Anytime, Anywhere: Real estate marketing taps drones, FaceTime and virtual tours

Selling houses used to be all about ads in the newspaper and signs on the side of the road. But buying and selling homes has gone increasingly digital in the 21st century, and the pandemic only pushed that trend into overdrive.

From drone photography to virtual tours, realtors today have to be ready to market their homes to anyone from anywhere – whether the prospective buyer is a Traverse City resident who lives 400 yards from the listing, or a California transplant willing to buy a house from afar without setting foot inside it.


For Mike Annelin, a real estate agent with Century 21 Northland, aerial photography has become a must-have component of any listing in recent years – especially since the pandemic sent droves of out-of-town buyers flocking to Traverse City.

Those buyers, Annelin explained, don’t have the knowledge of Traverse City’s neighborhoods, landscapes, topography and natural features that a long-time resident would. Aerial shots are a way to give them that knowledge and perspective right there in the listing ad.

“I’m definitely using (drone photography) more now that we have a lot of out-of-area buyers coming in,” Annelin explained. “…(I)t can be hard for those buyers to gauge the setting of a house without getting that larger aspect that a bigger picture shot from up above can provide. I think it’s worth it.”

Sometimes, a drone shot can highlight the desirability of a specific property, such as by spotlighting a home’s proximity to Grand Traverse Bay, or by showing how a house sits on a large multi-acre property. Other times, it can reveal truths that a closely-framed photograph might not, such as how tightly houses are clustered together in some neighborhoods.

Either way, Annelin sees aerial images as a more honest way to show off properties. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a drone shot might be worth 10,000.

Statistically, Annelin isn’t wrong to be thoughtful about out-of-town buyers who might not have pre-purchase opportunities to visit homes in person. While the common assumption is that sight-unseen offers are the exception rather than the rule, the numbers tell a different story – particularly about buying habits in the pandemic era.

According to year-end 2020 research from the Seattle-based real estate brokerage Redfin, a whopping 63% of home buyers in 2020 made offers on homes without seeing them in person – double the percentage that did so in 2019.

There’s also solid evidence to suggest that buyers are especially drawn to listings that incorporate drone shots. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), data from multiple listing services (MLS) across the country indicates that properties with aerial imagery are 68% more likely to sell than listings without them.

Mackinaw Brewing building in downtown Traverse City.

And it’s not just residential real estate where drone images are becoming more prominent. Last month, when downtown Traverse City’s historic Beadle Building – the home of Mackinaw Brewing Company – hit the real estate market at a list price of $4.95 million, it was a widescreen aerial shot that headlined the online listing from Real Estate One agent Jack Lane.

In addition to the ground floor Mackinaw Brewing restaurant, the listing touted the potential of rental suites on the second floor and even perhaps a rooftop bar, opportunities probably better envisioned with an aerial shot than a street-level photograph.

Another tech tool that’s become increasingly common in real estate is the virtual tour. Virtual tours are composites of multiple photographs stitched together into an experience that allows prospective buyers to digitally walk through a home via a computer or mobile device.

Typically, virtual tours allow you to start from the street, enter the home, move from the foyer into the living room, spin around the room to view it from multiple different angles, and so on.

Traverse City actually has a unique place in the history of the evolution of virtual tours, in that local entrepreneur and businessman Jason LaVanture was actually one of the pioneers in the virtual tour medium. That story goes back more than 20 years and involves a spark of inspiration from an unlikely source: a kiosk at the Grand Traverse Mall.


In 1999, LaVanture was still a college student, and the mall was a bustling and busy epicenter of commerce, dotted with kiosks in addition to full-fledged stores. One of those kiosks was operated by the now-shuttered Traverse City real estate agency Rupp & Keen, and LaVanture recalls how agents would show off properties they had for sale by employing a rudimentary, analog version of the technology he would eventually develop.

“They had black and white Polaroid photos (of their properties), and they all had codes on them,” LaVanture said of the kiosk, “so you’d point to a photo of a front of a home, and then the agent would dig down in a filing cabinet and pull out a spec sheet of the property.”

LaVanture says he figured there must a way to take that action into the digital realm.

“So, I came with this idea of virtual tours, where there’d still be a code on the Polaroid, but then the buyer would have a computer where they could punch in that code, and then the tour (for that house) would come up,” he said.

That idea eventually led to the launch of LaVanture’s company, Real Tour Vision, which uses 360-degree panoramic photos to show off spaces and allows buyers navigate to the next room by clicking on small dots. In addition to rolling out the product to local real estate agents in the early 2000s, LaVanture developed the core technology “so that anybody in the world could buy the software and then we would train them how to do what we had started here locally.”

By 2005, LaVanture and his team had trained some 700 professional photographers worldwide in how to develop their own virtual tours using the software. Every time one of those clients uploaded a new virtual tour to the Real Tour Vision servers, the company got a $10 commission.

In 2007, LaVanture lauched a second business – called BlueLaVaMedia – which uses the Real Tour Vision technology to develop virtual tours for clients in the Grand Traverse region. BlueLaVaMedia also offers drone photography and traditional home photoshoots, which LaVanture said have actually become bigger moneymakers for the company over the years for various reasons.

Bluff Road on Old Mission Peninsula

For one thing, LaVanture said that drone shoots and professional photography are more likely to be viewed as must-haves for listings these days than virtual tours, which might be considered more of a luxury. Second, Traverse City’s market is so hot right now – and homes are selling so quickly – that a virtual tour might only get a few views before a house has ignited a bidding war.

During the peak of the pandemic, though, virtual tours saw a temporary – but massive – boost in popularity. Left with no other way to show houses, real estate agents across the nation and around the world hit Google in search of a solution. Many of them found Real Tour Vision – which was, LaVanture said, “the top-ranking virtual tour software company on the web” at the time.

“We were used to getting seven to eight leads a day (from Google),” LaVanture said. “Then the pandemic hit and there was a 4,600% increase in daily searches for virtual tour software.”

LaVanture was the only salesperson (at Real Tour Vision) at the time and says he “literally” had a new lead coming in at least every half hour.

“And it wasn’t just real estate agents trying to figure out how to show houses,” he said. “It was people starting businesses; it was college campuses; it was museums. Everybody was trying to stay open, and they all called us.”

LaVanture’s experience lines up with the broader statistics. According to the Zillow Group Consumer Housing Trends Report 2020, virtual tour adoption spiked 750%  in the first month of COVID stay-at-home orders and remained double the previous year’s numbers through November. Per a report from 2020, homes listed that year with virtual tours got 87% more views than home listings that didn’t have them, and 54% of buyers said they were skipping right over listings that didn’t have virtual tours.

Of course, there’s also a less sophisticated way of virtually touring a property: FaceTime. That option, Annelin said, was something of a real estate agent life hack during the pandemic – especially as more out-of-town buyers started eyeing Traverse City.

“FaceTime has been such an asset during COVID,” Annelin said. “Before the pandemic, you would normally have some buyers that would be out of town, but they would almost always come up to see the house before writing an offer. And that just wasn’t the case in this market.”

Annelin cited travel concerns and time getting to the property from far away.

“Having an agent that’s willing to go FaceTime you through the house and explain things as you go through it, that’s really pushed people to buy houses,” he said.