'When you're feeling cooped up, there's nothing better than feeling free,' Compass broker Seth O'Byrne told Inman

As the coronavirus outbreak renews buyer interest in isolated properties and remote estates, some luxury agents are turning to helicopters to show and market the properties.

Moira Holley, the co-founder of Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty in Seattle, is in the process of selling Reef Island, a private island off the coast of Washington listed for $5 million. Spanning 17 acres and part of the state’s San Juan Islands archipelago, the island is best experienced in relation to the surrounding islands and the Salish Sea. To market it, Holley’s real estate company is working with local helicopter company Kenmore Air to take photos of the island and, later, tour it with a prospective buyer.

“In order to get a true perspective of the island, it’s really nice to see it from the air,” Holley told Inman. “A buyer who’s come by boat previously may want to see it from the air before making a final decision.”

Holley’s plans for the property had been put on hold due to the outbreak, but after more than a month of delays, a photographer and a videographer will fly over the property with a helicopter pilot on Sunday. All three will wear masks and gloves and keep their distance within the aircraft. A buyer has already reached out about wanting to see the property so Holley anticipates giving an in-the-air showing herself sometime in the coming weeks.

For years, agents working with luxury properties have used helicopters as a perk for clients. Seth O’Byrne, head of Compass’ O’Byrne team in San Diego and star of HGTV’s “Hot Properties: San Diego,” has been taking clients on tours with helicopter pilots since 2013. They pocket the costs, which start at $500 an hour for a small helicopter and can go up to $2,000 an hour for a larger one, as a way to connect and get clients excited about their homes. They do it as a bonus for serious buyers for all properties they sell, which range from $1 million to upwards of $20 million.

“By the end of that tour, the buyer is unbelievably informed and usually incredibly excited about the property,” said O’Byrne, adding that a helicopter can also be a way to get out-of-town clients to understand the city and its surroundings. “If you don’t see the buildings around you or the mountains around you, you don’t really understand your property.”

While O’Byrne hopes to go back to giving such tours, the pandemic has put a halt to their operations. They have not flown since the winter due to social distancing guidelines and a general stalling of the real estate market in California.

But Dylan Tent, a Sotheby’s International Realty Realtor and licensed helicopter pilot in Michigan, has been flying up until the state barred in-person showings in March — not specifically for clients who are unable to get to a property but as a way to show several large estates at once. After the state governor gave real estate the go-ahead to restart on May 7, Tent has been arranging flights and tours with clients. He owns a helicopter that seats three additional people. If the property is smaller, it is a client perk and if it is larger, he uses it for bird’s-eye tours.

“I don’t know if it’s made someone buy or not buy a property but we have a big state and it is helpful to get to some properties in half an hour that would take another person three hours to drive to,” Tent told Inman.

But with the hefty price tag, helicopters in real estate are still mostly reserved for isolated estates and ultra-luxury properties that agents want to sell by pulling out all the stops — although O’Byrne believes that it can be democratized much like air travel has. But even if not, he anticipates a greater need for helicopters to accommodate a pandemic-induced interest in isolated properties and fear of commercial travel among affluent buyers.

“If we come out of this pandemic and people have cash, my gut tells me that we’re going to see a lot more people in helicopters,” he said. “When you’re feeling cooped up, there’s nothing better than feeling free.”

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