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Remote viewings are not a new concept. In fact, they have long been used in other industries, such as insurance where it allows loss adjusters to carry out inspections without the need for personal attendance. 360-degree virtual tours are already very familiar to us, so it’s not surprising that landlords and letting agents are now making the most of virtual technology to render the letting process even quicker and easier.

But just because something is quick and easy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing to do. So when viewing properties to rent virtually, how do you know you’ve made the right choice? 

Virtual property viewings are the inevitable technological next step in securing a rental in today’s modern, fast paced market

The lockdown which accompanied the Covid pandemic accelerated the adoption of the technology, since people still needed to take out new tenancies whatever the public health situation. At the height of the UK’s lockdown, it was actively encouraged under government guidelines. But with or without the effects of the virus, it was only a matter of time before virtual viewings became commonplace.

But how effective are they in enabling potential tenants to assess the properties they are considering making their home? How does the mechanism work, what are its advantages and disadvantages, and how can a renter get the most out of the virtual experience?

Estate agents have used photography in their marketing for decades and it is no secret that photographers are briefed to provide the best possible angles to create the right impression. Taking photos on the sunniest days, using lenses to increase the sense of space, employing proptech to digitally enhance the pictures or remove unsightly blemishes, even working with filters to adjust the tones of walls and flooring are just some of the techniques employed.

They’re not necessarily dishonest but they’re certainly selective and can provide a false impression of the property especially if only viewed virtually. 

The big difference is that in the days before video technology, an in-person visit inspired by artistic and pleasing photos might actually have led to a feeling of disappointment when a prospective tenant finally got to see the property. It’s possible that the premium photography might even have been counterproductive by inflating expectations. But no one at that point signed the tenancy agreement before viewing the property themselves.

But times have changed

Most of us are familiar with the virtual tours offered by hotels, holiday resorts and the like. Landlords and letting agents have seen the benefits of video tours and have taken and applied them to residential properties. Many have been using these for quite some time now, but prospective tenants need to be very careful, especially if making the final decision on whether to rent based solely on what is often a very selective view of the rental.

For one thing, virtual tours can be expensive to make so using the highest quality solutions will generally only make financial sense for high-end properties. In the wider market, the videos are more likely to be amateur productions, filmed by the landlord or agent.

Quality aside, there is always the problem of disclosure. Almost certainly you’re being given the most flattering presentation of the property which is unlikely to show you the peeling paper behind the door, the worn out carpet, old and draughty windows, creaking doors, or the drip, drip, drip of leaking pipes or taps. 

There is also no guarantee that the furniture you see in the tour will be what’s waiting for you in the property – it may be rented or digitally added in order to create a representation of how the property may look with your own furniture in place but again expectations need to be set by the agent / landlord to avoid awkward conversations when the property is not exactly as expected. 

You’ll also have no way of telling if there are any musty or other unpleasant smells. No sense as to how warm or cold it is. Even noise pollution from traffic, neighbours, trains or planes can be skilfully circumvented or eliminated from the video. 

And of course, there is no guarantee that you will be shown the property in the wider context of the neighbourhood, which would be much easier to judge on a physical visit.

Virtual viewings conducted live are infinitely preferable since they can be at least partially directed by the viewer

The advantage of a live session is that a renter can ask the landlord or agent questions about aspects of the property, and request closer views and second or even third looks. This is clearly a far more flexible method than pre-recorded videos or even the immersive 3D models created by some agents.

It gives the tenant much more control. It’s the second-best option to a personal visit as it happens in real-time and allows you to see what and where you want rather than having to accept the view offered. 

Any viewing that is not live is far from perfect but within current limitations, it is a reasonable alternative especially when trying to narrow down options without the cost of any traveling it may involve to visit the prospective new home.

However, the key point to remember is…

The tenancy is a contract and as such, a contract contains both explicit and implied terms. If a would-be-renter has not visited in person there is a much higher risk that discrepancies will occur between what has apparently been promised and what is actually delivered.

This can be a very imprecise area of law and depends on contractual specifics as well as what may be interpreted or read into the contract, such as general standards of maintenance and fitness for human habitation

If a virtual viewing makes clear representations regarding the condition and supply of fixtures, fittings and furnishings which then turn out to be false, then the landlord may be held liable for misrepresentation. This is potentially as serious as a breach of explicit terms.

However, if the renter has made assumptions on their own judgment of the viewing without express prompting, then the error is their own. There is no simple solution to these situations. It may be in the interest of both parties to use video tours to ensure the survival of the contract but this may require flexibility and negotiation and a lot of crossed fingers!

Should a tenant decide to put down a holding deposit on the basis of such a viewing, they will usually have 7 days before the tenancy must be signed in which they may withdraw without losing their monies but it is always best to check the details before handing over the holding deposit. Unless it is completely impossible, would-be tenants are well advised to arrange a visit to the property during this grace period for peace of mind and the certainty it will bring.

Virtual viewing apps

WhatsApp, Facetime and Zoom are the most popular vehicles for virtual viewings however these types of do-it-yourself tours are less than secure and the platforms not necessarily designed to be used in the way they are employed during a virtual viewing, so breaches of GDPR are possible.

A Matterport user fell foul of this when completing a 3D walkthrough of an occupied property that showed personal items and information for literally thousands of viewers to see. This is why a virtual tour directed by either the current owner, resident tenant or an experienced professional is vital as is the information that is provided to prospective tenants and owners.

Trading Standards is currently working on guidance which is due out in the near future with the Property Redress Scheme, part of the steering group working on Improving Material Information in Property Listings. Major property portals, trade bodies and civil servants, are all involved to help produce and shape the guidance for what is advertised and displayed for properties online.

Sean Hooker, Head of Redress at the Property Redress Scheme, recently commented, 

“Virtual viewings have several great benefits such as helping to filter out customers who aren’t sure the property is right for them; minimising unnecessary disruption to current tenants; allowing potential tenants to view properties at a time convenient to them; and eliminating travel time for both themselves and the agent.

“However, caution should be exercised, especially when the tenant is at the stage of signing on the dotted line, paying a holding deposit or rent in advance. Tenancy agreements are consumer contracts and the consumer protection regulations, give tenants security against mis-selling, misleading actions, and omissions.”

Do your research

When looking to view a property virtually, make sure that the agent is reputable, signed up to a property redress scheme and is a current member of a recognised Client Money Protection scheme (CMP).

Ask the agent the process for viewing the property, request the details. Ask what is included in the rental in regards to fixtures and furniture. Find out when the EICR was completed and ask for a copy, is there a current Gas Safety certificate?

If viewing the property virtually via the landlord, ask for their name, check that the property they are renting out is in fact theirs. You can do this by doing a search on the Governments Land Registry site.

And if you are interested in the property and want to put a holding deposit down, make sure you understand what happens if you or the landlord decide not to proceed as you may lose the deposit. And above all else; don’t sign an agreement until you’ve seen the property, walked the area and are sure this is the rental property for you.

Inventory Base Live and Remote Inspections software

Inventory Base is a specialist provider of property inventory software including live and self service inspection options and property management software.

With extensive experience in creating video solutions for the private rental market, why not talk to us to find out how the new technology can help make the letting experience convenient, efficient, safe and above all, reliable.

An audio version of this blog can be listened to on our channel – The Inventory Professional Podcast

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