Virtual Reality: Auctioneers’ new world in time of coronavirus

As Covid-19 plays havoc with almost every aspect of life, auctioneers have joined those forced into creative thinking to save their business, writes Catherine Shanahan
Virtual Reality: Auctioneers’ new world in time of coronavirus
Auctioneers have had to join the legions forced into creative thinking to save their business, while all the time hoping that this pandemic is shortlived and not a shock of the magnitude that caused the property market to crash in 2008. File picture.

Right about now the property market should be heating up nicely with the arrival of the auctioneer’s favourite season.

Ordinarily, springtime means extended daylight hours, ergo more viewings. Prospective buyers, not yet distracted by summer holidays, seize the opportunity to suss out potential homes when natural light levels are good, making it easier to determine if the package on offer tallies with what it says in the brochure.

Moreover, gardens are coming to life, adding to the property’s overall attractiveness because in this game looks definitely matter.

This spring, things are different. Overnight auctioneers’ reality has become, well, virtual.

As Covid-19 plays havoc with almost every sector imaginable, auctioneers have had to join the legions forced into creative thinking to save their business, while all the time hoping that this pandemic is shortlived and not a shock of the magnitude that caused the property market to crash in 2008.

The Irish Examiner spoke to a number of auctioneers in Cork city and county, and while they remain upbeat, all have abandoned open viewings.

This is where, traditionally, groups of strangers with an interest in the property turn up at an appointed time for a walk-through of the house, guided by the auctioneer.

This is impossible in the current circumstances, so instead of the walk-through, we now have virtual tours.

In this respect, Sherry Ftizgerald say they are well set up, because, as managing director in Cork, Sheila O’Flynn points out, they’ve invested a lot in technology in the last five years.

Ann O’Mahony, the firm’s director of residential in Cork, says the mood is currently positive and their clients “are delighted we are carrying on, albeit in a different way”.

A different way means offices are closed and everyone is working remotely but available over the phone or by email. It means prospective buyers are given a virtual tour of the homes they are interested in. Market appraisals are also virtual.

It’s not all doom and gloom. A property that came in a week ago generated an offer following its first virtual viewing, Ms O’Mahony says. Moreover, sales expected to close this month were on target to close.

And she received a call from a potential client in Cork city this week who wants to put their house on the market.

Sherry Fitzgerald has taken “a good bank of deposits” since its doors closed on March 16 “and we were pleasantly surprised”, Ms O’Mahony adds.

“Our attitude is to advise clients to carry on,” she says.

For those with mortgage approval and whose public sector jobs mean they are protected from unemployment, there was no reason not to proceed.

Carrigaline-based Michael Pigott says a client of his working in childcare has had her mortgage approval put on hold because the sector she’s in is at the mercy of Covid-19 and childcare facilities have closed.

However he agrees those in the public sector and working for the big multinationals, such as pharma and IT, are largely protected.

“I wouldn’t be advising people to pull out [of house sales] if their jobs haven’t been affected,” Mr Pigott says.

“When you are in the position to have a mortgage it would be a pity to stay renting, especially if you have mortgage approval and a job. I’ve had buyers ringing me to make sure sellers aren’t hesitating,” Mr Pigott says.

Johanna Murphy of Johanna Murphy & Son Estate Agents says she is busy with online viewings via Zoom and has sold a few homes.

She says despite Covid-19, “it’s never been a better time to buy, as prices are fair, good value and interest rates have never been so low.

“This is just a blip, and as a country we are managing and responding as is necessary.”

At Savills, associate director residential Michael O’Donovan says they are making maximum use of social media, particularly Instagram, as well as virtual viewings.

A number of new developments are available online for a video walk-through. They include Castle Heights in Carrigaline. Aylesbury in Ballintemple, Heathfield in Ballincollig and Altus, Sunday’s Well.

Savills are continuing to take booking deposits “and sales are still happening”.

“And for anyone looking to get a house valued, we can do a certain amount of work from Google and our own database register. We can do it from a comparable basis, it’s fairly straightforward if the house is in an estate, so we are able to give high level advice,” Mr O’Donovan says.

They can also advise people how to get ready for viewings once the pandemic has spun itself out.

Kevin Barry of Barry Auctioneers says he has stopped viewings but they have people “lined up to see houses when this dies down”. He remains busy with valuations.

Adrianna Hegarty of Hegarty Properties says potential vendors should focus on readying their homes for sale post-pandemic. She is skeptical of the value of virtual tours based on her own experience.

A woman returning to Ireland from the Caribbean put an offer on a house and was hellbent on buying it, bringing various relations to see it. Her husband returned at a later stage before the sale was closed. He had taken a virtual tour and was also in favour of buying. However when he saw the home physically he changed his mind.

“People are not going to put in an offer based on a virtual tour. They want to stand in the house and get a feel for it,” she says.

Patricia Stokes, residential manager and divisional director for Lisney, says they are “100% virtual on all listed properties, with virtual tours on and”.

“We are offering to do a Facetime walk-through, depending on the owner’s instructions,” she says.

They are also doing virtual valuations, given interim valuations pending full assessments at the end of the crisis. Ms Stokes says the first-time buyers market remains strong and some buyers want to progress the purchase if they have mortgage approval.

“Of course those whose jobs are gone temporarily won’t make a decision, but we have a strong employment base in Cork and the public sector isn’t affected so they are clearly looking at the fact that mortgage repayments are not as high as rent if they go ahead.”

In all, auctioneers are hoping this is more of a ‘pause” than a halt to the property market.

As Marian Finnegan, economist and head of residential with SherryFitzgerald, says “some people are nervous, but many are just getting on with life”.

“However, it is really too early to ascertain the impact of these exceptional events on the market. There will inevitably be a time of uncertainty but once the virus is under control then hopefully normal activity will re-emerge."

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