Earlier this month, Bill Patterson was rendered “a little surprised’’ upon seeing dozens of area open houses scheduled for the weekend, with more than a third of them restricted to Saturday for the first viewing — an approach frequently employed by agents to ensure the highest foot traffic.
Patterson, broker and owner of Craft Realty in Boston, said he wasn’t totally shocked to see the listings despite increasing restrictions on large public gatherings due to the coronavirus, because many real estate agents have been slow to adopt technology that facilitates virtual tours.
“They’re still following the old model — do the open house, get the energy,’’ Patterson said. “It’s a system that works, but when we’re trying to keep [our] distance, I’d like to see it change.’’
Patterson, an early adopter of 3-D virtual tour technology, may soon get his wish. On March 20, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh called on the real estate industry to stop holding open houses to market properties for rent or sale. Instead, landlords, realtors, and rental brokers should schedule individual showings and use photos and videos as much as possible.
“It’s about keeping that physical distance from each other and preventing the spread of the virus,’’ Walsh said.
Worcester issued similar guidelines two days before, calling for the cancellation or delay of all upcoming open houses in the city. The Greater Boston Association of Realtors also issued guidelines for its members to consider virtual showings.
Kurt Thompson, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, said he anticipates more restrictions on open houses from other communities, as the virus continues to affect the historically busy spring real estate market. Thompson, a broker at Keller Williams Real Estate-North Central in Leominster, said he recently decided to stop doing open houses for now and will rely more on virtual tours, such as streaming via Facebook Live. He expects more realtors to rely on photographs, videos, and streams as a first showing.
“The challenge is the culture; we haven’t had a lot of people adopt the virtual reality technology as of yet,’’ he said.
Take the virtual tour.
There are signs that is starting to change, according to Bill Cutrer, chief executive of Seapoint Digital, a digital marketing agency in Kittery, Maine, that serves northern New England and Greater Boston. Seapoint employs Matterport technology, which uses sensors to build advanced 3-D models of homes for realtors.
Just this month, as the urgency around COVID-19 intensified nationwide, there was a 41 percent year-over-year increase in Google searches for Matterport in the firm’s service area and a 66 percent increase in unique visitors to Seapoint’s website for Matterport-related content, Cutrer said.
“It’s something that’s going to catch on more, especially as it continues to go into April, May, depending on the length of the [COVID-19] circumstances,’’ said Cutrer, who counts Patterson, of Craft Realty in Boston, as a client.
Take the virtual tour.
Similarly, the Zillow real estate website has seen a significant surge in interest for its Zillow 3D Home product, a free app that allows a homeowner or agent to capture and create a 3-D tour of a home using an iPhone or a 360-degree camera, like the Ricoh Theta V. The app is not yet available for Android devices.
“Boy, things really changed in the last two weeks,’’ said Josh Weisberg, vice president of rich media experiences at Zillow. “We’re seeing a spike in adoption and a lot of inquiries from agents, property managers.’’
Zillow reported a near doubling of the creation of 3D Home tours during the week of March 15 — a 191 percent increase compared with the month of February. The site reported a 326 percent increase in 3D Home tour creation on March 20 alone. Homes with 3-D tours posted on Zillow get saved 50 percent more by users than listings that don’t, which translates to those properties selling faster, spending 10 percent fewer days on the market, Weisberg said.
“We think that will continue. That will be a buyer’s agent doing that, but also more homeowners could do the capture if you don’t want an agent or photographer coming to your home, and they will send it to the agent to publish the listing,’’ Weisberg said. “It’s an interactive experience buyers are finding to be valuable.’’
But while virtual open houses may address the social distancing issue, the economic uncertainty brought on by the spread of COVID-19 may be too great for some. Prior to Boston asking for open houses to stop, the number scheduled for the weekend of March 21-22 was significantly lower than would typically be held this time of year under normal circumstances, said Nadine Fallon, partner/ broker at Great Spaces ERA, which closed its two Dorchester offices to the public until April 1 due to the coronavirus.
There is an industrywide concern that buyers won’t come out, as many face the prospect of job loss, Fallon said. And sellers may not be comfortable accepting offers made virtually that are contingent on successful walk-throughs.
“Real estate is not like buying a loaf of bread or a roll of paper towels that you can buy on Amazon. People still want to look and see,’’ Fallon said.
Jamie Iacoi, also a partner at Great Spaces, agreed. Technology, he said, is not going to eliminate all the in-person steps necessary to close a deal, including inspections, which at the moment are being disrupted in some areas where municipalities have closed their offices.
“It’s going to be different with every deal,’’ Iacoi said. “There’s so much uncertainty, I don’t think virtual tours are going to keep the market the way that it was. Not even close.’’
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