real estate porn
Sites like Zillow and Sotheby's International Realty have been a balm in these difficult times
By Caroline Reilly / May 20, 2020 7:00 am

I have long been a firm believer in the healing powers of Zillow. As someone who is both incredibly nosy and a big fan of interior design and decoration, perusing the homes of other people on real-estate websites meets my needs in a way few other activities do. I love going for drives in my neighborhood and spotting new listings, then going home and pulling them up online to get a look inside, assessing their taste and figuring out which rooms need work. (In other words, judging them.) Then there’s the fantasy shopping: opening Sotheby’s International Realty and sorting high-to-low worldwide, browsing French castles and Italian villas all listed as “price up on request.” For international realty, I’m a big fan of Savills, which also runs a fantastic Instagram account where they upload pictures of their most enticing listings.

Real-estate websites have gotten me through a lot. I created a Zillow account shortly after my endometriosis diagnosis, and during bad pain days I’d spend hours escaping to homes all over the country, saving my favorites (at present, I have more than 300 homes saved). I would scour the country for federal-style homes with original crown moldings and farm-style homes with open plan kitchens. It helped me escape from my pain and allowed me to look forward to an imagined future, transporting me out of my reality and into someplace more comfortable. As someone with a chronic illness, being stuck in one place is something I’ve learned to cope with over the years, and real-estate websites are among the most productive tools in my escapism toolbox. Given my personal experience with the pursuit, it’s no surprise to see so many others turning to it during a time when no one can leave their own houses.

Abbey Oldham, a photographer, video producer and fellow fantasy home shopping enthusiast, says she’d noticed herself spending more time on high-end real-estate sites since quarantine started. “I’ve been fantasy home shopping more in quarantine because it fulfills my love of travel,” she says. “I can ‘visit’ a Mediterranean mansion in Napa Valley one minute, and a New Orleans townhouse the next.”

Real-estate porn is nothing new. People spend weekends driving around New England trying to sneak peaks at country estates for sale; others pop in on open houses in high-priced markets like Brooklyn or San Francisco; still others dedicate entire Pinterest accounts to “dream home” listings they look at. But while we’re all stuck inside, sites like Zillow and Sotheby’s have been the only way to browse homes we have no intention of buying, and representatives from both sites tell InsideHook their sites have seen a surge because of that.  

“Zillow saw a resurgence in web traffic in April,” says Amanda Pendleton, a Zillow spokesperson. She says after a dip in page views in March, the site yielded an 18 percent year-over year page-view spike the following month.

Zillow economist Jeff Zucker confirms that fantasy is a likely culprit in the increase in traffic; people are either browsing entirely for fun, or soothing their quarantine woes by looking ahead at potential new homes. “It could be coming from optimistic buyers hoping to get an early jump on their plans as soon as restrictions are lifted, or simply from aspirational viewers stuck at home and seeking an escape through real estate.”

John Pesserini, the global vice president of interactive marketing for Sotheby’s International Realty Affiliates LLC, echoes those sentiments. “Clearly people are voraciously consuming all thing real estate more than ever,” he says. “Sothebysrealty.com’s website traffic has increased 25 percent for March and April year over year, and our YouTube channel, the number one in the real-estate category, doubled video views in the last 30 days, from 2.2 million to 4.4 million.”

Oldham says fantasy home shopping also fulfills her love for online shopping without the element of further burdening delivery workers. “I’ve been online shopping a lot less in quarantine out of respect for the safety of the warehouse and delivery workers, and checking out dream homes online has filled that void for me in a way.”

Hoping that all this fantasy browsing translates into real-world buying, realtors are also adapting their business model to these contact-less times for those who are still actually shopping for homes.

“Virtual is the word of the day when it comes to the reaction to COVID-19,” says Passerini, who explained that sellers and brokers are using tools like Facebook Live and Zoom to meet clients’ needs. “From virtual team meetings to virtual open houses, we leveraged many of the technology offerings we’ve had available to our brokers, agents and their clients for years.”

Pendleton says Zillow has seen a nearly 600-percent increase in the creation of 3D home tours on their site since April, and Passerini says although they’ve been doing virtual reality and video content on their website for more than five years, they’ve now added a landing page to their site that highlights these features, leveraging technology they were already using before the pandemic set in.

This technology is to the benefit of fantasy and legitimate shoppers alike. Passerini says Sotheby’s has always put a premium on the visual experience for their clients; now, having pioneered virtual home tours with high-resolution on their website, they’ve made it an even more desirable destination. (As a Sotheby’s fan, I can confirm that the home galleries are never short of magazine worthy.) And Pendleton says Zillow users and clients can take advantage of Zillow 3D Home, an app for your phone that allows you to partake in immersive home tours, which is basically an erotic experience for someone who is both a homebody and real-estate hound, like myself.

 “Zillow’s core mission has always been to make it radically easier for people to move to the next chapter of their lives,” Pendleton says. And while the company hopes for that to translate into sales, for many, the fantasy that goes along with just browsing is helping us imagine better times ahead.