By Richard Scheinin San Jose Mercury News.
Real estate agent Julie Ray has come of age in the red-hot housing market. But this was a first: Zooming through a $1.7 million house with her iPhone, she used its FaceTime video application to send images of the property -- including bathroom tile and a backyard lemon tree -- to the prospective buyers in Switzerland.
"They couldn't fly over on a whim to see a house that was going to be gone in three days," said Ray, who got her license five years ago and is accustomed to the bidding wars that routinely break out here. "So I would schedule a call with them, and I would FaceTime them through the house."
Time is of the essence in the Bay Area real estate game and technology is playing an ever more integral role. It's no big deal for agents to hammer out deals with absent sellers who sign off electronically from cruise ships or with Mainland Chinese buyers who surf the web for investments. It's the new normal, where "seeing" a property means taking an online video tour via an agency's 3-D walk-through program -- or via FaceTime.
And, in case you were wondering: Ray's clients -- Kristin and Eric Olson, who moved for two years to Basel, Switzerland, where Eric had a job in biotech -- bought the house in Redwood City's Mount Carmel neighborhood for nearly $2.1 million. That was close to $400,000 above the listing price.
"It's obviously a lot of money to plop down for a place you've never set foot in," said Eric Olson. "But we had a lot of confidence in Julie. We knew the neighborhood" -- he and Kristin had lived there with their two daughters before moving overseas -- "and the FaceTime images assured us that we were going to get comparative value for what we were paying."
Kristin Olson recalled the details: "I'd say to Julie, 'Wait! Back up! Can I see that tile on the kitchen counter? Better angle!' A lot of houses have virtual tours, but with a virtual tour you're kind of a passive viewer. With this, it really was like we were with her. The only thing we couldn't do was smell the house."
Redfin has rolled out its own 3D Walkthrough online tours of all its Bay Area properties, using high-resolution interactive technology: "It's just like in the video games: Look down, look up, turn around and just go round and round the whole house. It's really cool," said Bita Salamat, an agent in the East Bay. "You can actually stand" -- virtually -- "in front of the cabinets of the kitchen area, tilt it upwards and see what the ceiling looks like."
Last month, a couple in Shanghai looking for an investment used the online feature to tour a property in San Leandro: "It was under $500,000, three bedrooms, two baths, townhouse style," Salamat recalled, "perfect for investors because it's close to the San Mateo Bridge -- easy for commuting to Silicon Valley. And they wanted the house so bad that they were willing to do whatever to get it." They made a cash offer, but alas, their efforts didn't pay off in the end, because "we had another cash offer for more money," Salamat noted.
Abby Wentworth, also a Redfin agent, used the 3D Walkthrough to help turn a deal last week on a $425,000 condo in Oakland's Pill Hill neighborhood. Its tenants nixed showings on a Monday and a Tuesday, but okayed a Wednesday showing -- when the prospective buyer had to leave town. To break the deadlock, Wentworth suggested that the buyer take a virtual tour, and she did. Especially taken with a reading nook outside the master bedroom, the buyer decided it was worth her time to squeeze in the Wednesday showing.
"That was two days ago," Wentworth said. "She made an offer and we've accepted it."
It's only in the last few years that agencies have moved beyond static online images of properties to more sophisticated features. Some agencies now use drone photography for aerial and distance shots, especially for homes on hills and hillsides, said Billy McNair, a Peninsula broker associate with Coldwell Banker whose background is in marketing and tech startups.
"Guys are coming in with the harness stabilizers and video cinematography (to create virtual tours) that give a true representation of what the property is about," he said.
Amid frenzied bidding in a constricted market -- Ray recalls 48 offers on a house in Redwood City a few weeks ago -- high-tech touring and display features are becoming a necessity, especially for high-end deals. Everything is handled upfront by agents and buyers, who can read disclosure documents online and move toward making non-contingent offers.
"I've done it with an iPad. I've done it with a laptop," said Elaine White, a broker associate with Coldwell Banker in Menlo Park. "I sold a house last year with multiple offers from my hotel room in Alaska."
Ticking off anecdotes, she continued: "I sold a house in Sunnyvale last year where my client was in Russia on a cruise ship. There were seven offers on his property. We presented the information to the client over the phone, he decided which offer he wanted to accept, we emailed it to him, he signed it on DocuSign" -- an electronic signature technology -- "and we sold his house."
The seller was Wayne Hathaway, a retired tech engineer and entrepreneur now living in Texas, who bought the modest Bahl Patio Home in the early '70s for $38,000 and sold it for $1.3 million: "It's about a mile from Apple," he explained. "That tells you what's happened to Silicon Valley."
Long-distance deal-making can be "a little nerve-wracking. There's a lot of pressure," said Ray, who works for Coldwell Banker on the Peninsula and showed the Olsons half a dozen or so houses via FaceTime last year.
"It takes a certain type of buyer to do it," she said, acknowledging the risks of buying sight-unseen, "to really let go of the need to walk through it 50 times, checking each bathroom. I have clients who walk through a house turning on every light and turning on every faucet. They are different ends of the buyer-client spectrum."
About a year ago, broker associate Arthur Sharif, who sells luxury properties for Sotheby's International Realty in Silicon Valley, walked into his own FaceTime deal: "What I had was a family from Ireland and basically all they did was send a friend over with an iPhone. And the guy walks through the house with the iPhone, showing them the house, and the people never came to visit it. And the house was just short of $4 million in Los Altos Hills, and they bought it, never having set foot on the property.
"Technology is ruling the day."