How Caribbean Real Estate Is Going Virtual
By Alexander Britell
Beyond the ways the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we move, shop and interact, it’s also changing the way real estate transacts.
While much deal activity, particularly on the residential side, has slowed, the movement that remains is happening in a very different way: virtually.
Travel bans, stay-at-home orders and shutdowns across the region have made in-person showings impossible, so agents in the region are finding new ways to show their properties.
That means virtual and 3D home tours on line, photo and video-heavy presentations and, in places where some movement is allowed, having brokers and agents do Facetime or Zoom walk-throughs with their clients.
“I had an agent that just had two “virtual” showings in Eleuthera before the country shut down,” said Colin Lightbourn of Engel & Volkers Bahamas in Nassau. “We would call the buyer on Whatsapp and have the video and walk-through. A live agent is the closest things to actually putting somebody in the house.”
Indeed, Engel & Volkers Bahamas recently sent out clients a virtual “guide” to buying real estate in The Bahamas, from virtual consultations to “personalized” home searches.
It’s a trend that has quickly spread across the Caribbean.
“We are moving to have every listing with a 3D virtual tour going forward,” said Oriana Juvelier, vice president at Puerto Rico Sotheby’s International Realty. “We’re still fielding quite a bit of interest and getting properties [that have video tours] under contract and moving forward. These are very interesting times.”
Mark Gaus, sales associate at RE/MAX Cayman Islands, echoed that.
“As social distancing becomes commonplace and the Cayman Islands are currently under a strong curfew, now more than ever being able to showcase your properties in a digital format is key,” Gaus told Caribbean Journal Invest. “Professional photography, drone images, video and virtual tours with floorplans allow a potential purchaser to basically walk through the property and make an informed decision to purchase. I was just speaking with a customer from Canada today who requested these marketing types as they are unable to view in person.”
Gavin Christie, managing partner at CA Christie in The Bahamas, said the online platform is “our new norm.”
“We have shifted to a 100 percent online-virtual platform,” he said. “We have embraced technology and are utilizing it to service our clients via online showings, 3D walk throughs and even new apps like Home Rover.”
It’s also changed the way agents interact with each other.
This week, for example, regional real estate platform Selling the Caribbean and Christie have organized a new Zoom series on the new state of doing business in the Caribbean real estate market.
“Most of the agents that I have spoken to are participating in Zoom meetings either that are hosted by their own brokerage or that they are connecting to via the industry. I have heard from most of the agents are trying to stay connected and keep a positive outlook,” said Gina de Varona, director of Selling the Caribbean.
For some agents and brokers, particularly in the Caribbean, it’s a continuation of a years-long process of virtual showings, not out of the ordinary when most potential buyers don’t actually live within the market.
Indeed, much real estate work in the Caribbean has been about doing just that — marketing remotely and introducing buyers to properties initially through digital tours, photos and videos.
“Prior to this we have been actively using Matterport for virtual tours and video tours for prospects who are off island,” said Sean O’Neill, managing director at The Agency Turks and Caicos. “This has given us a library of media on different properties which has been extremely beneficial in the current circumstances.”
And for the deals that are already taking place, it’s taken all of the procedural work virtual, too.
“We still have to do our business, and at the same time we’ve got lawyers and bankers and other people we work with that also need to be virtual, getting mortgages approved and confirming deposits have been received. It’s created two or three times the amount of work — once you have someone interested or even on deals that were signed pre-pandemic, ensuring they close and keeping up with all of the different parties involved.”
So is there still activity? Lightbourn said yes.
Deals are still happening, he said, driven mostly by opportunity-hunting buyers.
“I’m getting texts and emails with ‘I’m motivated,’ or ‘if there’s a deal let me know,’” he said. “So the buyers are shopping.”
Part of that is coming from what Lighbourn termed “bully” offers.
“People feel sellers should be more motivated than they are,” he said. “People are seeing this as more of a 9/11 than a post-recession, a shorter-term situation.”
One such “bully” offer was accepted, he said, at 83 percent of the asking price on a $1.9 million sale.
“The contingency is that the new owner has to close when they can actually come and take possession,” he said.
It’s not yet clear how long it will take for the real estate market to return to normal or a version of normal.
That means “virtual” real estate will likely be with us for some time, at least in the short term.
“I still think it comes down to how long does it all take for things to get back to normal,” he said. “Everybody has a risk and a price associated with that risk — I would encourage people to put the price on their own risk, and if there’s a number that works for them, great.”
And it’s possible, Lightbourn said, that some buyers with deep familiarity of a destination could even buy “sight unseen.”
In a place like Harbour Island, for example, which has a small, well-known collection of historic homes.
“People who are familiar with an area — people who to go to Harbour Island and they know the houses because they drive around and been there five or six times, and they see them come on the market and the sellers are motivated.”