Home shoppers can learn a lot about a house for sale before visiting it -- even what the inside looks like.
Credit "virtual tours," which offer an electronic walk-through of a house via the Internet, with helping to make that interior view possible.
By clicking on an online home listing with a virtual tour option attached, a prospective homebuyer can scan several rooms and maybe the yard, depending on what an agent chooses to display.
Still photographs are shown in a 360-degree or "fisheye lens" effect. Viewers can pan the room, as if they are standing in the middle of the floor.
While a home's "curb appeal" remains a strong ingredient in attracting or turning off customers, virtual tours are also influencing how people search for properties, real estate agents and experts say.
The growth of virtual tours fits consumers' increased use of the Internet to look for homes, and can help agents expedite the process, said Peter Hunt, chief executive officer of Hunt Real Estate ERA. "When home shoppers are searching, you want to eliminate those homes that will clearly not be (a match)."
A National Association of Realtors survey said 58 percent of home shoppers who used the Internet in their search called virtual tours "very useful." Even so, fewer than 5 percent of the active single-family home listings on Realtor.com, the NAR's Web site, offered virtual tours as an option, said Erin Campbell, a spokeswoman for Homestore, which operates the NAR's site.
But another NAR statistic underscores the Internet's role in searches for residences: more than 75 percent of home shoppers and renters use it as a research tool, compared to just 2 percent a decade ago.
Virtual tours are one way agents are trying to stay current with the way people shop for homes.
Instead of rendering real estate agents obsolete, the electronic walk-throughs complement home shopping, experts say. Rather than driving from house to house and being surprised or disappointed at what is inside, customers can focus on properties that pique their interest.
"It's just such a timesaver," said Robert Wright, co-founder of the Amherst-based firm HipKnowSys with James Gorman.
Their company sets up virtual tours, called PicTours, on behalf of agents, who pay for the service. HipKnowSys works with a photographer who documents the properties.
Agents' receptiveness to electronic tools like virtual tours has come a long way in the past several years, Gorman said. "Now they see it as a lead generator."
Home builders are also using virtual tours to promote new developments.
A few are available on HomeFinderExtra.com, via Buffalo.com's Web site.
Builders display an exterior shot of a model home, plus three interior images that use the virtual tour format.
"It basically gives the user the feel of the room," said Leigh Balcom, sales and operations manager for Buffalo.com.
Balcom said the site has seen up-and-down interest in virtual tours from home builders, but he said it is "getting hot again."
Marrano/Marc Equity Corp. also has used virtual tours to showcase its model homes, as well. The electronic view can capture customers' attention in a way that plans on a piece of paper can't, said John Manns, vice president of sales and marketing for the homebuilder.
"It doesn't cost a lot of money to wow people," Manns said.
The virtual-tour option has also caught on with agents at RealtyUSA, the largest real estate firm in the region. Gorman said that top-selling agent Bonnie Clement is a frequent user of the virtual-tour option on her listings.
On some real estate Web sites, users can click directly to a list of homes with the virtual tour option, giving those properties additional attention. At Realtor.com, about 70,000 customers per day click on the "virtual tour first" option, said Campbell, of Homestore.
Homes listed with virtual tours on the site generate about twice as many property views as those without the option, Campbell added.
Gorman said the 360-degree images seen online are created typically in one of three ways. Multiple images from a digital camera can be connected, to create the look of a single, seamless photo. A photographer might also "stitch together" two shots taken with a wide-angle lens, or use a single shot taken with a special parabolic mirror, Gorman said.
Look around any real estate firm's Web site, and you will see homes for sale listed in a range of formats.
Some sites display a series of still photos of a home. Surveys show that home shoppers who use the Internet in their search crave more than an exterior shot of a home when they are househunting.
Hunt Real Estate ERA encourages its agents to take pictures of their properties to post with their listings, said Al West, the firm's chief information officer.
West said he has heard anecdotal evidence and has seen survey results indicating consumers still rate multiple still pictures of a home of higher value than virtual tours. "Their first choice is lots of still photos, and the more the merrier," West said.
One reason for that might be that the number of virtual tours available online is still relatively small, compared to all listings, he said.
Gorman said he believes real estate agents' customers could spur an increase in the number of virtual tours, by requiring their agents to provide that option with their listings. Many of the same people who are trying to sell homes are also in the market to buy, and they see virtual tours as a useful tool, he said. Some agents are offering virtual tours for all listings that meet certain criteria.
Some real estate Web sites present a series of still photographs in slide-show fashion. HipKnowSys also offers agents an enhanced slide-show-type presentation called "Grand Tours": a recorded narration describes the property's features, with background music. The Grand Tour option is most frequently shows up on higher-end homes for sale.
Where might virtual tour technology go from here?
Gorman thinks it could be full-motion video, complete with a human guide leading a tour of the property. Stay tuned to your computer screen.