Like many industries, residential construction had to quickly pivot and get creative when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. An industry built on in-person visits and on-site tours had to shift quickly to online services and virtual walk-throughs.
But the technology was already there—and many building companies have been using it for years. Much of the home-building process, from touring models to signing contracts to choosing products, can be done via web apps and online platforms in conjunction with face-to-face meetings. And as the early adopters already knew, these tools offer efficiencies and benefits with or without the need for social distancing.
- Nanette Overly, vice president of sales, Epcon Communities
How Builders Benefit from Virtual Home Sales Centers
A lot of builders think buyers come into the sales office first, but many don’t, notes Dennis Webb, vice president of operations for Tempe, Ariz.-based Fulton Homes, which has been using virtual tools for 15 years. Most buyers now conduct initial searches online. “In many cases, the buyer is seeking to eliminate builders,” Webb says. “If you don’t have the right information on your website … they’ll skip you.”
An April 2020 survey by Realtor.com found virtual tours to be the leading technology home shoppers find most helpful. And for buyers moving from other parts of the country, access to online tours and floor plans can help them make a purchase from afar and avoid risking losing a home site they love.
But the pandemic has certainly driven home a more urgent need for builders to embrace technology. And having these virtual home sales tools in place allowed many to adapt quickly to changing rules, and comfort levels, in their area.
“We’ve had several customers go start to finish and never set foot in the sales center, as a result of the pandemic,” says Nanette Overly, vice president of sales for Epcon Communities, based in Dublin, Ohio.
Epcon relies on Matterport 3-D tours early in the sales process, then connects buyers to Envision, a virtual design tool from BDX, about three weeks before their design consultation appointment. The builder has been using Envision for three years, but has incorporated Zoom meetings for some design appointments since the start of the pandemic. In mid-July, a buyer purchased a home without setting foot in the state.
Last fall, Brookfield Residential in Toronto began implementing Roomored’s Design Online, in which buyers can use a 3-D virtual platform to browse and make product selections. With the onset of COVID-19, they developed a link so buyers could access the tools at home prior to appointments. It’s allowed for more informed decision-making, says Sheila Moffat, director of Brookfield’s Inspiration Studio in Toronto.
Brookfield’s SoCal office had a similar experience, speeding up an already-underway process of implementing Roomored’s systems at The Groves Whittier in Los Angeles. Potential buyers can take 3-D walk-throughs of the homes online while interacting with different finishes. Once the contract is signed, buyers can log in to select options. For the Bayberry model, the builder offers curated packages; for Stella, buyers start with nine Inspired Design packages and can customize from there, extending the opportunity.
“Buyers appreciate the ability to visualize the design and finishes, and that helps them to get that realistic vision,” says Linda Ryberg, director of design for Brookfield Residential SoCal. “It helps them make better informed decisions all in the comfort of their own home.”
How Virtual Home Sales Centers Work
For prospective buyers, the Roomored Sales tool offers a full 3-D tour with the opportunity to play around with product and color options. This not only helps build interest and excitement, but the virtual homebuilding sales team can market floor plans that haven’t been built yet or show layout options not seen in the model.
Once the contract is signed, home buyers can use the Design Online tool to browse and select from their home’s product options. “We’re effectively virtualizing the design center experience,” says Chan Walker, COO & Partner at Roomored. The company’s unique approach 3D renders the design in the cloud, so as buyers move around and click on products, they see their selections in real time and can view those choices from different areas of the room.
Once they’ve made decisions, the buyer can save multiple designs and share them with friends and family to get feedback, along with sharing them with the builder’s design team.
Fulton Homes leverages the BDX Envision Online Design Center to allow buyers to preview products and select structural elements and layout options during the virtual home sales process; then the buyer spends about three weeks at home browsing and selecting products.
Fulton’s program also includes pricing for the options, which helps buyers make more confident decisions, Webb says. Once they’ve narrowed their choices, they then meet with a design team member in person or via video conference.
“The buyers love the program,” Webb says. “Each buyer, before their Design Center appointment, is spending seven-and-a-half hours on the program, on average; 98 percent of our buyers use it.”
Fulton Homes takes things a step further by integrating the design tools with other behind-the scenes systems. When final product decisions are made in Envision, those choices automatically go into the company’s FAST Builder Management System from Constellation. The entire team, from the designers to the project managers and contractors, can see the product selections at any time, including installation instructions.