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Drones take flight in real estate business

Seth B. Levy, a licensed real estate sales

Seth B. Levy, a licensed real estate sales agent with Shawn Elliott, readies his drone with a high definition camera that can shoot still photos and video to photograph some of the properties he sells on March 30, 2014. This home is on Bay Drive in Massapequa. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Seth Levy, an agent for Shawn Elliott Luxury Homes and Estates in Woodbury, drives up to a home a client wants to sell and takes out his two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), more commonly known as drones.

It's a surefire attention getter. He sets up his monitoring equipment, launches the first one into the air for a video sweep of the home and surroundings, and suddenly it's who let the dogs out.

"The homeowner calls all his buddies and says, 'You won't believe what's going on right now.' By the time I start shooting, every neighbor is out of his house watching," he said.

The handful of Long Island real estate companies that use UAVs have them busily at work pumping up sales figures.

But as more drones lift into the air, questions remain about their legality. Specifically, the Federal Aviation Administration says commercial users of drones must get its authorization -- which it has granted in only one tightly restricted instance -- and that it is still figuring out how drones can be safely flown.

Real estate marketers -- and other UAV-hungry industries -- ignore this directive, responding that their drones are operated safely on private property and follow guidelines established for model airplanes, which they contend their drones resemble.

And besides, they add, the FAA can't say no because it hasn't written its UAV regulations yet, an opinion backed by a federal administrative judge for the National Transportation Safety Board who recently struck down an FAA fine against a drone pilot for just that reason in Virginia.

The legal bickering doesn't trouble Levy.

"I don't think I'm doing anything illegal or outside the guidelines of the FAA," he said.

Real estate agents who use drones say the marketing edge is invaluable -- and the process is mesmerizing. Matthew Leone, who oversees the use of drones as the director of Web marketing and social media for Halstead Property, described the effect as a drone soars above a home or buzzes room to room gathering digital footage for a real estate website.

"The neighbors say 'what's going on?' and then they start coming out to take pictures," he said. "It's cool when you're there."

It seems as if everyone is doing something cool with drones these days.

Amazon promises to deliver products door to door with UAVs. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg plans an Internet in the sky with solar-powered drones.

On a February episode of TV's "Modern Family," Phil Dunphy's wife urges him to spy on their son with his drone. When he protests it's a professional real estate tool, she shouts, "You used it at the beach to film yourself doing sand angels."

UAVs first appeared over a century ago as aerial balloons carrying munitions and later as remote-controlled airplanes. Today's models come equipped with digital cameras for as little as $500; a company called DJI sells a version with four rotors, a high-definition camera, GPS and a gyrostabilizer for less than $1,000.

Cheaper than helicopters, drones can capture similar panoramic views, yet zoom down to patio level without blowing away the lawn chairs, or they can even tour the inside of a house. A UVA can present a home like a roaming visitor, albeit one who can float up to the rafters and peer down from the chandelier.

Presentation, agents know, is all important these days. A recent joint study by the National Association of Realtors and Google showed that real-estate-related searches on Google have grown 253 percent over the past four years.

Elena D'Agostino, an associate broker with Signature Premiere Properties in Huntington, who used a drone to market the $3.5 million Lloyd Harbor home of talk show host Sean Hannity, likes them because they can show off expensive features like turret rooms, slate roofs and copper gutters.

"They're able to get up close and personal, so you can see details that add value to a house," she said.

Drones excel at displaying a waterfront property, said Matthew Arnold, an associate broker with Netter Real Estate in West Islip.

"We took one to a condo in Islip recently and had it do a 360-degree turn," he said. "It let you see the canal, the sunset, the bridge, the lighthouse and boats in the background, then turn around and see the community tennis courts and swimming pool."

Leone said Halstead came up with the idea of using drones after they were used during the 2008 New Orleans oil spill. The company mostly uses them with upscale homes.

The company flies them in suburban areas such as the Hudson Valley, Connecticut, New Jersey, Westchester and the Hamptons, Leone said. It doesn't shoot in New York City because of privacy and safety issues.

So, what about an out-of-control UAV smashing that Ming vase or slashing the Cézanne?

No accidents have happened yet, Leone said. Outside, insured drone handlers clear cars and personnel from the area and carefully note overhead wires. Wind speed and temperature are checked.

Inside, Wi-Fi routers are turned off in case of electrical interference, and fragile items stored. Heating and cooling systems are turned off to prevent disruptive air currents. Newspapers and magazines are put away so they don't flutter into view, and the home is cleaned to keep down swirling dust.

Levy, who has been honing his maneuvering skills since he bought his first drone two years ago, chose them because he was tired of the usual home display.

"This is a way to stand out and look different," he said.

He, too, has managed to avoid any home accidents, although he did admit to one mishap in an empty field while he was testing a drone. He laughed but didn't want to elaborate.

"Let's just say it involved 14 stitches and a ride to the hospital," he said.

Levy said his two UAVs cost about $10,000 annually for maintenance and repair. Stabilizers create a smooth motion display, and a GPS function can send it to a precise spot. The operator's ground-control station can provide streaming video through a laptop computer, a tablet or an iPhone. A lithium polymer battery keeps it in the air for about 15 minutes, and if the operator accidentally loses the drone's signal, a default mode returns it automatically to its launch point.

No one has voiced concerns about privacy issues so far, Levy said.

"I don't fly up to people's windows and record for five minutes," he said.

Richard Werthamer, owner of a Bridgehampton home that was drone profiled last summer, certainly got a kick out of seeing it floating around his home.

"I was dying to watch this and very pleased that I did," said the retired physicist. "The gee-whiz factor was very high, and I think it's a good way of displaying a house."

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