By Taylor Lorenz
Scrolling through real estate listings in far-flung destinations is a way to visualize an alternate life, whether you’re trying to move or not.
Millions of people have spent far more time at home than they expected to this year. It’s made many of them daydream about what it might be like to live somewhere else, often while scrolling through listings on Zillow.
“I go into neighborhoods that obviously I can’t afford as a college student and look at my ideal house and fantasize about when this is all over,” said Crystal Silva, 20, who lives in North Carolina. She spends hours at a time surfing the app, touring homes she’ll never buy.
She’s likely not alone in that. Zillow usage has climbed since March, with online visitors to for-sale listings up more than 50 percent year-over-year in the early months of the pandemic.
People bond over listings on Discord servers, group chats and “Zillow Twitter,” and their obsession has made many strange and obscure listings go viral. Curbed, a website covering city life, real estate and design, recently started a column called My Week in Zillow Saves, in which people (myself included) share the homes they’ve admired on the site.
What many are contemplating when they browse Zillow and similar home buying sites — like Redfin, Trulia and Realtor.com — is not necessarily a purchase, but an alternate life. Zillow surfing has become a primary form of escapism for those who want to flee not just their homes but the reality of 2020.
Ione Damasco, 45, an academic librarian in Ohio, said that she started to open up Zillow every day on her lunch break not long ago. “It’s a really personal thing,” she said. “It’s me daydreaming about what’s possible down the road. Right now I feel like the future is so uncertain, there’s something therapeutic about searching houses and starting to make plans for something with a positive outcome. It makes me think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and someday I’ll be at my dream house.”
The amount of data Zillow provides, some say, is key in aiding their fantasies. While platforms like Pinterest and Instagram offer an endless stream of beautiful interiors, Zillow provides images, data, video tours and highly detailed information on each house. It’s easier to picture your future when you have access to the floor plan of the space or know which school your children would attend if you lived there.
Some will go to great lengths to find new and interesting houses. “I’ll see a house on Instagram then go to Google Maps to try to find the house using street view, then go to Zillow to look up what it’s currently worth, who bought it and historical price data,” said Kelsey Steele Cooper, 24, a hotel manager in Arkansas. “I’d like to think that hasn’t become my hobby, but I’ll use three different apps to take a look at this house that’s 1,000 miles away from me. That’s how much time we have on our hands in 2020.”
The pandemic has also upended many people’s priorities when it comes to housing; even those who’d never thought about moving now dream of more space or a backyard. Jenny Xie, an editor at Curbed, said many people who weren’t previously looking for a home are now considering moving or have broadened their housing searches.
“You hear about friends or friends of friends moving,” Ms. Xie said. “If your friend recently bought something it’s like, ‘Oh, let me see what I can get two hours outside of New York.’ Suddenly you’re exploring possibilities.” Houston, Dallas and Atlanta are now hot housing markets, according to data provided by Zillow. Traffic to listings in those cities has jumped 88 percent from last year.
That said, most Zillow surfers simply enjoy the hunt.
Tucker Boner, 27, began streaming Zillow hunts on Twitch nearly three years ago, and has seen a bump in interest since the pandemic. He said the majority of his viewers are young millennials or members of Gen Z, people who may never have the independent means to purchase a home. “This isn’t a 9-to-5-job-and-everyone-gets-a-home kind of economy,” he said.
The sheer absurdity of listings also makes for engaging content. “It’s really fun to have a virtually unending supply of very interesting things to look at,” Mr. Boner said. “There’s always going to be someone with too much money and too much creativity that results in some Frankenstein of a home.”
Zillow surfing is especially popular among teenagers. A TikTok meme over the summer consisted of users talking about knowing where the bathrooms were in their friend’s or crush’s house before ever visiting it because they had toured all of their classmates’ homes on Zillow. Many young people have extensive lists of saved homes and discuss and share listings with friends.
“We don’t have control over where we live because most of us live in our parents’ home,” Ms. Silva said, “so being able to create this world where I pick where I live and what house I live in regardless of price is fun.”
After Ariel Norling, 29, a designer in Oakland, made a name for herself on Zillow Twitter by identifying unique, enviable listings around the country, she started a weekly house-hunting newsletter on Substack called I Know A Spot. “I’ve always been a Zillow scroller,” she said, “but it’s been a big activity for me as a part of quarantine. I felt like I was running out of things to do, Zillow felt like a different kind of outlet.”
Ali Zaidi, 40, an attorney in Boston, prefers Redfin over Zillow, and has made checking the site part of his morning routine, despite the fact that he has no plans to buy a house. “It’s part of my morning,” he said. “I log into my work email, check different media outlets, then one of the websites I open up is always Redfin.”
He compared the serotonin rush of seeing beautifully staged homes to checking social media and seeing pictures of people’s private lives. “I get the same sort of joy from looking into Redfin as I do on Facebook or Instagram,” he said. “I find it interesting and almost voyeuristic.”
What makes Zillow different from those social networks, though, is the absence of people, the writer Brian Feldman noted in his newsletter, BNet, this summer. “It has no engagement loop, no social interactions, no real network effects to speak of,” he wrote. “It is a giant canvas onto which people project their desires and insecurities, and a constantly evolving document not just of the housing market, but of how people lived.”
Though the site hasn’t delved into social networking yet, many users have begged Zillow to add a comment section where surfers can connect and bond over listings.
“I think for a lot of people, Zillow feels like the opposite of doomscrolling,” Ms. Norling said. “You’re stuck in your apartment, maybe you can’t move, but it’s easy to look at listings and imagine yourself in a different life. And maybe in that life Covid isn’t happening.”
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