27 March 2020

Lights, camera, auction! Property industry zooms into virtual era amid virus fallout

| Ian Bushnell
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Not happening: the ban on public auctions and open houses has agents and the property industry embracing technology and going old-school. Photo: File.

Canberra’s real estate and property industry is harking back to older practices while embracing the new as it adapts to the evolving business environment imposed by coronavirus.

With on-site auctions and open houses off the menu, agencies are now offering personal home inspections, and adopting a range of digital tools to keep their businesses operating and enable customers to view, buy and sell property without stepping foot inside the door.

Smart companies have already been embracing technology to stay game-fit in the competitive Canberra market but the restrictions now in force make it imperative to provide teleconferencing, facetime, virtual walk-throughs and auctions, and video services.

While companies are realistic about the inevitable hit to the industry, they remain open for business and have faith in the resilience of the capital region’s real estate market, based as it is on a strong public sector and related employment base.

Craig Chapman

McGrath Estate Agents principal Craig Chapman: The business can operate completely virtually. Photo: McGrath Real Estate.

McGrath Estate Agents principal Craig Chapman says his business can operate completely virtually using videoconferencing software such as Zoom to communicate with the team, customers and clients.

As long as the industry does not lose the human touch ”it’s a way for us to engage quickly, honestly and transparently in an efficient way”.

Three-quarters of the firm’s 45-strong team are working from home, while a skeleton staff prepares for a fully remote operation.

McGrath has started virtual auctions using the tried and tested Auction Now platform, which has run 10,000 auctions over the past 36 months. McGrath has eight listed for auction this weekend in Canberra.

Auction Now allows for start-to-finish purchases, with on-the-spot property exchange, the capture of all identification documents and reserve letters that pertain to the administrative compliance of a public auction.

The next piece of the puzzle will be ACT Government coming on board with online settlement and conveyancing.

“For us as agents to get and secure a seller and unconditional purchase, that’s absolutely been enhanced through this platform,” Mr Chapman says.

For browsers and buyers, McGrath is equipped with its own media team to capture virtual photography tours, walk-throughs, floor plans and virtual inspections via suitably protected staff.

Physical inspections will be by appointment only and limited to just one person.

“It really takes us back to old school real estate, dealing with people one-on-one on a personal basis, so I actually encourage and welcome some of this change,” Mr Chapman says.

But the agent will vet clients before admitting them, and be the one to open the door, a cupboard or drawer.

“We need to be super vigilant with hygiene and touching other people’s property and supervising this in other people’s property.”

Mr Chapman says the firm is gearing for harder times over the next three to six months and then a recovery period of between six and 12 months.

But there will still be opportunities and a need to buy and sell property, particularly with a volatile sharemarket and low-interest rates.

“As long as the banks keep lending flowing it’s still cheaper to buy a home than it is to rent one in most brackets,” Mr Chapman says.

McIntyre Property is heading back to a more traditional selling path, stepping away from auctions for the time being and conducting inspections by appointment, depending on the vendor.

But it’s also adapting as staff work from home and home visits may not be possible.

Colin McIntyre: “We’re in the best place [in Australia] to be dealing with this”. Photo: File.

Agent Colin McIntyre prefers face-to-face meetings and conversation but video walk-throughs, facetime and Zoom chats for online appraisals are now the way forward.

The property management and sales teams are working from home to avoid unnecessary contact so Zoom is coming into its own.

Any property inspection comes with hand wash and a COVID-19 checklist before crossing the threshold to ease vendor concerns.

Mr McIntyre is still seeing demand in the market and those who need to will still sell but he expects others to wait until the end of the year and listings to decline.

The strong Canberra market and jobs base means “we’re in the best place [in Australia] to be dealing with this”.

Both Mr Chapman and Mr McIntyre stressed they were taking an empathetic and compassionate approach to tenants as the Federal Government weighs a package for the commercial and private rental sectors.

If ever a sector was set up to keep operating in the current circumstances, it’s the apartment industry, where buying off the plan is de rigeur.

One City Hill

Morris Property Group’s One City Hill project in the city is a perfect vehicle for virtual sales. Image: MPG.

Morris Property Group sales and marketing director Slade Minson says the company is moving as much material online as possible, and setting up virtual tours of all properties and displays.

He says all MPG websites are being adapted to provide a good VR property experience.

The sales display offices for projects like One City Hill are open but operating by appointment only under hygiene and social distancing rules, as well as a visitor register needing to be signed so people can be traced if necessary.

On the construction side, the One City Hill excavation on Section 100 is continuing and Park Avenue opposite Crowne Plaza is well underway with no delays. In May, the Renaissance Manuka project is expected to start.

Village Building Company CEO and ACT Property Council president Travis Doherty says his company, and the industry in general, was adapting fast to the new environment, balancing a business as usual approach with the new rules.

Travis Doherty

Property Council president Travis Doherty: ”The property sector is going to play a massive role in leading the recovery.” Photo: File.

“We’re focusing on the health of the business and our people,” he says.

That means teleconferencing, upping the focus on social distancing and hygiene, making sales office visits appointment only and moving material and functions online.

Mr Doherty says there have been challenges as agencies transition but industry engagement with government had been very positive.

He is keen to see the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal continue to function so it can look at matters ”critical to the long term sustainability of the economy”.

“The reality is the property sector is going to play a massive role in leading the recovery,” he says.

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Capital Retro10:26 am 29 Mar 20

Anyone know why the Canberra Times didn’t publish yesterday’s auction results today?

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