3D home tours: Real estate industry finds way forward for ‘essential business’

Brandon Vasquez, digital marketing manager at the Berg Larsen Group, photographs a $1.475 million listing on Kenwood Parkway, where a sale is now pending.

In the days before the governor’s stay-at-home order, Brandon Vasquez made a “mad dash” through Minneapolis shooting virtual home tours. 

As digital marketing manager at Coldwell Banker’s Berg Larsen Group, he uses rotating cameras that take 360-degree images, shot in the quality of a virtual headset, scanning with lasers that measure the dimension of each room. When he’s done, the Matterport platform allows  residents to virtually walk down the hallways, peek in closets, measure a countertop or zoom out for a 3D “dollhouse” view of each floor. A listing can generate more than 1,000 virtual tours, Vasquez said. Two years ago, the firm sold a home on Lake Harriet to an out-of-state couple where one partner had only seen it online. 

“Right now it’s really important to allow people to try to virtually tour the homes,” Vasquez said. 

Image courtesy of Matterport

Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order includes an exemption for work related to real estate transactions. 

Up until mid-March, the spring real estate market looked “quite strong,” with listings and sales largely running ahead of last year, according to Linda Rogers, president of Minneapolis Area Realtors (MAR). Some agents were finally expecting more homes to come on the market, and the mild spring and winter allowed builders to get ahead. 

Since the pandemic hit, the luxury market appears to be the hardest hit, Rogers said, with some speculating that those buyers are sensitive to stock market swings. The mid-market and affordable segments seem to be faring better. According to MAR’s unofficial estimates, 260 listings per day would be common for early April, which is about 27% higher than the 190 listings in a recent report.

Images courtesy of Minneapolis Area Realtors

Weekly pending sales and new listings are now at the lowest level since at least 2017. According to MAR, showings abruptly hit a plateau just after the state’s first confirmed COVID-19 case March 6 and began declining sharply after schools closed March 15. NorthstarMLS suspended Open House scheduling.

Image courtesy of Minneapolis Area Realtors

Linden Hills resident Lesley Hauser said “this is a crazy time to be thinking about moving,” but she’s doing it anyway. 

After three years searching for an intergenerational homestead for herself and her daughter’s family, they secured a purchase agreement for a 57-acre property (before COVID-19 hit) contingent on Hauser selling her Linden Hills home. She took a long walk during an April 4 showing and, an hour later, received an offer for the $675,00 listing. 

“I felt like it was worth it to try to make this all come together,” Hauser said. “I will take it one step at a time, and if it falls into place, that’s great.”

Tangletown resident Andrea Rugg is searching for a new home near the lakes, and she said the market is still competitive. There hasn’t been much to look at. One house she wanted to see in mid-March was snapped up the next day. Given the pandemic, work preparing her own house for sale might need to go on hold, she said. (The governor exempted construction work from his stay-at-home order, including electricians, plumbers, HVAC technicians and all other service providers necessary to maintain the safety, sanitation and essential operation of homes.)

“If it takes a year or more, we’re OK with that. We’re in it for the long haul,” she said. 

Normally Kermit Escribano and his wife would book at least 10 jobs per day for their company USA Family Moving, which is based in Crystal and operates a dispatch location on Hennepin Avenue. Now his movers are wearing gloves and bandanas and keeping their distance from customers. They often work with retirement homes, where moving has largely stopped, and the company is down to two or three jobs per day.

“They’re afraid to move,” Escribano said.

He immediately applied for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program to help retain his workforce, but Wells Fargo told him there was no money available on April 6, three days after the program launched.

When the pandemic hit, Robin LeVine of Fulton brought out a canvas and new paints, thinking her staging company Sorted Affairs would slow down. 

But she said she’s still working consistently, helping clients stage homes for virtual tours. 

“It’s a whole different ballgame,” she said. “It’s kind of fun in a way, until my dog starts barking.”

She tells clients where to move furniture and where to add pillows purchased online. She sends photos of her ideas and tries to think creatively, perhaps suggesting that kids hang artwork in their rooms. 

LeVine sees low interest rates continuing to drive the real estate market for busy agents. 

“The heavy hitters are not delaying,” she said. 

If a client is committed to selling, they are putting it on the market now, said Realtor Chad Larsen of the Coldwell Banker Berg Larsen Group. He’s finding new ways to do business. He recently toured a home alone to assess the condition of a house, bringing the client along via FaceTime. 

“If we’re practicing social distancing, that’s the key,” Larsen said. “This is business that needs to be done, and certainly as it relates to real estate, people have made commitments. I have clients that are scheduled to close on Monday.” 

A home listed March 24 for $429,900 at the 4400 block of Wentworth recently sold quickly with several offers. The only people who entered the house were very serious buyers preapproved for a loan and not showing signs of illness, said listing agent Cristina Edelstein-Skurat, of RE/MAX Kerby & Cristina Real Estate Experts. Only the decision-makers could walk through — no children — and the realtor, wearing gloves, was the only one who could touch anything. She’s about to list another $2.5 million home in Linden Hills. 

Following the pandemic, Edelstein-Skurat speculated that inflation could become an issue, making this a good moment for renters to buy a home and lock in a low mortgage rate. While some of her clients are waiting, others are hoping to buy with less competition.

Feeling like the only person at FedEx wearing a mask, Realtor Jen Kyllonen said she’s proceeding cautiously. It can feel frivolous to continue working at this time, but people need homes and shelter, she said. Some clients have expiring leases, or job transfers, or already purchased a home with plans to move. So she’s using gloves and shoe covers and telling sellers to leave their lights on, leave doors slightly ajar and sanitize thoroughly after showings. At one shuttered title company, she and the closer sat on either ends of a table, the only people in the building. They slid documents back and forth, along with a pen wrapped in plastic, which they sanitized before each use. 

Weeks before COVID-19 arrived in Minnesota, Kyllonen sold four homes priced under $400,000 within a weekend. 

“It’s my strong hope that because we went into this strong, it’s going to help us carry through economically. All of us,” she said.