Virtual walk-through High-tech tours new tool in home-selling business

Tiffany Jonas of Kiawah Island Real Estate demonstrates the new virtual reality headset being used to show prospective buyers renderings of the insides of homes that have not been built yet.

The days of model homes aren’t numbered, but prospective new home buyers don’t have to rely solely on the finished product anymore for a walk-through.

Builders and real estate companies now offer virtual home tours either via computer, interactive office displays or headsets with three-dimensional images.

Kiawah Island Real Estate and K. Hovnanian Homes, a New Jersey-based home builder in Cane Bay Plantation in Berkeley County, are just two of the companies offering tours without physically touring a house.

That’s not to say they are minimizing the importance of experiencing a stick-and-bricks walk-through, but home buyers now have other options to help them decide on, for many, the biggest purchase of their lives.

On upscale Kiawah Island, prospective purchasers can scroll through an interactive screen at the office or on smartphones or iPads to see any number of existing homes on the market, different neighborhoods, island restaurants, recreation offerings and points of interest. They can even see doll house views in three-dimensional images of certain existing homes via computer.

Even drones have been incorporated in filming future homes sites. Now, home seekers at Kiawah have a new option where they don’t use their fingers on a screen but their eyes to see custom homes that haven’t been built yet.

Kiawah Island Real Estate has adopted new technology that allows prospective home buyers to look at conceptual products through viewfinders.

With the help of a virtual imaging company in Bluffton, architectural drawings of interiors, complete with furnishings, are transformed into a virtual room-by-room walk-through.

Using special headsets or goggles, interested parties can tour a variety of yet-to-be-built luxury home concepts in the waterfront island’s Cassique Clubhouse Village and Marsh Walk neighborhoods. Actual foliage and views outside the unbuilt houses, captured at future home sites by the imaging contractor, allow the interested party to see the natural surroundings of the lot.

“It’s one more step to make it more real,” said Bill Houghton, senior vice president of marketing at Kiawah. Over Easter, Kiawah agents took home seekers to a house with just the frames up and allowed them to stand in any room and see what the finished product might look like using the headset.

“Everybody does the ‘wow’ thing,” he said of their reaction. “There is still nothing better than the real thing, but everybody wants to try to make it as real as possible.”

In Cane Bay, K. Hovnanian Homes offers interested buyers an interactive display, not only in the sales office but online along with cardboard headsets as well. Other companies, including Carolina One Real Estate, incorporate the cardboard headsets, too, and Kiawah is considering adopting them. Customers log onto a company website, put their phone in the headset and view images of homes.

Glenn LePine and wife P.J. of Goose Creek discovered the interactive display at K. Hovnanian Homes and fell in love with it.

“It’s OK to look at a piece of paper, but you don’t get a feel for what the room or the inside looks like until you bring it up on the screen and see how everything lines up and comes together,” he said.

The Lepines, both in their 60s, are buying a home that hasn’t been built yet in the new 55-plus community called Four Seasons at Lakes of Cane Bay. He said they couldn’t be happier with the technology that walked them through their new home.

The same program on the interactive display can also be downloaded on a smartphone or iPad.

“It’s nice to be able to compare plans,” Lepine said. “We can do our comparisons without anyone breathing down our neck, not that they do that there. It’s so much easier to call it up on our iPad or iPhone instead of going back to the builder because you forget what something looks like.”

The large-screen, interactive display at the home builder’s office allows interested buyers to see exactly what a room looks like from 360 degrees no matter where they are standing in any home.

By drawing a line on the screen with a finger, a client can measure the kitchen’s central island down to the inch. If you want to see how a bed fits against one wall or another, just move it around on the interactive display.

By looking at his future house on his smartphone while looking for a new refrigerator for the new house, Lepine used it to see if the size of the appliance would fit snugly with the cabinets or stick out into the kitchen.

“It gives you a better idea in that instance of what we would be looking for in a refrigerator,” Lepine said.

“It is certainly a great tool that helps people visualize the house a little bit better than a two-dimensional floor plan,” said Sam Abruzzo, senior community manager of K. Hovnanian Homes. “We don’t ever want to minimize the importance of purchasing a home with a sales manager because you can see it, touch it and feel it. It’s just another great tool.”

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Abruzzo doesn’t see model homes ever going away, but he said improvements in the digital world could dictate the future of home buying even more.

“It will sway a little more to technology and a little less to stick and bricks,” he said.

And while the technology is cool, it doesn’t include every aspect of buying a home — yet.

Buyers can’t change paint colors on the walls on the interactive display, they can’t position a house on a particular lot on the interactive screen, and they can’t see the home’s exterior.

“The technology hasn’t advanced that far yet,” Abruzzo said.

Carolina One, the largest real estate agency in the Charleston area, isn’t using interactive displays. But its buyers are able to take personal viewers, much like those used by K. Hovnanian, and see room-by-room, three-dimensional images of the insides of existing homes for sale, not unbuilt homes, said Michael Scarafile, president.

“Today, the technology allows a 3-D tour,” he said. “At the end of the day it allows buyers to narrow down their choices. You can look at different rooms and rule this one out. It can save people some time. While technology is important, you are still talking about the largest purchase people make in their lives. They are still going to see their house.”

He said Kiawah’s offering for homes that haven’t been built yet “changes the picture dramatically” for custom-built homes.

“Obviously, you are not going to build a model of a $2 million spec home,” Scarafile said. “In traditional new home neighborhoods, where you have several home plans that are the same, you will have the model there. It’s not going away.”

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.