The psychology behind our love of ‘Zillow porn’

Browsing for houses we can't afford can make us feel bad—or help us figure out our deepest desires.

My fascination with real estate listings began when I was young. My foster mother and I, both orphans, would whiz through suburban neighborhoods searching for houses we’d live in one day—all while knowing we had no plans or means to leave our apartment in a housing project just outside of Boston. In my teens I scoured every real estate listing book I could get my hands on. Today, even though I own a home, I still find myself searching—and the aimless hunt is easier than ever. With websites such as Realtor.com, Zillow, Trulia, and Redfin, I can zip from a Miami penthouse to a mountain retreat in Vail without even leaving my own abode. For me, these technological advances simply make my lifelong hobby more efficient. But the digitization of real estate has also introduced brand new looky-loos to the practice. 

This habitual home searching is quickly becoming a part of the cultural lexicon. “Saturday Night Live” recently featured a skit about millennials salivating over Zillow porn, and Curbed now has a weekly column devoted to listings found while idly browsing. In 2020, Zillow saw a total of 9.6 billion visits to its website and app, up 1.5 billion from 2019. But only a “single-digit percentage” turned into buyers, according to the company’s CEO. Data from the National Association of Realtors confirms as much, showing that just 5.64 million existing homes changed hands in 2020. It seems clear that for many of us, searching for real estate has become a rather serious hobby. A 2014 survey by Discover Home Loans suggests that even earnest potential homeowners can go a little too hard on the tire-kicking process; some two-thirds of those surveyed thought their habit of scrolling through listings had become addictive. 

Why has online house-hunting morphed into a roleplay activity? “My take is that people want to experience vicariously what they doubt they may ever have,” says Edie Weinstein, a licensed social worker in Pennsylvania. She says it’s the same reason people watch home renovation, decor, and DIY shows. Lynn Saladino, a clinical psychologist in New York City, agrees, noting that it’s perfectly natural to enjoy imagining how other people live and even to place yourselves in their shoes. It’s okay on occasion, Saladino says, to “pretend you have something that you don’t.”

But not everyone is simply assembling an internal vision board. The urge for virtual nesting can scratch a much deeper itch, too. “Some who peruse listings are fulfilling what they might have missed in their childhood,” Weinstein says. 

That explanation resonates with me: Growing up on the top floor of a city walkup, I wanted everything I didn’t have—a three-dormered cape filled with siblings on a tree-lined street, to be precise. For me, searching for real estate listings serves as wish fulfillment. It remains a way to dream, explore, and understand that I’ve always been in awe of the idea of a traditional home. 

While looking at listings is something anyone with an internet connection can indulge in, certain people may be more prone to searches, and not just because of the circumstances of their youth. “There are certain personalities always looking for the next best thing. There are also the people caught in a situation where they wish for better,” says Saladino. Meanwhile, people with anxiety may browse as a way to cope, using the habit to self-soothe, according to Lindsay Weisner, a clinical psychologist in Long Island, New York, and author of Ten Steps to Finding Happy: A Guide to Permanent Satisfaction

There are a host of benefits to searching for homes we’ll never buy. The pure escapism and distraction of moving into another space and life, even if only virtually, is appealing, especially during a global pandemic. “With COVID, people are looking for things that make them feel grounded, and homes are definitely something that does this,” says Saladino. With the uncertainty of the past year, financial insecurity, rising levels of unemployment, and the stress of global lockdowns, the entire world has been thrown out of whack. Weinstein calls our home searches, “a substitute for being in the real world,” which most of us have been isolated from in recent months. Plotting out imaginary future moves might also help us feel a sense of control in unprecedented times. “Some people bake bread, some do crafts, some organize their spaces, and some imagine living elsewhere,” Weinstein says. Anything that puts us firmly in the driver’s seat can provide comfort in a world that feels full of chaos. 

Weisner thinks SNL hit the nail on the head when they called it “Zillow porn.” Online home searches, she explains, likely activate the same neurotransmitters that light up when we take in erotica. “Dopamine is the anticipatory hormone, which means it is released when you anticipate a future good or reward, and then again if and when you receive that reward,” Weisner says. While Zillow surfing only gives you one serving of dopamine—because you’re not actually receiving the payoff you’d get if you bought the house—it’s still a temporary balm for your brain. (And unlike actual homeownership, your dose of dopamine isn’t followed by the existential nausea of staring down a 30-year mortgage.) 

The digital hobby serves more practical purposes as well. It can help us with everything from gleaning decorating ideas to setting goals for the future. The average price of an American home has risen by more than $300,000 in the past 40 years, and in 2016, just 53 percent of 35 year olds in the US owned houses—making millennials some 20 percent less likely to own their own homes than their Baby Boomer parents were at the same age in the early ‘80s. Millennials make up the largest share of overall home buyers, and have since 2014, but high housing prices and the crush of student loan debt made 12.3 percent of millennial renters surveyed in 2019 say they’d probably rent forever. Seeing what’s out there can help young folks dealing with these steep odds start saving accordingly, Saladino says, or encourage them to rethink their future plans about where and how they hope to make a home. GenXers and Boomers may be searching real estate listing sites to help set new goals as well—not for starter homes, but for the houses they’ll retire to. 

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No matter your age, goal setting has a host of psychological benefits, including driving people toward success, achievement, and fulfillment. A 2006 review of existing studies on the subject correlated the process of lining up difficult but specific targets with an increase in self-confidence and motivation. Saladino suggests that if people want to use their real estate search as a goal-setting tool, they should invest in ways to turn their searches into action and look seriously at getting from point A to point B. 

While browsing for houses can be a fun and relaxing distraction, a useful coping mechanism, or a way of planning for the future, it can also have a downside. For many, contrasting their lives to others, or their homes to others, can create unhappiness and discontent. One study in The Journal of Adult Development found that making social comparisons can lead to many negative emotions including guilt, envy, and regret. Another 2014 study on social media use supports the link between frequent comparisons and low self-esteem. And just as heavily curated, filtered, and edited Instagram shots may leave you with a distorted view of how well everyone else is living, a perfectly staged and photographed house could skew your sense of what a home should look like. 

Weisner also adds that anything that causes us to withdraw into a fantasy world has the potential to make us less present in our real lives. “If scrolling through houses is interfering with your professional or personal relationships or your ability to complete tasks, you might have a problem,” she says. Saladino agrees. “When you start to see dissociation, people losing time when doing this, it may be turning into an unhealthy habit,” she says.

If you feel as though your indulgence in Zillow porn is doing more harm than good, you should try to explore your motivation for scrolling. Are you unhappy with some aspect of your own life? Are you trying to compare yourself to others? Saladino suggests asking yourself what you feel when you find a property that gives you shivers. What about it appeals to you? Are you lusting after the outdoor spaces? Drooling over a gleamingly clean bathroom? Pining for the exquisite dishes you’d cook if only you had such a gorgeous kitchen? Once you figure that out, you can work to heal whatever you feel is lacking in your own life. You may not be able to transplant yourself to the sprawling home of your Zillow-scrolling dreams, but you might do yourself a world of good by getting some plants, committing to a new cleaning routine, or taking a cooking class. 

Whether we are looking to feel grounded by a split-level in suburbia, or excited by an upscale high-rise in Manhattan, looking at homes can be a great coping mechanism in times of stress. But it can also be the key to finding the fulfillment we didn’t even realize was missing.