The COVID pandemic hasn’t stopped people from buying houses. But it has changed how buyers view homes, with technology sometimes replacing the in-person experience.

To help keep everyone safer and comply with state and local guidance, agents are using virtual home showings, virtual home tours, and virtual staging instead of or along with open houses, in-person showings, and traditional staging. That means you can buy a home without setting foot inside it. But it also means you need to understand what you are seeing – and not seeing. And you need to know what questions to ask.

Here’s a look at the virtual options and some of the pluses and minuses of each.

Virtual 3D Home Tours — Good for a First Look

With a virtual home tour, a seller’s agent looks to show off a property’s best features. This marketing presentation is what potential buyers see online at a real estate site. It may be a 3D tour or a gallery of retouched photos of staged rooms. Regardless of the format, it shows the property groomed, enhanced, and ready for its closeup. A virtual tour tends to be roses and wine and all the good things.

For buyers, virtual property tours have limits. Space is hard to translate into a 3D tour.  You can’t get a feel for home size. You can’t get a feel for placement of the home in relationship to a neighborhood. A drone won’t take a photo of a traffic light one house away.

Then there’s the issue of retouch magic. “Some of these photos are so highly doctored that they look whimsical. They’ll push your emotional buttons, but you get there, and the house isn’t what you thought.

The upshot is, don’t make an offer based on a virtual tour. That’s like proposing to someone based on a photo on Instead, use a virtual tour to decide if you want to take a closer look at a property, either in person or via a virtual showing.

Virtual Home Showings — Look for the Warts

In a virtual home showing, an agent walks a buyer through a property, one on one, on Zoom or Facetime. It’s a more informal presentation that gives the buyer a more realistic view of the property. The showing is when buyers should “see the warts”.

This is when buyers should ask the hard questions. “Ask, ‘Is there something in the room that you are not showing me that would cause me to be unhappy?’” Have your agent check for signs of water damage, cracks in walls, or scratched floors, she says. Make sure your virtual showing includes the basement.

I recommend having your agent shoot videos or photos from the same angle in a room as the images you have seen online, so you can compare how they’re different. You need to see if what you are looking at digitally is the same as what is really there.

Ask tough questions. I have sold to people moving from another country who didn’t see the property till they took ownership. As their agent, it’s my job to be their eyes on the ground and point out problems.

I point out the flaws when he’s doing the virtual showing and representing a buyer. If there’s going to be a buzz kill item, I need to identify it and show it to buyers then. “I don’t want them to show up [at the walkthrough] and say, ‘That’s not what I saw.”

Virtual Home Staging — Swap out Interior Design

Decorating a home to showcase its best assets, or staging, has gone virtual, too. It falls into one of two types. One is totally digital. A photographer shoots photos of the house, edits any furniture out of the photos, and replaces it with digitally created images of furniture. It’s a digital representation of how the house could look – not how it does look. These images are then used for a virtual home tour or virtual showing.

The second type mixes digital and analog. A professional stager looks at photos or does a Facetime walkthrough of the home with an agent. The stager creates a detailed plan for how to arrange the existing furniture. The homeowners move the furniture around themselves, executing the pro’s instructions. This hybrid form is popular with people who don’t want to rent furniture and don’t want strangers coming into their homes.

When you’re viewing a virtual tour or virtual showing, find out exactly what you are seeing. Most states require agents to disclose if a room shown has been virtually staged. But the info might be in the fine print.

Ask your agent if you’re seeing images of real rooms or digitally staged ones. And ask if anything has been retouched. Technology allows photographers to work a lot of magic in post-production. They can change paint colors, trim, or flooring to make these features look very real and very different from what’s actually there.

The Future of Home Buying Is a Hybrid

Virtual real estate shopping is here to stay. In the future, I see it as a hybrid. Buyers will do their shopping virtually to narrow it down to a few houses. They’ll look at 65 houses via 3D video to decide which three they want to see in person.

This approach may end up being more efficient for buyers. If you ask questions and use virtual viewings to see flaws, features, and potential, you may speed up the process — and still end up with a great house.