Moving during the COVID-19 pandemic? Here’s how to prepare for virtual tours and what questions to ask.

By Hannah Herrera Greenspan
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Finding a place to live is never easy. Finding a place to live in the midst of a global pandemic might seem almost impossible.

Since stay-at-home orders began, real estate agents have gotten creative by virtually showing properties to prospective buyers and renters, using recorded videos, 3D tours and live video chats to give people as clear a picture as possible without them stepping foot inside a home.

Knowing the right questions to ask during a tour and inquiring about coronavirus-prompted special terms of a deal can make it easier to come to a decision — and provide peace of mind for the most thorough of home hunters.

Nicolette Rassano, account manager with Spaces Real Estate, gives a video tour via Facetime of the common space at the Edge on Broadway development in Chicago on May 28, 2020.

Porte, a new West Loop apartment building, launched preleasing in March. Leasing agents have offered virtual tours for prospective renters and found the best questions are about things that would otherwise be clear during an in-person tour, said Ariana Rasansky, head of residential operations for The John Buck Company, Porte’s property management firm.

Details on mailboxes and packages, gym equipment, the location of trash chutes and the number of grills on the outside amenity deck are popular topics of discussion. Within the apartment itself, people ask about the view, appliances and closet sizes, and for the agent to show them the insides of kitchen drawers and cabinets, Rasansky said. A unit’s proximity to elevators and building amenities are also frequent question topics.

As the stay-at-home order progressed, agents fine-tuned the art of virtual showings, she said. In hopes of lessening the bumpiness of a recorded video, agents use a stabilizer stick to record the layout of the unit. They also add music or other customization.

“The really interesting thing about this tool is that we get notified when someone is viewing a specific apartment,” Rasansky said. “So that notification allows the agent to ask the prospective (renter) what they thought of the unit and any further questions they might have.”

In addition to these videos, Porte offers 3D features that allows people to view the unit at various angles. It also has a measuring tool for a more in-person feel.

Nicolette Rassano, an account manager with Spaces Real Estate, noted that virtual leasing has been an option locally for years, but primarily for people moving to Chicago from a different area. But the concept has become a must-have due to COVID-19.

“In the last few weeks, we’ve definitely seen an increase in virtual leases compared to April,” she said.

Currently, Rassano is leasing homes at Edge on Broadway, a 105-apartment building in Edgewater. Lasing kicked off in March, about when the stay-at-home order began. Since then, 90% of leases for that building were done virtually, she said.

Agents with Spaces Real Estate have strived to re-create an in-person experience as best they can, going so far as to discuss neighborhood attributes for out-of-towners — like a college student heading to nearby Loyola University — and map out essential spots.

“We not only did a FaceTime tour of common areas, lobbies, amenities and units, but we also used Google maps to show her the nearest grocery store,” Rassano said. “We sent pictures of a few restaurants in Edgewater so she could get a feel for the neighborhood and see if that was for her.”

Rassano advises renters to find an agent they trust, because during virtual tours, sight is your only useable sense. If a hallway reeks of cigarettes, for example, clients will want to trust that an agent will point it out.

Ask to see every part of a building, rather than just the apartment in question. Check the lobby for cleanliness and look into common areas to get a more complete picture, she said.

Find out whether the building will require renters to sign a sight unseen waiver, which can absolve a landlord of addressing issues a tenant raises after they’ve moved in. Others, knowing it can be scary to take on a one-year lease without stepping inside a home, are offering rent-free months or move-in guarantees.

“If you move in and don’t like the unit, they’ll transfer you to a different unit, free of charge,” Rassano said. “It’s something that a lot of places are starting to do, and applicants love that, because it makes them feel a lot better about making the decision.”

Rassano stresses the importance of dimensions in tour footage, as the majority of 3D floor plans will have dimensions, but basic floor plans don’t.

“You can make a unit look a lot bigger than it is in photos, so getting those dimensions is super important,” she said.

There are some benefits to looking for a home virtually, Rassano said. It’s easier to narrow down choices when renters can get a good look at a place online, meaning you spend less time visiting apartments before making a choice.

As for whether virtual leasing will still be an option after the pandemic, Rassano sees many elements sticking around.

“This is going to change the leasing landscape forever,” she said. “That ability to narrow down choices before you see them means you’re wasting less of your time. It’s for the better.”

Ariel Cheung contributed to this article.