Home buying is never easy, whether you’re empty-nesters looking to downsize to a condo or a young family in need of more space. During this time of COVID-19, the process has become even more complicated. Under the state’s recent stay-at-home orders, open houses were not allowed and buyers were only able to step inside a home after it was under contract. Those restrictions are easing now that Colorado has shifted to “Safer at Home,” with private showings now permitted.

While they’ve been utilized by out-of-town buyers for a while, virtual tours are becoming more commonplace among all prospective homeowners. Especially now, when buyers may be hesitant about walking through strangers’ houses and sellers are understandably nervous about large numbers of people entering their spaces. Those in the real estate business think online tours are a trend that’s here to stay for the long term. “I think it’s going to be the new standard; buyers are going to have expectations of getting a good sense of the property before going to see it,” says Carmelo Paglialunga, broker/owner of MileHiModern. “I don’t think that’s going to change. Now you can shop from the luxury of your sofa.”

Virtual tours encompass a range of offerings, from 3-D Matterport tours (that allow you to digitally travel through rooms by clicking around the screen) to pre-recorded video walk-throughs to live, guided tours.

Seeing a home digitally is a vastly different experience than viewing it in person, though. To help you make smart decisions, we asked local experts what you need to know to make the most of a virtual tour.

Start with the floor plan.

Because you’re not walking through the space yourself, it’s helpful to get oriented using a floor plan (your broker should be able to provide one). It’ll help you look—or click—through the home in an order that’s logical to you, and provide a sense of the building’s dimensions. “I always encourage buyers to ask for a floor plan ahead of the virtual tour so they can have a good understanding of where room locations are and how the home circulates, so the virtual tour makes a lot more sense and they’re better prepared,” says Angela Harris, CEO and principal of Trio, a full-service interior design firm that launched VirtualByTrio earlier this year. “The way you experience space virtually and the way you experience from a live perspective can be different, so it helps put things in perspective.” The floor plan also doubles as a checklist, so you can make sure you’ve seen everything, including peeking inside all of the closets.

Ask the right questions.

During an in-person tour, you’re able to touch the countertops and experience the ceiling heights and check out the laundry room. Virtually, there are plenty of details you’re likely to miss or that won’t come across as clearly through a screen. Our experts recommend specifically asking about the finishes—a countertop that looks like granite could actually be quartz, for instance—and brand names of appliances.

You should also request to see (if live) or ask questions about important, but oft-overlooked spaces like the laundry room, garage, and storage areas. “There are fundamentals you still need to keep in mind that a virtual tour isn’t going to show you because it doesn’t give you the complete picture,” adds Corrie Lee, a broker associate at MileHiModern. “These virtual tours are not going to hone in on the big crack in the foundation. Maybe you won’t look as closely at the roof.” Be sure to ask about what Lee calls “the guts of the home,” like the furnace and the water heater, to get a sense for how old they are and what condition they’re in. Similarly, find out if the windows are new or original.

You should still drive around.

Like what you see on the virtual tour? Well, it doesn’t show you everything—like the neighbors’ houses, if there are power lines hanging over the yard, what retail is nearby, or the community’s amenities, if you’re looking at a condo, for example. The perfect house becomes less perfect when you realize the next door neighbor has a trash heap in his backyard. Take a drive around the neighborhood so you can see it for yourself. You should “explore the area just as much as you’re exploring the home itself,” Harris advises.

Consider virtual tours as a step in the process, not a replacement for the real thing.  

“The virtual tour is not going to take the place of you ever going into a house,” Lee says. Instead, use these digital offerings to help you create a short list of possible homes. Between taking the tour, asking questions, and scoping the area from the safety of your car, you can whittle down the list of properties you want to visit in person to two or three, limiting your exposure. “It’s a streamlined, more time-efficient process for [buyers],” Harris says. “Virtual touring gives buyers the opportunity to look at as many places as they’d like to satisfy their curiosity as to what’s on the market, but to narrow it down for what’s going to work for their style and lifestyle.”

Remember: Virtual tours are marketing tools. Brokers use them to help sell a house. But they can be a great resource in your house hunt if you follow these tips and ask the same, if not more, questions as you would in person. That way, when you do go out and view a home, you know it’s a fit and you can focus on visualizing yourself living there, rather than on the minute details.

Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.