Real estate agents have long boasted of the lengths they'll go to market properties. Now, for some, the sky's the limit.
As unmanned aircraft become more widely available, some agents have started to use drones to sell listings, inviting prospective buyers on aerial tours of country estates, waterfront acreage — and even standard, suburban development.
"A buyer today wants to see a stunning Hollywood trailer experience," said Robert McArtor, an agent with Re/Max Components in Fallston, who uses a GoPro camera mounted on the belly of a quadcoptor to take aerial video of his listings. "We have created the wow factor."
McArtor, who does not consider himself a tech aficionado, said he "was nervous as all heck" when he launched his first drone this winter, a bug-like aircraft he flies by remote control, looping around a property at an altitude of 25 to 50 feet. It took more than 20 hours of flight time — and a few crashes — to develop the technique.
"I flew this thing all winter long," he said. "I'm kind of a nerd with this thing now."
McArtor is one of the few agents in the Baltimore region talking about his activities — at least in part because using a drone for a commercial purpose is officially outlawed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is authorized to regulate unmanned aircraft and has been working on rules to govern systems weighing less than 55 pounds since 2008. (Hobbyists are allowed to fly drones up to 400 feet in the air.)
The National Association of Realtors has advised its members not to use unmanned aircraft to market properties until the FAA issues regulations, but the group signed on to a letter sent to the FAA in April, urging officials to come out with the new rules sooner rather than later.
"The concern here is that this industry is starting to form itself, and the longer the FAA waits to write the rules, the more difficult it's going to be to get the horse back in the barn," said Ben Gielow, general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group, which organized the letter.
The FAA said it expects to publish the rules this year; the initial deadline was 2011.
In the meantime, the agency has issued at least 12 cease-and-desist letters to people using drones for commercial purposes, said spokesman Les Dorr, who estimated that the press office spends 80 percent of its time fielding questions about unmanned aircraft.
"Think of the magnitude of the task. We are trying to write safety regulations for a very dynamic industry, and we have to write these regulations for unmanned aircraft that are going to be using the busiest and most complex airspace in the world," he said. "It has a been a major challenge to write safety regulations that will ensure the safety of people and property ... while not putting an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry."
The FAA estimates that 7,500 unmanned commercial aircraft will be licensed to fly by 2018, but a market study by Gielow's group predicted sales of 160,000 units per year by 2020. Agriculture is expected to represent 80 percent of the sales, with real estate falling into a 10 percent "other category."
While some are forging ahead with the technology, uncertainty about the rules is holding back wider use, Gielow said.
"Until the FAA comes out with the rules and finalizes them, the industry will be grounded," he said.
In the Mid-Atlantic region, the number of drones used in real estate is small but growing. A March survey by the MRIS multiple listing service of 1,300 real estate professionals found that 1.3 percent had used drones to market listings and that 52 percent did not plan to do so in the next 12 months.
About 13 percent said they expect to do so in the next 12 months, while 35 percent were unsure of their plans.
Andrew Strauch, MRIS vice president of product innovation and marketing, said he is not personally familiar with agents using drones but has seen them employed for listings on the West Coast. He said it could make buying and selling more efficient.
"We're visual people. The more you enable an understanding of what the house experience is like, the more time both the listing agent and the seller will save, because they'll only be showing the listing to people who are truly interested," he said. "It's definitely a hot topic."
The technology is most useful when marketing large estates, which benefit from the context of a bird's-eye view of the grounds, said Ron Howard, who leads the Ron Howard & Associates Fells Point office of Re/Max Preferred and sought out the drone photography firm Elevated Element when he was marketing a Baltimore County home in 2012.
It was a cheaper alternative to a plane and allowed closer shots, he said. For city listings, which make up most of his business, images found on Google suffice.
"I don't think you're going to see a lot of city agents using drones," he said. "If we were out in the county with multiple-acre estates we would be using it all day long."
Elevated Element offers real estate photo packages starting at $199. Hiring a photographer and a plane can cost about $350.
Elevated Element co-founder Terry Kilby said the company expects contracts from real estate agents, as well as the number of commercial developers interested in tracking a project over time, to grow as the rules become clear.
"We expect agents to take this on themselves, and we also see a growing third-party industry," he said, adding that for some, hiring a company with experience will trump learning to fly the drones themselves.
McArtor said he also thinks agents will want training and is working to create a safety course he hopes to sell to other agents. In the meantime, he said, he hopes drone use will spread beyond the luxury market, and he's not concerned about the FAA because the drone shots are part of a free marketing package.
"I wanted this for all properties," he said. "I have no worries."