This spring, Amol Shah and his husband Jens Audenaert were intrigued by an Upper East Side apartment they saw online, so they did what any prospective buyers would do: They took a tour.
Shah, 33, who works in ad sales at Facebook, and Audenaert, 37, a Fortune 500 company exec, started on the street just outside the building, called Vitre.
The couple moved into the lobby, where they took a moment to examine the space’s details and finishes. After that, they went upstairs to a 16th-floor spread, where they gawked at the East River views and examined the closet space.
All in all, it was a typical Manhattan house hunt — except that the building they were checking out didn’t exist. Shah and Audenaert was on a virtual reality tour cooked up by Vitre’s sales team to help sell a development that was at the time — as Shah put it — “just a hole in the ground.”
Most often associated with gaming, virtual reality, or VR, is also cropping up in the world of real estate. The technology is giving developers and marketers a more immersive way to push their in-progress product: residential properties.
Builders and brokers have long used tools like renderings and model apartments to drive pre-construction sales. But VR takes things a step further, says Stephen McArdle of Brown Harris Stevens, which is repping the 48-unit Vitre at 302 E. 96th St. (with asking prices from $955,000 for a one-bedroom to $4.3 million for a three-bedroom penthouse).
Buyers “get an opportunity to go into the space and really get a sense of what it looks like,” he says. “They get a sense of the ceiling heights, the views. They are able to walk through the units as they really are.”
For Shah, the VR experience was a game changer. “When you’re signing the contract, your lawyer tells you that the most important thing is the offering plan, which will tell you everything that is actually going to be delivered at the end of construction,” he says. “But the reality is, a lot of real estate is emotional. [With VR], you can actually walk around the unit and take into account the floor plan and views — and stuff you wouldn’t be able to see in any sales center mock-up or drawing.”
The couple ended up purchasing a two-bedroom, two-bathroom penthouse, which will be ready in the second half of 2018. The starting price for that type of unit is $2 million.
VR similarly helped seal the deal for Anthony Sottile and his wife Sharmaine, buyers of a two-bedroom at K. Hovnanian’s West New York 278-unit condo development on the Hudson River (from $600,000 for a one-bedroom to $6 million for a three-bedroom). The developer set up VR tours of the project, called Nine on the Hudson, using Google’s simple Cardboard viewer, which it also included in gift bags given to interested buyers.
The virtual experience soothed the Sottiles’ first-time home-buying jitters. “We are probably over-researching and a little nervous about everything, especially buying something that is new construction, where we can’t actually see or feel [it],” says Sottile, 33, who works in software. For him and 27-year-old financial services employee Sharmaine, the VR tour “eased concerns to an extent. We could get a feel for what the living room size was, get a feel for the kitchen, say, ‘Oh, that’s what the den looks like to the left of the kitchen, maybe we would want to put something there.’ ”
The couple’s unit type starts at $890,000; they’re planning to move in the spring when the building is complete.
K. Hovnanian has found using virtual reality tours so effective that the developer launched a dedicated team of seven people within the company to build them for its projects nationwide.
“We have around 200 developments across the country right now, and I would say maybe 150 of them have [VR tours],” says Alexander Hovnanian, area president for K. Hovnanian at Port Imperial Urban Renewal VI. He adds that he and his father, CEO Ara Hovnanian, first entertained the idea about three years ago — after seeing a cousin playing a video game while donning a Samsung Gear VR headset.
“We were like, ‘Wouldn’t that be nifty to give to our customers?’ ” Alexander Hovnanian says. “You’re on a construction site in hard hats and you’re selling a $2.5 million condo, and you have to have them connect with that product. And that is exactly what [VR] accomplishes.”
Developer F&T Group uses Samsung headsets to extoll the benefits of Tangram, its 1.2 million-square-foot mixed-use project in Flushing, Queens. The 3-D experience includes walk-throughs of one of the 317-unit development’s duplex penthouses as well as a retail atrium that F&T’s Helen Lee says is Tangram’s centerpiece. (Pricing isn’t yet available for the condos.)
“A person can stand in the middle” of the atrium, Lee adds, “under this beautiful skylight with natural light flowing in, and experience it in 360 degrees with the virtual reality.”
It’s not just a flashy, convincing way to sell units in buildings before they’re finished. Brokers are also using VR to target far-flung clients — given the appetite the global elite has demonstrated for New York City real estate.
“You could have a buyer anywhere — in the Hamptons or California or Colorado or London — and they can receive a link, put on their Google Cardboard, and then be right in the middle of the room or the house,” says Douglas Elliman broker Paul Hyun. He has marshaled VR techniques for several on-the-market units, including a six-bedroom penthouse at 1 Plaza St. West in Park Slope he’s currently selling for $3.5 million with Scott Klein, also of Elliman.
“Market price is driven by demand, and to get maximum demand you have to hit the maximum market,” Hyun says. “So for [potential buyers] to be able to access [an apartment tour] from anywhere is huge.”
The 1 Plaza St. West tour, Hyun adds, isn’t so much virtual as “augmented reality”; it presents the space, which is being sold empty, as it might look after it’s furnished.
Back in Flushing, at the 750-unit the Grand at Sky View Parc condo development (from $728,000 for studios to $2.6 million for three-bedrooms), VR tours have come in handy for giving overseas parents a look at apartments their kids — who live stateside — are considering, says David Brickman, a vice president at developer Onex Real Estate Partners.
The son or daughter “can send them a VR link, and they can look at it,” Brickman explains. “Those are situations where we found it was really helpful to have that technology.”
Across the board, VR experiences can range from a (relatively) simple Google Cardboard trip through a handful of apartment rooms to an in-depth 3-D excursion that leads the user through multiple layouts and building common spaces.
At the Renzo Piano-designed 565 Broome condo development in Hudson Square, west of Soho, VR tours using Samsung Gear and Google Cardboard let potential buyers check out luxurious common spaces — including the high-ceilinged library and swimming pool — as well as several of the project’s 115 units (from $970,000 for a studio to $14.5 million for a three-bedroom).
Generally speaking, the more extensive the tour, the higher the cost. At 1 Plaza St. West, Klein says creating the VR tour took up $6,000, a sizable chunk of that unit’s marketing budget. Onex’s Brickman puts the price of Sky View Parc’s tour at six figures, but adds that it doesn’t make up a particularly large portion of the building’s overall advertising expenditures.
Of course, no tour can compensate for a building with fundamental flaws like poor design or an unappealing location, according to Sha Dinour, partner at Hope Street Capital. The developer’s 38-unit Boerum Hill condo project, the Hendrik, is using VR for sales (with pricing from $1.1 million for a one-bedroom to $4.6 million for a four-bedroom).
“It’s a tool in our toolbox, but ultimately it’s about the product,” he says. “This doesn’t allow you to cheat.”
Wouldn’t it be cool if it did, though? If everyone could just strap on some goggles and transform walkup studios into sprawling park-side penthouses, maybe all city dwellers — not just house hunters — could tap into this technology. After all, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” But, he should have added, a New Yorker can always use more closet space.