auctioneer's professional organisation the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers (IPAV), says: "It's business as usual but in a very different way." His members are also experiencing spikes in online activity and enquiries. "Most offices are closed. There has been a fall back on to virtual viewings and where properties are vacant, physical viewings are limited to one person or at the maximum, a couple."
Offr, a new software package for estate agents launched late last year conveys the entire house-buying process entirely online. It logs all offers, counter offers, agreements and importantly, the legal paperwork. You can even sign the contracts online.
Not surprisingly Offr has also recently experienced a surge in enquiries. This has coincided with a big UK-based entity taking a financial interest in the company. Offr's Robert Hoban (formerly of Allsop Space) says enquiries for the online one-stop software have doubled in the last 10 days. "While the technology for doing everything online has been there, Irish estate agency has lagged behind and stuck with outdated processes. For example the general disorganisation when it comes to offers being made for homes. They come in to agents verbally on the phone, via WhatsApp, via email, via written letter. It's all completely chaotic. The other big obstacle to progress is the fact that while there might be 50,000 properties for sale, almost none come with a legal pack which is available online. If there's an upside to this awful time, it is that is has concentrated people's minds on what's possible online and pushed them to it."
But while properties already for sale are selling and deals are being closed for now, it is likely that going forward the supply will fall off a cliff. And with huge numbers losing their jobs, this will likely stymie purchasing.
When we do emerge from the grip of coronavirus, almost all property professionals are agreed that their business practices will have changed. Where Irish estate agents all had a toe in the virtual world until recently, this coronavirus has shouldered them right in there.