Aspirational Zillow Browsers, Unite

The rush of scrolling through homes you'll never own, as told by the people who do it every single day

February 27, 2023 6:25 am
A diorama of a suburban home with a For Sale sign.
One Zillow user compared the site's bright red stickers to a "slot machine."
Getty Images/fStop

In the words of the immortal never-nude, Tobias Fünke: “There are dozens of us…dozens!”

Zillow-ers — furtive, curious, addicted browsers that they are — might imagine themselves part of a tiny, mighty minority. Surely most people perusing the 17-year-old website mean business, no? They’re making a move or closing a sale or finding out whether their annoying neighbors have pools.

But recent surveys indicate that the overwhelming majority of people scouring Zillow are “just looking,” conducting dream house drive-bys from the comfort of their laptops. It’s the adult equivalent of hoofing up to the neighborhood that gives out the best Halloween candy…except you can now peak well past the entryway.

There are more than dozens of us (I’ll cop to beachfront-hopping the Eastern Seaboard); there are millions. So many people have now seen so many listings that 67% of American homes are now marked “viewed” in Zillow’s internal database, regardless of their market status.

To glean an understanding of why on earth we’re all so enraptured with homes we’ll likely never own, we spoke to a delightfully random panel of real estate junkies — with CEOs, travel agents and YouTubers among their ranks. Some treat the site like a video game, others like a social media platform. Some are on the hunt for bathtub porn, others (interior designers, landscapers) are trying to get better at their jobs.

And even once many make the leap from browser to buyer, the obsession doesn’t really go away. That’s the critical period during which they need to make sure they weren’t screwed. Is it a healthy habit, at the end of the day? Our responders lean towards yes. At the very least, it’s nice to know they’re not alone.

The Unintentional Hilarity of LinkedIn's Positive-Vibe Warriors
The one social media platform we can’t afford to delete is on a back-patting bender

Let the games begin

“I always say it’s the ‘only game on my phone,’ since I don’t have any games downloaded. My wife and I send each other listings multiple times a day. I also exchange listings with my in-laws and other friends constantly. We’re not necessarily in the market for a new home now, but it’s fun to see what’s out there. It’s also fun to look at giant houses, share funny tidbits from the house descriptions and sometimes just imagine what life would be like in a different home.” — Justin Bajan, co-founder of Familiar Creatures

“As someone who has moved around a lot in her life, I just love to see what’s on the market. What amenities are being included these days and what the prices are looking like for rentals, especially against an economy and job market that are constantly changing.” Antonia Abramowitz, account executive at Diamond Public Relations

The Zillowian Dream

“I’ve been an almost daily Zillow browser for the last decade. I purchased two homes during that time, but I’ve never stopped the Zillow hunt. I absolutely love perusing multi-million dollar estates that I could never (and probably would never even want to) afford. I browse Upper East Side penthouses, historic mansions in Charleston, mid-century dreams in Palm Springs. I was obsessed with Kalamazoo for a while, and I’ve never even been to Michigan. Browsing around the map is like a low-stakes way of traveling, with a hint of nosiness. It’s also always lovely and harmless to dream for even a few minutes that I could buy a home with the perfect ’50s pool and have an entirely different life. And then…I go back to reality.” Beth R. Martin, design expert

“As people are aware, the cost of living here in the Bay Area is bleed-from-your-eyes expensive. Everything costs a lot, but housing is especially expensive.When I’m traveling, I often find myself opening up Zillow and looking at the cost of houses in the area I’m visiting or driving through. Almost always, it’s far less than the Bay Area. ‘A five-bedroom house? For $300,000?! That would buy a dilapidated shack in the East Bay!’ is how these things usually go. To be clear, I own a home in the Bay Area, and I’m not leaving! But looking at less expensive places on Zillow provides a way to daydream about ‘If I bought that goat farm in Kern County, I could have 50 acres and only work one day a week!’
For a lot of people in the Bay Area — and probably for other high-cost areas, too — scrolling through Zillow is a lot like watching #Vanlife videos. It’s an escapist fantasy about a simpler, less expensive existence.” Thomas Smith, Editor in Chief, Bay Area Telegraph

“I actually post FSBO listings for undeveloped land on Zillow, but if you look at my personal favorites — they’re all $3 million homes and above. Honestly, I view it the same way that I view scrolling Pinterest or watching HGTV dream home shows. The difference is that these homes are close to me. They seem more attainable and, therefore, more aspirational. So instead of zoning out of the real world entirely, I start thinking about what I would have to do today to make that dream come true. Doing the math and imagining the lifestyle (which would require a lot more than just being able to afford a $3M home), is one way I evaluate my goals — especially when they seem far away.” — Dallas Waldon, Land Boss

Occupational applications

“I like to look at home interiors that are dressed up and staged. Within my industry it’s important to stay on top of emerging trends in interior and exterior paint, so I like to browse homes and see what exterior paint jobs are working for what style homes. Seeing more unique or creative homes can also help inspire new design ideas for clients — sometimes something just doesn’t seem like it would work until you see it in action!” — Andre Kazimierski, CEO, Improovy Painters Denver.

“I do enjoy browsing Zillow every so often, usually a couple of days throughout the week. It’s certainly interesting to scour various house layouts and see what’s selling at what cost, but there’s an element of research as well. Browsing the market gives me an idea of the types of landscaping that are popular, and what’s really been boosting curb appeal, which keeps me informed on current trends in my field.” — Ryan Farley, CEO of LawnStarter

Is it a healthy habit?

“What started as a daily habit in 2020 has become a pastime today. The obsession can be unhealthy, depending on how long you spend each day on it. But I find it healthy have an understanding of current market conditions — the photos, price history, mortgage rates, and easy interface keep me coming back daily. It’s excellent for rentals as well.” — Molly Egan, architect

“It’s never a bad thing to look at what could be possible for you, when it comes to the house you wish to own. For business owners especially, there are going to be days where your motivation is lacking. Taking an aspirational scroll through Zillow is one way to provide yourself with the proverbial kick in the pants you need to get going and work a little harder. ” — Nick Mueller, Director of Operations at

“The real estate market is volatile. I saw plenty of folks lose their shirts in 2007 and 2008. But there’s a lot of knowledge on Zillow, if you know how to stay objective. I’ve been living abroad for years, but I would like to move back to the United States 10 years from now, when my kids are closer to high school age. I look past the photos and pay attention to the metrics that will differentiate one listing price from another. There’s a professional vocabulary that realtors use to describe a property, which I want to understand better. I was thinking about taking some real estate classes but I am going to hold off on that until I get a little more serious about relocating.” — Paul Hudson, writer

Mind the dopamine dump

“In my opinion, it’s unhealthy. Without a doubt. I’m actually in the market to buy a house, but there’s just not much inventory right now…I’m living in a small house with my (lovely) mother-in-law, wife and 15 month old daughter. I don’t have an office or studio to run my YouTube business, so work is tough. Our stuff is still in storage, probably getting moldy at this point. I check Zillow at least five to six times per day right now. I wouldn’t call it aspirational because that would imply that this compulsive habit generates some sort of joy. I’m checking out of desperation: maybe there will be a new listing this time? Maybe it’ll be our dream house? Plus, Zillow is very good at UX. They’ll make a listing you’ve already seen light up bright red, as if it’s just been listed. They’ll also put a little ‘for you’ badge on some seemingly random listings. I hate to admit it, but it’s all really effective. Every now and then there is a new listing that I actually want to see. It’s like a slot machine: there’s just enough reward to keep me coming back.” Brock McGoff, YouTuber

Browsers → buyers

“Before I was in the market for a house, I liked to get a handle of what kind of houses were or were not in my budget. It set a realistic expectation for what I was working towards. With so many listings having the 3D walkthrough option, it’s like being able to go to an open house without leaving the couch. It’s fun to find quirky design choices (like pink carpet in the bathroom) or get inspiration on how I would like my own house to function. After I bought a house, I still browse Zillow to keep tabs on neighboring houses to affirm that my purchase was solid (or not). I like to compare houses in the same price range to see how my house stacks up. I waited a while to go back to Zillow browsing after buying a house because I was afraid I might find a better house for a better price. I didn’t want buyer’s remorse. But now that some time has passed, it doesn’t really matter what I find; I am settled in my home and loving it. Thankfully, anything I am seeing on the market confirms that my house was a decent purchase.” — Tabitha Bailar, travel agent

“Over the past year, I checked daily to reinforce our decision to build a home. I checked comps in our area and regularly compared them to our home. Now I’m checking to see if building was a good decision…so perhaps I have a bit of buyer’s remorse, and want validation that it was a good choice. But I also like to see what else is out there. Although we built our home, I still feel like there’s a ‘more perfect’ home for us. Something that ticks all the boxes, not just 95% of them. I feel like it’s akin to finding a unicorn, but still, I look .I’m not sure when I will stop checking Zillow daily.” Brea Darnell, travel columnist

“I was deep in my Zillow scrolling habit when I worked a corporate cubicle job five years ago. Similar to looking at vacations I know I’m not going to take, I’d open properties I loved and send them to my husband: “OMG I love this!” or “bathtub goals” would commonly follow in the text thread. We weren’t pursuing purchasing any type of home, had connection to a realtor. The one day I found an amazing property, which I learned was a successful Airbnb rental. I found the posting on Monday afternoon and sent to my husband, “I know this is crazy but….” By that Friday, the seller had accepted our offer. Zillow scrolling can be a dangerous game to play!” — Kelsey Morita, travel advisor at Fora

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.