AMERICAN HOME buyers, sellers and real estate agents are on the verge of the next big step in marketing technology: The transformation of what are now millions of static, noninteractive photographic home listings on the Internet into "virtual home tours," allowing visitors to walk around rooms, peer through windows and meander through back yards, online.
Beginning early in 1999, mass-market virtual tours are scheduled to make their debut on the largest Web site for home real estate listings -- Realtor.com. Using software and systems developed by a California-based firm, Jutvision Inc., real estate agents will be able to offer 360-degree color video photography of exteriors and room-by-room interiors of the homes they list.
Realtor.com is the Web site of the National Association of Realtors, and dominates the field with 1.3 million active home listings -- an estimated 95 percent of all available listings across the country. The site is operated by RealSelect Inc., a firm that also runs the largest Web site for new-home sales, HomeBuilder.com.
The virtual tours are likely to revolutionize the way buyers do their shopping.
They'll be able to choose the rooms or views they want to see, and then pan slowly to absorb the details. Interested in what quality of stove or refrigerator is in the kitchen? The view from the breakfast nook to the deck? The size and configuration of the master bedroom s uite? Just click your computer mouse and pan the videocam.
The advent of virtual tours on Realtor.com should give participating realty agents a distinct leg up on their competition. Instead of simply offering home sellers a spot on the local multiple listing service (MLS), agents will be able to tap into a nationwide network of "videographers" and order a virtual home tour of the house for inclusion on the Realtor.com site.
Typically, the agent will pay the cost of the video -- probably about $99 for a four-room or four-area package. Additional video will cost about $20 per room or area.
Though it will be new to U.S. home sellers and buyers, the virtual tour system has been in use in Canada for the past year. The largest real estate brokerages there now offer it as a standard feature.
Officials of one of Canada's largest firms, Royal LePage Ltd., said in interviews this month that virtual home tour capability on their Web site has pulled in more listings for their agents, made shopping much more efficient for buyers, and produced a substantial jump in traffic to their Web site.
"Once you see it," said Sherry Chris, a vice president and regional manager in Toronto for Royal LePage, "it really sets an entirely new standard" for real estate listings and marketing.
Don Kottick, Royal LePage's director of products and services, said the ability of people anywhere in the world to tour a specific house is not only time-saving, but it also closes deals. He noted a recent example where a Canadian couple bought a home that the wife had visited in person and the husband had toured online while in Spain on an extended business trip.
The proprietary Jutvision virtual tour system coming to Realtor.com essentially received its test drive in Canada with firms such as Royal LePage.
According to Jutvision founder and CEO Kevin McCurdy, the American version of the program will work like this:
Agents who want to offer virtual tours as part of their listings anywhere in the country will call a toll-free number and provide the address of the property. Within 48 hours -- a figure confirmed by Royal LePage executives -- Jutvision will have one of its network of "service providers" or videographers on site to light and film the house being listed.
The videographer will then deliver the images to a Jutvision processing center, where they'll be turned into a Web-ready presentation. Projected elapsed time from the initial call from the agent to a completed tour on Realtor.com and the agent's firm's own Web site: three days, according to McCurdy.
"We've tried to make this as simple as possible for everybody," he added. "Once the Realtor calls in [with an order], he or she is done." Once the videocam operator sends in the images, he or she is done.
To get an advance peek at what the home tours will look like for homes in the United States, visit Jutvision (www.jutvision.com). Minimum computer system requirements: a 486 PC with 8 megabyte RAM or its Mac equivalent; Netscape/Internet Explorer 3.1 or higher.
Kenneth R. Harney is a syndicated columnist. Send letters care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071.
Pub Date: 12/20/98