In the midst of peak moving season, Melody Warnick ponders her obsession with real estate websites that are constructed to elicit desire for a new reality
My friend Sarah was scrolling through listings of homes on the real estate app Zillow when she experienced the homebuyers equivalent of a meet-cute. There, in full-color photos, was her dream house. Acreage for fruit trees! Big bedrooms for all three kids! Giddy, Sarah called the listing agent, and five minutes after being let inside, she knew. This was it. Her house.
Except it wasnt. Sarah already owns a house, a gut renovation job into which her husband has distilled 18 months of sweat equity. Which is why Im calling her Sarah instead of her real name, because if her husband knew she was having an emotional affair with another property while he hammered roof shingles, he would not be pleased.
The home where F Scott Fitzgerald lived for two years in the 1920s on Long Island, the asking price for which was over $3.8m in 2015. Photograph: Steven Bababekov/AP
Just to clarify, I said, you bought a house, but youre still looking at Zillow?
Every day, Sarah said. I have the app on my phone.
No judgment here. My pernicious Realtor.com habit has outlasted every home Ive ever lived in, from the Maryland colonial that smelled like cigarette smoke to the Texas ranch house we sold for $1,000 less than we paid. Were renting now, but it wouldnt matter if we werent. I look at houses online when I own and when I rent, when Ive just moved and when Im pondering moving again. I wake up, open my laptop, check my email and Facebook, then click on Realtor.com.
As the tidy rows of homes populate my screen, I am a junkie getting a fix. My pulse quickens. I scroll fast through the photos, pausing at a kitchens Shaker cabinetry or a bathrooms marble counters. Occasionally I text my husband a link. I love this one, I write. So I bought it.
I didnt buy it. Of course not. I just look, intently and uncontrollably, drawn in by an omnipresent world of online real estate listings. The many sites that aggregate data from the Multiple Listing Service platform, including Realtor.com, Zillow, Trulia, Redfin, Estately,
Homes.com, StreetEasy and Curbed make it possible for anyone to digitally stroll through a strangers home. You do not have to prequalify for a mortgage. You do not need a real estate agent. You just look.
We are, many of us, looking. Summer is peak relocation season, when 40% of American moves happen, and last July Zillow had 141 million unique users. Yet that same month, only about 5.4 million homes were purchased in the country, suggesting that some serious window shopping was going on. According to a 2014 survey by Discover Home Loans, two-thirds of home buyers admitted that looking at online property listings had become addicting.
Last July, Zillow had 141 million unique users. Yet that same month, only about 5.4 million homes were purchased in the country. Photograph: Andreas Kuehn/Getty Images
Whatever is driving this obsession restlessness? technology? the paradox of choice? it hasnt fueled the housing market. In 2015, homeownership rates hit a 48-year low. Millennials in particular are finding homeownership both undesirable they dont want to be tied down and financially out of reach. And yet obsessing over real estate listings is often tinged by a fear of missing out. Oh, the homes not purchased! The lives not lived!
Because, in the end, Zillow is about the fantasy of living other lives. We look at online real estate for the same reason people binge-watch House Huntersor tour model homes they cant afford becausewhat would it be like to live in that place? Because wouldnt our lives be vastly improved by a three-car garage and a kitchen island? Because, as the essayist Meghan Daum wrote: Life would be better if I lived in that house.
Im relatively happy as a renter. For less than wed pay for a mortgage, my family lives in a four-bedroom house. Lawn care is included. When our kitchen faucet leaks, the landlord sends a plumber. I love the ease of it, the way renting gives me permission to disengage from decisions about flooring and backsplashes. My place is enough.
Then Zillow tells me that there is a 5,200-square foot Craftsman with a granite-encrusted kitchen island, heart of pine floors, and a white beadboard mudroom for sale in my town. Never in my life will I have the $795,000 it takes to buy it, but that doesnt keep me from clicking through all 118 photos on Zillow.
What happens next? Mostly misery.
Perusing other peoples real estate is a habit so soul-killing that one of the 10 commandments warned against coveting your neighbors house. Were simply wired to think that the grass is always greener, and we suffer for it. In a 2015 Singaporean study, participants who were asked to compare their purchases with seemingly superior alternatives experienced a decline in happiness, regardless of how pleased theyd originally been. In effect, aspirational house photos make your builders grade cabinets seem like a personal failing, a comment not only on your home but on your career success, earning capabilities and life choices.
This three-story luxury home in Southampton, New York, can be rented for $395,000 from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Photograph: Bastien Inzaurralde for the Guardian
A few months ago, I decided to detox. I deleted the Zilllow app and blocked Realtor.com on my computer. As soon as I stopped wasting time clicking through photographs of strangers wood-paneled rec rooms, my self-loathing decreased. I felt more at peace.
If Id managed to stop there, this would be an entirely different kind of story. But heres the truth. Within a few weeks I started sneaking peeks at Zillow again. My inability to give it up seemed like a sign. Maybe it was time to buy again! My husband and I got a realtor and, one rainy afternoon, went to visit some of the homes Id swooned over online.
What I remembered then is that digital real estate is, like any other social media representation, a carefully crafted fiction. Wear and tear doesnt exist in Zillowland. Its Photoshopped and filtered and sponged away. In person, a bay window, beautiful in the photos, was too crooked to close. A hardwood floor was so slanted you could roll a marble down it. After that day, my desire to buy began ebbing, replaced by gratitude for all the ways my rental wasnt falling apart.
I still look at real estate websites every day, but I look with the understanding that Im perusing a dreamscape. That any house Im able to buy will almost certainly disappoint me. That in reality, the perfect house is not for sale. It exists only online.
I look at these places, and I lust a little, and then I make toast in my builders grade kitchen.