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What Boston-area tenants should know about virtual, ‘sight-unseen’ tours

Remote leasing is the new normal for now as brokers and landlords abandon traditional open houses and tours to help stem the spread of coronavirus

A closeup view, looking up, of a multi-story brick apartment building. Shutterstock

The novel coronavirus has upended traditional open houses in the Boston area, shifting the way that brokers and owners physically share their spaces for sale or lease.

The trade group the Greater Boston Association of Realtors and the national listings organizer the Multiple Listing Service have both advised against showing apartments, condos, and houses in person as have individual brokerages.

And public officials such as Boston Mayor Marty Walsh have warned against traditional open houses, too, and Gov. Charlie Baker’s March 23 ban on most nonessential gatherings of more than 10 people has also effectively shut down more heavily attended ones.

These moves and the realization that it’s going to take some serious social distancing, if not sheltering in place, to stem the novel coronavirus’ spread have led to what brokers and others call virtual open houses or remote leasing and buying—where prospective buyers and renters rely on photos, videos, and other information to buy or lease, or at least bid, without physically visiting a place beforehand.

For tenants in the Boston area, renting pretty much sight unseen carries some risks and challenges. But it’s a new reality that thousands may confront over the coming weeks given the typical spring changeover in the region’s apartment market and the fact that most residents rent rather than own (what’d you expect with the region’s prices?).

Tina Bacci is a principal at RESIS LLC and the leasing director for three larger rental buildings that the Abbey Group owns in Fenway and Back Bay: The Viridian at 1282 Boylston Street, Landmark Square at 75 Peterborough Street, and the St. Germain Apartments at 67 St. Germain Street.

These properties are also near the Longwood medical hub, so Bacci has had experience leasing sight unseen to recently minted doctors doing their residencies there. That experience has taken on new meaning in the shift to remote leasing due to coronavirus.

“First and foremost, prospective renters should make sure they are dealing with someone who actually knows the property, has rented a unit in that building before, and is truly familiar with it,” Bacci said over email. “When you are renting sight unseen, you are relying on the agent to give you the pros and cons, so you want to make sure this agent knows them.”

She also said that prospective tenants should find out the name of the landlord and whether there’s a management company—and how accessible both are before moving in.

And, as for photos or even videos upfront, those are great, Bacci says, “but renters should also ask to have the raw photos and not just the ‘marketing’ photos or the virtually staged photos.” Finally, prospective tenants should seek out the experts: actual tenants.

“If you don’t personally know someone who already lives at the property,” Bacci said, “ask to speak to a current resident. Oftentimes, an agent familiar with the building has rented other apartments and has contacts in the building and can get permission from the existing renters to connect you with them.”

Bacci says, too, that she will ask current tenants to provide photos and videos if possible “to help fill in the blanks” regarding information she can’t provide. “For example, as vast as my catalog of photos is, I may not have a photo of the inside of the pantry cabinet, the shelving in the coat closet, or the space between the cooktop and the sink.”

It is not just brokers and landlords encouraging remote leasing. Popular apartment search sites—each of which already had a suite of filters pre-coronavirus for winnowing toward the ideal apartment in a certain price range—are also steering would-be tenants away from physical tours with new features. Zumper, for instance, now alerts users to listings that offer virtual tours and also encourages users to ask for such tours and landlords to post them.

The motivation is not just to stem coronavirus’ spread, but to sustain the interactions that power one of the essential parts of the real estate market, locally and nationally: renting in big, popular metro areas such as Boston.

“It’s critical we share the news that the rental market does not have to stop entirely just because people can’t tour properties in person,” a Zumper spokeswoman said.

Those in-person tours might one day resume. For the time being, though, remote-slash-sight unseen-slash virtual leasing is the recommended norm—however difficult it might be for some prospective tenants already confronting one of the most competitive and expensive apartment markets in the U.S.

“It doesn’t work for everyone,” Bacci said. “I have had to insist to some people that I cannot bring them into occupied apartments right now. And I get pushback and frustration, and recommend they check back in a few weeks from now to see where things stand.”