During the lockdowns of 2020, businesses everywhere have adapted to doing things virtually. Even the real estate industry had to adapt to help customers go through the entire process of buying a home online without hosting in-person visits and tours.

But for many military families, buying a home online, sight-unseen, is not a new experience. During PCS moves, military families often buy a home at a future duty station while stationed in a different time zone, or even while living overseas! In a recent PCSgrades survey, 70% of respondents said they have selected a home before ever stepping foot inside at least once; 45% of respondents had done this 2 or more times. A surprising 27% of respondents completed a virtual home sale 3 or more times.

That’s one reason PCSgrades focuses on forming trusted relationships with real estate agents who understand the challenges of military life and can meet their unique needs. We interviewed Hampton Rutledge, President of ERA Strother Real Estate in Fayetteville, NC about the trends he has seen after 20 years of real estate experience, and how new technology can be a great aid for families preparing to PCS.

Home-buying technology for virtual sales

Rutledge says the homebuying process has become much more streamlined since the days when agents carried beepers and had to call a firm to schedule a home visit. “Now there are so many more products to get sellers to their needs quicker: cell phones make the agent more accessible, scheduling tools and virtual tours on websites make home visits easier.”

He explained how the COVID pandemic has created a shift in the real estate industry, as agents have been forced to transition from listing agents to buyer’s agents. “We needed to figure out how to reach people quickly because often they have already found their house through listings online and now they are ready to buy. Our job actually became harder, because we now had to show them every nook and cranny of the home.”

But for Rutledge and ERA Strother, the shift to virtual homes sales was not entirely new. Centered in Fayetteville, the location of Fort Bragg, his firm has been serving the needs of military families for years, with many customers requesting buying a home online. “Our company was making things virtual before the pandemic. We had access to those assets and were adapting to the need. A lot of our buyers could be across the country or around the world. You often have to sell through Facetime. A good portion of our business is military, and being able to be a frontrunner in the virtual aisle has benefitted us greatly.”

Rutledge explains, “As a company, we have implemented the Matterport software which gets you in the home as close as you can get without actually being there. It is a 3D platform which creates a dollhouse version of the home, so it feels like they are standing in the kitchen or Master bedroom. It’s a huge benefit to the consumer, and it helps engage the customers. They get to play with where they want to move and look. It’s more than just a virtual tour. If you can turn a blueprint picture into something you can walk through, that is a more helpful experience.”

This is a huge step up from looking through hundreds of pictures online, or even doing a Facetime tour of a home with an agent. Rutledge reports that people using Matterport are 300% more engaged than with people using a 2D flat picture. 92% of buyers are more likely to buy a home if they saw it on a virtual tour.

The Matterport software is not exclusive to ERA Strother. If you are selling a home, discuss with your agent whether you can incorporate the 3D tour into your listing. If you are looking for homes online, keep an eye out for local companies that include this option.

Real estate agents educate customers about markets

Advanced technology isn’t the only aspect of home-buying that has changed. Rutledge says the agent’s role has adapted over the years as well. Agents were once more like chauffeurs, driving potential clients around town to visit different listings. Now, Rutledge says they embrace a wide range of roles to educate the consumer. “We are part teacher, part counselor, focused on letting them know all of their options. I’ve always believed in educating the consumer. I want all of my buyers to know the expectations in this particular market so there are no surprises at the end.”

While some of that education has to do with finances, home inspections, and other paperwork in the home-buying process, Rutledge says it really comes down to helping the consumer understand the different markets around a military installation. Because military families are often moving to an area they have never visited before, they may not understand what amenities are “normal” in that area, or they may not realize they will find different market conditions if they travel 20 minutes away from base.

“Real estate isn’t just about location—it’s also important what’s attached to the property and what is normal in that market. It should be market, market, market. Sometimes finding a home with a basement is normal in the area where you grew up, but almost impossible to find in coastal areas. You need to educate yourself to the area and the lifestyle, and make sure they understand the difference there.”

It is difficult to understand a local market through a virtual experience, so families rely more than ever on an agent’s knowledge and ability to educate clients. Rutledge says one exercise that helps military families moving into an unfamiliar market is to create a list with three columns: Needs, Wants, and Desires. When buying a home, it is important to focus on a family’s needs, but easy to get distracted by wants and desires. A family may need 3 bedrooms but want 4. They may need 1 acre, want 5, and desire 10. This is why having a knowledgeable local agent is such an important aspect of home buying, even in a virtual world. Rutledge says it is the agent’s job “to educate the consumer, learn about their past, and give them a sense of trust as a local advisor.”

PCSgrades helps foster that trusting relationship by connecting military families with agents who respect their unique needs and can assist them creatively throughout the home buying process. At ERA Strother, Rutledge says many of the firm’s employees are veterans or spouses of active duty service members. This connection makes them feel like family. “We have a deep-rooted connection to the military because it’s us.”