UPDATE July 1, 2020: At the onset of Illinois’ first round of stay-at-home orders in March 2020, many landlords had to quickly roll out alternative plans for showing vacant apartments in Chicago. The go-to solution was virtual showings, where a live video call or pre-recorded walkthrough video had to substitute for the traditional methods of in-person showings to slow the spread of Coronavirus in Chicago apartments.
Now, Illinois and the City of Chicago have progressed beyond the most severe shutdowns and stay-at-home orders as new Coronavirus cases have declined across the state. The state’s reopening follows a phased approach and Phase 3 was ushered in at the beginning of June 2020. Phase 3 guidelines included permission for real estate service professionals to resume in-person showings of apartments for rent -- with restrictions in place.
The question facing many real estate pros as Illinois barrels toward summer of 2020: Is it better for landlords and brokers/agents to continue hosting virtual tours or should they go back to traditional, in-person showings? It depends on a few things.
The first thing that landlords, brokers, agents and renters all should consider is their own health. Immunocompromised people should take the most precautions when it comes to being indoors in the same space as other people, even if it’s for something as short-lived as a 15-minute apartment tour. The same advice goes for the elderly, young children and any other group facing heightened risk from COVID-19.
Next, landlords and agents should assess their own comfort level handling the technology to facilitate great virtual showings. Is it making life easier to set up a virtual tour or a virtual open house? Or is it making things more difficult? Landlords who find themselves agreeing with the latter sentiment should read on because this blog post has useful tips for setting up virtual apartment tours. If landlords or brokers find that virtual showings are making life easier, then by all means continue them! Renters are also benefiting from the added efficiency of remotely touring homes and apartments, so this is one of those “win-win” scenarios for both landlords and renters in their busy lives.
Staying Safe with Help from Technology
"Virtual tours are excellent ways to engage with renters who are out of state or just unable to tour apartments onsite," says Max Downs, the marketing director at PPM Apartments. "Whether it's through FaceTime, Skype or through video recorded on a phone," Downs says, "it's vital to our leasing process."
Landlords should indicate that they're open to arrange virtual showings in the apartment description field. Mention that you're willing to host tours via FaceTime, Skype, Zoom meetings, Google Hangouts or whichever platform is most intuitive and easy for you to use.
Anyone who has an iPhone can use FaceTime to showcase the excellent natural light in an apartment or broadcast the spacious floor plan. Leasing agents should make things interactive as well, not just giving a tour that's "on rails" like an amusement park ride. Allow renters to ask questions and try to show them exactly what they inquire about with the smartphone's camera. For example, if a renter asks about the age of the appliances in the apartment then agents can point the camera at the kitchen and let renters at the other end of the video call see for themselves.
Using Video Chat Tools to Show Apartments
Agents and landlords should block out the time of a showing on the calendar so the video calls don't interrupt other errands or plans. Consider hosting a "virtual open house" where renters can connect via video chat in a certain set of hours. Leverage social media, email lists, and your ILS listing to advertise the virtual open house hours.
Domu's listing setup includes a field for open house dates/times.
Leasing managers who need to advertise a newly listed unit can try live-streaming a walkthrough on Facebook or Instagram Live. People are invariably turning to their phones during a time when they're instructed to avoid social gatherings of more than 50 people. Landlords and brokers can accomplish a lot with virtual tours that they might have overlooked back when they were done in person. Start capturing tours on camera and sharing clips on social media to garner a following of apartment enthusiasts and prospective tenants.
Enhance Listings by Posting Video, 3D Floor Plans & Panoramic Photos
Photos are a crucial asset to marketing a listing. But landlords can further step up their photo game with panoramas and wide angle shots. Many of the latest generation smartphones have similar features built in to their cameras. Additionally, there's a wide array of smartphone accessories and apps that enhance photos taken on slightly older phones. Agents can use this time to get comfortable with posting walkthrough videos to Youtube. It's easy to share these videos directly on their Domu listings by adding the link in the listing setup form.
If a walkthrough video doesn't have fancy opening credits or high production value, that's fine. Don't sweat the details. But DO try to follow a few basic guidelines:
- Record videos during the day when natural light is abundant.
- Introduce the unit with its street address, unit number and leasing start date. Do this at the start of the recording and once again before ending the video.
- If speaking during the video, make sure audio is enabled.
- Consider purchasing a gimbal or another tool that will steady the video while recording. Shaky videos can make viewers nauseous!
- If it's too challenging to smoothly record while walking through, try standing in one corner of each room and slowly panning across the room to show it in full.
- Go slow and steady, don't rush through the apartment and miss any highlights that may intrigue renters.
Should Landlords & Agents Continue Hosting Virtual or Self-Guided Apartment Tours?
Landlords and agents have been quick to adopt another method of showcasing vacant apartments that complies with social distancing recommendations, and that’s the self-guided apartment tour. This method involves a bit more planning by brokers or property managers, but self-guided tours present a number of efficiencies once up and running.
Hypothetically speaking, say that a one bedroom apartment in a 100-unit building will be available starting August 1. The apartment's currently occupied, but the tenants aren’t comfortable with future renters arriving for in-person tours and they prefer the landlord doesn’t enter the apartment for a video tour, either. Landlords can pick out a vacant apartment in the building that has the same floor plan and use that vacant unit as a substitute for the apartment that will soon be available to rent. Renters who are interested in the soon-to-be-vacant unit can check in remotely, help themselves to touring the empty “lookalike” apartment, and then leave of their own accord once they’re finished -- no contact required! Self-guided tours are without a doubt one of the most sanitary (and therefore safest) methods to conduct apartment tours in the age of COVID-19. Landlords who implement the self-guided tour method should still allow enough time in between showings to clean and disinfect the apartment.
Apartment Lease Signed? Great, Now Follow Up With Tenants Using Technology
Landlords can use digital collaboration software to set up a checklist of move-in items and communicate with tenants about their new apartment after the lease is signed. Think of items or hardware in the apartment that may need troubleshooting down the road, e.g. smoke detectors, wireless routers, electric panels, etc. Of course, some apartments come with more baggage than others, specifically furnished apartments or subleases. Some apartment sublets have used project management software like Basecamp or Trello to set up a digital checklist for renters who are going to take over the apartment lease, and in this virtual environment they can set up a step-by-step guide for everything from lighting the stove to calling the cable company.