Virtual tours would make a great addition to any builder's Web site. The question is: What type should you use?

By Gail Dutton

Don't expect virtual tours to replace model homes. Models, which convey a sense of quality to buyers, will probably always reign supreme, But virtual tours have their place as a complementary tool. In fact, offering virtual tours at your sales office or on your Web site can reduce the number of plans you need to build models for and boost the sales of un-modeled floor plans.

Virtual tours come in two broad flavors: three-dimensional, digital renderings made from floor plans, and videos of existing models. Each has a different purpose.

This digital rendering from the Boston-based 3D Visualization show is nearly realistic as a photograph.

Digital tours

Rendered tours are used to sell un-modeled plans. They generally include minimal furnishings and landscaping, and exterior photos can be blended into them. For example, virtual tours of Diamond Ridge, a 15-unit Meeker Cos. development in Dana Point, Calif., put renderings into the real landscape. Viewers see the virtual models inside and out, the housing development bordering the property, in the more distant background, Interstate 5, and a bit of smog at the base of the mountains. Interior shots include basic furniture and some actual scenes out the windows.

Focus 360, a leading developer of rendered tours based in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., designs Meeker's tours so viewers can add or remove optional rooms or furniture with a single mouse click. Color schemes--such as cherry vs. maple cabinets, or black granite vs. verde granite countertops--can be changed the same way.

Rendered tours can be quite effective. For instance, they've made two of the five un-modeled plans at Del Webb's Anthem Golf & Country Club near Phoenix top sellers, according to Jacque Pappas-Petroulakis, director of public affairs. Other builders echo that. "Tours developed from plans are getting so good that it's hard to tell the difference between them and real models," says Eric Elder, senior vice president of marketing and i-strategy for the Calabasas, Calif.­based Ryland Homes.

This October, K. Hovnanian Cos. of California, in Irvine, was to launch a virtual tour for a development of about 100 executive homes in Encinitas, Calif. "We have nine plans with 30 elevations," notes Maggie McIntee, director of marketing. Those plans, however, include additions to basic plans--such as optional rooms over a garage or the addition of a second floor. Virtual tours let people see all the way around and let them see more than they could with floor plans alone.

The technology is often used to supplement actual models. "We're building four models and including five virtual tours," McIntee says. "It's important to see the quality of the homes." Elder agrees. "People don't need to see the exact floor plans anymore, but they need to feel the quality and get a sense of the product."

Video tours

Video tours of actual models--which usually include 360 degree views of specific rooms--are what potential buyers would see if they walked through a decorated, furnished model with a video camera. They have a different purpose than rendered tour plans. Instead of selling un-built models, they let potential buyers pre-qualify properties before coming on site. Video tours also help builders cross-sell their communities and draw buyers from a wider geographical area. According to Stefan Markowitz, president of MBK Homes in Irvine, video tours "help refresh the experience." After looking at many different homes and many different builders, buyers may forget what features were in what home. A video tour on a Web site can help them remember.

Video tours of completed homes, like this one at the Atlanta-area SummerGrove development, help out-of-town buyers make buying decisions.

Video tours of modeled homes "show what we offer in different parts of our market and let us show the entire product catalog on site," explains Peter Orser, executive vice president of Quadrant Homes in Bellevue, Wash. They can also be used with rendered tours: Quadrant buyers can view actual models, then look at a rendered version of an un-built model.

At SummerGrove, a mid-to-upper level Pathway Communities development south of Atlanta, video tours are proving helpful in corporate relocation. "We use them extensively to attract relocation buyers, who are more Web-savvy," explains Dan Camp, vice president and general manager for Pathway in Peachtree City, Ga. Often, these buyers use the Web to screen developments and houses. "In numerous cases, one spouse is house-hunting alone. Seeing the virtual tour--in this case, an online video tour of a model--has led some buyers to sign a purchase contract on the spot," he says.

Quadrant's Orser says that video tours give prospective buyers "the opportunity to choose certain models from other Quadrant communities. Buyers can take a virtual tour instead of driving to another community to see its plan modeled."

The payoff

Elder says that virtual tours have let Ryland reduce the number of models built per community from three or four to two or three. Simply reducing the number of built models by one results in a savings of $100,000 to $200,000 beyond the cost of the house. In the '80s and early '90s, un-modeled plans sold at a rate of 10 percent, compared to 50 percent for modeled plans. Virtual tours are equalizing that equation, Elder notes.

Elder says that unique visitors to Ryland's Web site are up 25 percent, an increase he credits to virtual tours. "And with virtual tours, the time spent on our Web site has increased six-fold," he adds. The users weren't all simply browsing, either. Two developments in Silicon Valley and the Bay area were completely sold using virtual tours rendered from plans. And when compared to selling from plans, virtual tours develop more realistic expectations. "Buyers are less likely to say something like, 'The ceilings are lower than I expected,'" Elder explains.

The buyers most comfortable with virtual tours are, not surprisingly, the same buyers who are most comfortable with technology. For Ryland, that generally means Silicon Valley; Austin, Texas; Denver; and Charlotte, N.C. In the Seattle area, Orser notes that "people who preview on the Internet tend to be second-time buyers who are technologically capable." For K. Hovnanian, that means "hot markets" like its Encinitas development. To expand that technology to other sites, "the development would have to be in a guaranteed market [one with ocean views, 10,000-square-foot lots with 20 feet between houses or a golf course] with a huge interest list," McIntee says. With all that going for the Encinitas development, "it feels now like we don't need other models," she says.

What to Expect

Rendered tours or model tours?


Gail Dutton is an Irvine, Calif.-­based freelance writer. She has covered new and emerging technologies for the past 20 years.