April 14, 2024


business is good for you

A Strangely Satisfying Pandemic Pastime

9 min read

Alex Lang is a full-time student, but she looks at houses on the real estate site Zillow several times a week. “Ninety percent of the time I look at houses that are way out of my price range,” she says. “It motivates me to make that much money one day so I could live in a house like those.”

Ari, a 23-year-old in Tampa, reports visiting Zillow about once every two weeks. She plays a game in which she sends her friends four homes in different price brackets. “We decide on our favorite home in each bracket and, like, critique the homes,” she tells Glamour. She already owns a home, but hopes to purchase another house as an investment. Her weakness is beachfront properties in St. Petersburg, Florida.

For Lily,* a 29-year-old renter in Chicago, home-buying sites fill the void that window shopping left behind. She’s trying to pay down her debts, so buying a house isn’t in her immediate future, but looking at them has become a fascination. “I scroll through condos and houses more frequently than I scroll through Tinder,” she says. She’s been lusting after one-bedroom exposed condos with in-unit washer-dryers in Chicago.

A six-acre Nashville estate, with 11 bathrooms and 13 parking spaces, priced just south of $15 million. A turn-of-the-20th-century five-bedroom with a turret in Butte, Montana, for under $200,000. A two-bedroom with an outdoor toilet and a treehouse in L.A.’s Los Feliz neighborhood for $1.4 million.

What is it about this plan-resistant era of fear and panic that makes us wonder: What could I do with 16 bathrooms? Browsing through listings, once the purview of only the very rich and the very daydream-prone, has become a staple of pandemic behavior. Online home listings on Zillow and other platforms are like deluxe preset Pinterest boards for financial and aesthetic ambitions.

Whether you’re one credit check away from calling a broker, or you have about $32 in checking, looking at listings is addicting. They’re aspirational. They’re entertaining. They’re stability porn.

And demand for escapist floor plans has never been higher. Realtor.com had record-breaking web traffic in June, with 86 million visitors coming to the site. Amanda Pendleton, Zillow’s home trends expert, tells Glamour that web traffic to sale listings has “skyrocketed”—it’s up 41% from 2019. “One of my millennial coworkers just told me that among her friends, Zillow is the new Instagram!” she says.

It sounds like a too-good-to-be-true P.R. line. It also describes a lot of people’s actual behavior. Arianny, a 21-year-old woman living with her parents in Boston, prowls Zillow looking for a house that will “just wow” her. Jennifer, a 19-year-old in Chandler, Arizona, checks the platform obsessively, even though she has no idea when she’ll buy a home. “I do it just to envision myself living somewhere lavish,” she says.

With all the recent tweets joking about looking at houses on Zillow posted in just the last three weeks, I could paper every wall in a sprawling four-bedroom (with a detached garage and pool house).

As a child, I imagined I would grow up to live near the Eiffel Tower or in a penthouse next to the theater where Wicked debuted. Now I greedily scroll through preforeclosure two-bedrooms on the outskirts of Portland. The generation that grew up playing MASH—that handwritten proto-Buzzfeed quiz that determined whether you would live in a Mansion, Apartment, Shack, or House—has become extremely online.

It makes sense that more and more people are experiencing an obsession with home—and also an obsession with any home but their own—during a pandemic that calls for staying in. In places where serious COVID guidelines are still in effect, sheltering in place has become a lifestyle. Homes are now our offices, our movie theaters, our restaurants, and our children’s schools. They are a fortress against sickness—the only place where we can control, to some degree, whose germs come in and out.

When it feels like the ground is shifting beneath our feet, of course we want it to be steadied and earthquake-proof and blond hardwood and maybe even geothermally heated. If we’re going to be trapped inside, we want the square footage to be ample and the bathrooms plentiful. And as American life has become nightmarish, unrecognizable from just a few months ago, we dream about the capitalist-ist part of the American dream: homeownership.

Forget Animal Crossing, that quaint relic of a pandemic epoch gone by; the newest social simulations that allow people to live in an alternate universe are Zillow, RedFin, and Realtor.com.

And not everyone is just playing pretend. Despite the fact that the economy is in a recession, joblessness is at a historic high, racism feels both urgent and immutable, and a thick fog of uncertainty obscures everything, for every person, in every part of the country, some people are in fact shopping for actual homes.

It’s a combination of factors: Interest rates are at historic lows, and there’s a shortage of houses on the market. For people with secure work who are also working from home, an Atlanta three-bedroom with an actual white picket fence and a giant oak tree suddenly makes way more sense than paying thousands to a landlord for a shoebox apartment in D.C. or Los Angeles.

Dakotah, a 21-year-old tech worker who uses they/them pronouns, splits a $3,400-a-month 900-square-foot one-bedroom, two-bathroom with their partner, who is also in tech. “Because our rent is so high, we compare it to estimated mortgages on Zillow and dream of what we ‘could be’ paying for places that are much larger and would be permanent homes,” Dakotah says. “We’re paying an absurd amount in rent and are tired of just fantasizing about jetted tubs and big houses tucked in the woods, especially when the mortgages for these houses are lower than our rent.”

Among millennials, who are the biggest group of home buyers right now, despite their alleged fixation with fancy toast, this situation is creating a divide, says Stefanie OConnell Rodriguez, a financial expert who is a millennial herself. “If you’re in your mid-30s and you’ve just lost your job and your health insurance and are still on the hook for your student loans, it’s possible that you’ll write off the idea of homeownership altogether,” she says.

On the other hand, she says, “Many millennials who may have discounted the possibility of homeownership before, or put it off because of high costs, are now seizing the opportunity to buy due to record low mortgage rates and the rise of remote work.” Analysis by realtor.com found that millennials who borrow from their savings during this crisis could see a years-long setback in their home-buying plans. “If they lost one month’s worth of income, it would take them nine months to save that back,” Danielle Hale, the chief economist at realtor.com, tells Glamour. Six months of dipping into savings will cost a millennial four more years of saving to recoup—not because of a latte addiction, just because building up savings while meeting expenses is slow. “As is often the case during recessions, it creates opportunities for folks who can remain employed and creates real setbacks for folks who lose a job,” she says.

It’s like the pandemic took America’s huge wealth gap and created two even more distinct groups: people with reliable, remote-friendly jobs who are saving money on things like travel and dining out and fantasizing about two-car garages and heated pools. And people who used to be getting by, who are now jobless and facing evictions and possibly homelessness.

This increase in disparity is particularly painful because homeownership is a major opportunity for wealth building—a home is a more stable, long-term investment, and owning helps build wealth. But since the last housing crash, the number of renters has risen in the United States, up 4.2% from 2006 to 2016, APM Research Lab found. And the race divide is pronounced. “Homeownership rates for Black households have fallen every decade for the last 30 years,” Laurie S. Goodman and Christopher Mayer noted in a 2018 article about the American dream in the Journal for Economic Perspectives.

Black Americans were the hardest hit in the last recession, according to APM, and the New York Times reports that Black Americans are more affected by the current recession, as well. These setbacks build on existing inequality. “In 2015, Black households with a college education [were] less likely to own a home than white households whose head did not graduate from high school,” Goodman and Mayer found.

Jordan, a Black 24-year-old living alone in Los Angeles, is still a renter. But she does “deep dives” on Zillow as research—she dreams of having several investment properties. “My goal is to build generational wealth, especially important within the Black community,” she says. She hopes to own her first home by 2021. 

Brionna—a Glamour staffer living in Brooklyn—says she and her partner look at property sites with the dream of buying land, growing food, and living communally. But as a Black woman, even her daydreams are tainted by racism. “We’re trying to live that homestead life,” she says. “But it’s complicated because racism plays a big role in where we imagine ourselves living—yeah, the backwoods sounds nice, but we don’t want to be one highway exit away from a KKK chapter disguised as a 4H club or something. It’s disheartening—the most beautiful areas have the most terrible past of hurting people on their land.”  

In San Francisco, where I’m sheltering in place with my parents, a record number of people have broken their leases and moved in with their parents, presumably to save, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Those who can cut costs (or offload them onto parents or siblings) will in all likelihood bounce back faster from this crisis and may find themselves able to move into a sensible condo (with new stainless-steel appliances) or an adorable cottage (with partial views). But as I walk past million-dollar pastel properties in San Francisco, tabulating how much I’m saving on travel and dining out, I also step around growing tent cities. The gap between people who spend time on real estate sites with the intention to fork over a down payment versus those who are just fantasizing about the stability of homeownership versus those who don’t even have internet connections is dizzying.

Four months into shelter in place, I found myself doing something I had never done before—sitting two inches away from my computer screen, manically entering information into Zillow and scrolling breathlessly through aerial maps of rural Northern California, the coast of Maine, and suburban Michigan.

As a millennial in an unstable field, I had never thought that I could ever own a home, except in a long-standing daydream in which I am married to an astoundingly wealth cryptocurrency miner who cheats on me with his first love but I have to stay with him because he funds our daughter’s art classes. But after spending months working from home, the real worth of the tiny apartment I left behind in New York, compared with the money I was spending on it, seems not just stark but absurd. Five years in New York, paying between $950 and $1,000 a month for mice- and bedbug-ridden apartments, has cost me over $60,000 in rent alone. That’s a down payment. But now it’s gone. I’m not saying I could be living in a custom one-bedroom houseboat on Seattle’s scenic Lake Union right now ($314,950, gorgeous high wood ceilings), but I am saying this is bullshit.

Home-buyer horniness has hit the Glamour staff hard. “I call it lady porn, because it’s what I and my friends look up furtively when we get in bed at night,” says Sam Barry, Glamour’s editor in chief—her friends send one another properties in remote Wyoming and multimillion-dollar Hamptons houses that “we should go in on together.” As I requested a photo to accompany this article, Glamour design director Sarah Olin responded, “Do you want a picture of my boyfriend interrupting my workday to show me $20 million beachfront properties?”

“I’m pretty hopeful that my house will be similar to the ones I look at on Zillow,” says Jennifer, the Arizona college student. Same with Arianny, who has her eye on $9 million estates in Hidden Hills, California. Like most women who spoke to Glamour, Diana, the 21-year-old in Duluth, says her goal is just to buy a house one day, period.

“I know it won’t be anything like the multimillion-dollar homes I see on Zillow, but I really just look at that stuff for entertainment,” she says. “You don’t need eight bedrooms and an indoor pool to be happy…but it might help.”

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy. 

Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.                    

Originally Appeared on Glamour

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