Last month, a “Saturday Night Live” sketch highlighted a very relatable pastime: scrolling through home listings on Zillow. The digital short presented a sultry commercial in which adults in their 30s get turned on while looking at houses they could buy.
“I’d never live in North Carolina, but if I did, I could buy a big, gross mansion,” Daniel Levy coos.
Unsurprisingly, the bit resonated with many people, especially millennials living in high-rent cities. Turns out, websites such as Zillow, Trulia and Redfin hit a little differently during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many singles in their 30s can’t date, as the pandemic has made it hard, so they are looking to real estate porn to fill the gap,” New York-based psychiatrist Lea Lis told HuffPost. “They are wanting to escape from cities to a simpler, more green life. This has become more appealing for many, creating the mass exodus that cities like New York and Boston have experienced. The sketch is actually so funny and real, and humor is the best way to escape from the harsh reality which is 2020-21, including the COVID pandemic, loneliness and isolation.”
Indeed, Zillow reported record traffic to its website and mobile apps, as well as revenue booms, in 2020. But why exactly do people who aren’t necessarily shopping for a new home love browsing real estate listings so much? Below, Lis and other mental health experts break down some of the reasons.
Browsing real estate provides escapist fantasy.
“We have all enjoyed a daydream, and millions of us tune in to HGTV to watch someone else build, renovate or buy a home,” said Kati Morton, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles and author of “Are U Ok? A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health.”
“Zillow is similar to those, but even more realistic, and it’s a nice escape for us during this difficult time. With the continued stress of the pandemic, people are seeking various ways to escape the overwhelming reality, and Zillow is one very popular way to do that,” Morton continued. “You easily move from state to state, area to area, and imagine what it would be like to live in that home, critique the flooring or dated cabinets in the kitchen, and for a few minutes you can forget about the stress we are going through, the job loss, political issues or whatever upset you may be feeling.”
Without movie theaters and concerts, people can turn to real estate websites for an escape. The added bonus is that online browsing is completely free and you can do it in the safety and comfort of your home.
“We’ve all been stuck inside for an entire year and the concept of moving — even just the possibility — is exciting,” said Kathryn Smerling, a psychotherapist in New York. “We all fantasize about what it would be like to spend more time in another location with a hot tub by the ocean. There’s an element of good health in fantasy — obviously not every day, but having these healthy fantasies can keep you going sometimes.”
It breaks up the monotony.
We’re all looking for something to break up the monotony of working from home, going for walks, cooking almost every meal and repeating the same process day after day. Some people find that escape through looking at home listings on sites like Zillow.
“For a moment, we’re not living in the same Groundhog Day that has become that loathsome phrase of ‘the new normal’ anymore,” said Jenny Maenpaa, a New York-based psychotherapist.
“If you’re in a healthy state of mind, it can help you take your mind off the routine that you’ve established for yourself,” Smerling said. “However, it can also produce feelings of jealousy, which can make you feel angry. If this happens, then you should probably stop browsing.”
Voyeurism can be fun.
During the pandemic, there aren’t as many opportunities for people-watching, eavesdropping on conversations and other ways of getting a glimpse into strangers’ lives. Scrolling through real estate listings may fill that void.
“There is a healthy voyeurism to it, in the same way we watch reality TV and read people’s money, food and sex diaries online,” Maenpaa said. “We get to look at houses staged by others, judge their taste and imagine ourselves either in their lives or the life we would design if we lived in that house.”
As with any form of voyeurism, don’t let Zillow browsing interfere with your own life.
“It’s really kind of fun to see how the other side lives, especially during the time of the haves and have nots,” Smerling said. “However, you have to be very careful that you aren’t putting so much of your real energy that you can’t function in your everyday life. It shouldn’t take the place of functioning in the real world. But it is one of the pleasures you can have in moderation that does no harm to anyone else or yourself!”
There’s a chemical response.
“When a property or idea you like pops on your screen, your brain responds in the same way it would if you had found a gold nugget on the sidewalk,” Bethany Cook, a clinical psychologist in Chicago, told HuffPost. “A release of happy hormones surge through your body, which in turn boost your mood and overall feeling state.”
Although this burst of joy may seem good for your mental health, there can be a downside that should be taken into consideration.
“Overall, it is mostly negative to one’s state and mind,” Lis said. “It will result in an instant dopamine burst of joy, followed by the crash.”
She pointed to the moment in the “SNL” sketch when a Zillow browser actually calls a real estate agent and reality shatters the escapist fantasy. Getting too caught up in that fantasy can be detrimental to your mindset, she said. Check in on how you feel before, during and after your Zillow sessions.
“It’s easy to view your new life to be better than the one you already have,” Lis added. “It is the extreme form of ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ Instead of living in the moment, you imagine yourself living someone else’s life in another place — and in a better place — than the one you already have. It’s kind of like social media. There is always someone thinner, prettier and more successful. There’s always that stunning Colonial with better bushes than the one you already have.”
It offers a sense of control.
“During these challenging and somewhat isolating times, several of my patients have reprioritized the importance of their homes and have begun searching home listing websites,” said Desreen Dudley, a Connecticut-based clinical psychologist with the telemedicine platform Teladoc. “Looking at homes online could be an escape of sorts, a hopeful way to look toward the future with excitement ― as well as a way to focus on what they can control during this tough time.”
In times of uncertainty, humans crave control to feel a sense of power and agency in their lives. For many, reasserting control has stemmed from creating routines, learning to cook or doing craft projects. Others have thrown themselves into real estate and home improvement.
“A year ago, we were planning vacations and comparing Airbnbs with our friends and family to plan for our future fun. But for almost a year now, there has been no planning, no fun, no future that we feel safe counting on,” Maenpaa said. “Many of us haven’t been able to even think about what travel or adventure looks like because we are stuck in our own four walls. It makes total sense then that we have turned that same planning eye to the one thing we can control right now, which is what those four walls could look like.”
We want to feel like informed consumers.
“We’ve grown up with the internet, so the ability to compare offers, find discount codes and publicly shame a company on social media to get the best deal has primed us to be careful, wary shoppers,” Maenpaa said. “Add that to our crippling student loan debt, and we are more likely to spend months or years searching for the perfect return on our investment instead of buying a starter home with the assumption we can upgrade in a few years.”
Endlessly scrolling through Zillow listings offers knowledge about the real estate market that makes us feel like more informed consumers ― and therefore more in control of our home-buying futures. In some ways, it may also provide a road map for making tangible goals and working toward them.
“It could be the catalyst for you to start planning backward from this dream by saying to yourself, ‘OK, I want to live in this city and in this kind of home, which seems to cost around this much for what I want. So to afford this life, I need to be making this salary, which in my field means this title. Or maybe I’m going to change careers because mine just won’t get me there in the amount of time I want, so let me think about boosting my resume or adding a certification or skill in the near future,’” Maenpaa said. “And so on until you’ve gathered enough data about what it would take for you to achieve this next phase.”
There may be unaddressed needs at play.
“Habitually browsing through sites like these might be a symptom related to a longing for making changes in one’s life, whether the changes be a new home, a new career or even a new relationship,” said Paula Durlofsky, a clinical psychologist in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and author of “Logged In and Stressed Out: How Social Media is Affecting Your Mental Health.”
“Therefore, this behavior might represent an unmet emotional need that’s looking to be met through misguided digital habits,” Durlofsky continued. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s important to take the time to examine and acknowledge what’s driving this behavior so you can find real solutions to your issues.”
If you find yourself increasingly drawn to real estate websites, take the time to consider what you’re really looking for. It could be a bigger home or simply a different home or something else entirely.
“Are you looking to make other changes in your life that might not actually have to do with moving to a new home but rather could be disguised as such, when in actuality one might really be looking to change careers or make other types of personal changes such as working on their significant relationship or figuring out how to get healthy?” Durlofsky said. “Getting honest with your feelings and motivations is important because it ultimately brings you closer to your honest issues and for finding workable solutions.”
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