On a sunny afternoon recently in Clontarf, Anastasia Almiasheva took a Whatsapp video call. It was from a potential buyer for her apartment at 12 Hollybrook Manor. Anastasia introduced herself and then took the viewer on a tour of the property. She started at the entrance to her apartment building, walked into the hallway, then through her apartment, pointing out the features.
Anastasia is part of a seismic shift in the property market that involves new bidding and transaction platforms, an explosion in virtual viewings, and a big increase in bids from buyers who have never set foot inside the property.
"Prior to the Covid-19 restrictions," says estate agent Tony Deane of Moovingo, who runs the vendor-led viewings, "approximately 15pc of our vendors had opted to host their own viewings". That figure has now jumped to 63pc.
Industry insiders believe Covid-19 has changed the way we buy and sell forever.
"Some people ask to see the roof, or look in cupboards," says Anastasia of her viewings. Others ask about orientation, management fees, the neighbours, gas bills. The appointments and all the financial side of a sale, including bids and negotiations, though, are still handled by Moovingo.
"I really like it. It's super handy," says Anastasia, who works for Google, and had originally purchased the apartment using the more traditional viewing method of a physical visit. "I actually answer the questions, I hope, better than an agent. I know better."
Anastasia's apartment launched to market on March 28, and viewings have been busy, with nine separate bidders, all who have only viewed online via Moovingo. The offers have gone from €295,000 up to €333,000, according to Deane. The guide price is €315,000.
"We call them our Zoomers," says Deane, who coaches vendors through the hosting process beforehand and preps them to answer the 12 most frequently asked questions. "It's actually relatively easy once you get a few minor elements correct, such as have someone else hold the camera and know what speed to walk at."
The zoom buyers
On the other side of the property transaction, Alex and his girlfriend Susan are first-time buyers with a budget of €430,000-440,000 and have been viewing properties virtually. They put in a bid with Moovingo on a relatively new build in Balgriffin, Co Dublin, but were out-bid and are now back hunting again.
The couple are hopeful that they will secure a property during lockdown. "We've been searching since pre-lockdown. I suppose for us it's more about the feeling - you can look at the floorplan and all that sort of stuff, even view 3D virtual tours where you navigate yourself, they're fine. But it's nice to be able to ask, 'What's that over there?' Or say, 'Go back to that' and actually be brought around and talked through it. Sometimes virtual tours can play tricks and things seem bigger than they really are, for example.
"If you're buying something old that is probably something you need to physically see, but you could make a good estimation on a new build from [a Zoom walk-through].
"Apartments and properties under €500,000 have been the most active," says Deane. "Although video tours are quite popular with larger houses, their size means there is more to take in and our evidence to date suggests that purchasers will want to physically inspect before making any commitments. The advantage in this situation is we are building a pipeline of very interested parties who can view, once it becomes possible to do so."
It's an approach that works best for the lower end of the market, he says, where home owners are looking for shorter-term homes rather than lifetime investments.
Virtual viewings here to stay
The digital offerings keep growing. Offr, an Irish proptech company, has just launched a 3-in-1 facility that combines 3D virtual tours with YouTube video playback and live-stream ability so an agent can do walk-throughs in real time using their own phone.
Other forms of virtual viewings include 3D video tours, and pre-recorded footage available to view online with an agent on hand to answer questions.
These have been available for a while. What is different is the take-up from buyers.
Jane Young of Young's Estate Agent runs group viewings on Zoom, allowing house hunters and their extended families to view a property separately but together. "So far the response to this new way of working has been great," says Young. "We've had strong engagement and in some cases have had multiple parties bidding on a property they viewed only online.
"People purchasing properties sight-unseen isn't entirely new to us," she says. "We regularly sell to overseas investors or returning Irish emigrants, but the current crisis has really forced our hand, with the associated restrictions adding an additional layer of complexity."
Young's went sale agreed this month on their first fully online property after it had been on the market for just two weeks. The Ranelagh redbrick achieved around €50,000 above the guide price of €725,000.
DNG had 25pc of their properties available to view online when Covid-19 hit. CEO Keith Lowe says online viewings have soared. "Over 95,000 people have hit our pages in the last four weeks," he says, "and 14,000 have actually gone through a whole video. We're taking deposits now without people seeing the inside of the house as a result, because the [videos] are so realistic. You can see them perfectly. Not just on new home schemes but also second-hand houses."
The prospective buyers tend to be familiar with the area or apartment block where the property is located already, says Lowe. "So there is not much left, bar to see it physically. We're saying to a buyer, 'Look, if you want to negotiate on a property, you can, and it'll be subject to a final physical view before you have to sign a contract'. But the numbers are huge."
Sherry FitzGerald has also been holding pre-recorded walk-throughs hosted by agents on Zoom. Director Joanne Geary says the experience has been "absolutely revelatory". Not just because Irish buyers are viewing online, but for the unexpected uplift in international buyers. "We can see from our stats, the latest figures up to last week show traffic from the UK was up 12pc on last year, traffic from US market was up 22pc."
"Virtual viewings have got more sophisticated now," agrees Pat Davitt, CEO of IPAV (the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers). "It's something of the future. I think virtual viewings are here to stay but I think at the end of the day people will still want to see a property before such time as they buy it."
Lowe agrees, "I think what will ultimately happen is that before people come out to look at a property they will look at a 3D video first. It'll be all about risk for the moment and certainly for the next year or two, not making unnecessary journeys, and from an agent's point of view we won't want 100 people in a house, we'll want one or two people coming into a house at any one time," he says, "and they'll have to be related."
Tech takes hold
The shift to digital has been swift in other areas of the property market, too. Offr, an Irish prop-tech platform that offers online auctions, private treaty and sealed bids, digitally and remotely, launched on the market six months ago, and has been well placed to take advantage of the new interest. "We've had over 100 companies approach us in the last six weeks," says CEO Robert Hoban, who was previously with online auction platform BidX1, "and we've seen a remarkable shift in the understanding of technology and the outlook on technology. Previously, a lot of agents were seeing tech as 'a nice to have', they're now seeing it as a 'need to have'. The questions now are not about being persuaded about the digital process, the questions are now about how do I do it. That's a remarkable shift in a space of weeks."
Other newcomers have also been quick to spot the opening for remote transactions. Youbid.ie kicks off its first live-streamed online auction next Thursday with a portfolio of apartments for sale. It uses virtual viewings, online valuations and intends to continue post-lockdown with both online and in-room auctions.
"Although conventional market activity has been hit, there are motivated mortgage-approved buyers and vendors who need to sell their properties, both seeking solutions that suit their current circumstances," says managing director Michael O'Connor.
The tech transfer has filtered into the back-end of buying and selling too, where delays in closing private treaty transactions can lead to an estimated third to a quarter of all sales falling through. The average time to sell a property from first instructing an agent to completing a sale is currently seven months, says Hoban, long enough for buyers to lose interest and move on to a quicker or more attractive sale.
The appliance of tech could change all that. For example, Hunter's estate agents recently partnered with online auction platform BidX1 to sell a €1m property in Castleknock, which had been viewed pre-lockdown. The process was very quick. The contracts were uploaded into a 'data room', exchanged digitally, and the sale closed just two weeks later, says Bobby Geraghty of Hunter's.
While contracts are increasingly being signed online and witnessed on Zoom calls, title deeds still need to be signed in front of a solicitor, and this can cause delays. It's something that Pat Davitt, CEO of IPAV, is actively lobbying Government to change. He would like to see a 'vendor's legal pack' containing all the necessary documents put together before private treaty sales can go to market. "I think it'll shorten the sales time - I'd be surprised if it didn't half them. It would be a game changer."
Digital changing the high street
The move to digital may also change our high streets. This week saw Hunter's close their flagship Waterloo Road premises. Geraghty comments that while their D4 office gave them brand presence, "we made the decision last year to invest further in tech and less in retail. It's a coincidence that it is all happening now in Covid-19, we're not closing business, we're redirecting it."
Hoban of Offr predicts that other agents will follow suit: "Bricks and mortar has to change over time. The main reason that agents have had high street retail in recent times is for branding purposes. They don't get anywhere near the same footfall they used to get. People don't need to call into them, people are perfectly happy to avail of services online or talk to them over the phone if needs be.
"It's much harder to justify a high rent for the office space just for a bit of billboard advertising."
Some Things won't change
While properties may go sale agreed with only virtual viewings, few buyers will want to close the sale without visiting their new home, says Geary.
Mortgage broker Michael Dowling warns, "I would never recommend buying without seeing the house in person on several occasions." He advises clients to get a structural survey before they sign contracts, and stresses that a bank's valuer must physically inspect the property before the loan offer is issued.
"I always recommend to clients to drive by the house outside the agreed viewing times, again to make sure that there is nothing unusual about the house that was not visible during the viewing," he adds.
"For example, I had clients who had bid on a property, and took my advice about viewing at unusual hours, and discovered that the next-door neighbours had two HGV vehicles parked at night and early evening. Interestingly, they were not there during viewings. They did not buy."