Not so long ago, if you wanted to buy a house or rent a house or price a house or learn what your neighbor paid for her house or learn about the price of houses in Nashville so as to idly daydream about living there, you needed to talk to a real estate agent. If you wanted to see inside a house—eye the floor plan and the counters, the paint job and the cabinets, the size of the closets and the owner’s taste—you needed the permission of the person who lived there. If you wanted to gossip about real estate, falling prices, rising prices, the quality of local school districts, whether granite counters were over or so over, the famous person who had paid an astonishing amount to move from one spectacular home to another, the best you could do was uninformed speculation with someone you knew. Not so long ago, real estate was a closed box to which only licensed professionals held the key.
As it did so much else, the internet changed that. The mid-aughts saw the launch of Zillow, Trulia, Street Easy, and Redfin, sites that took the information in real estate listings—prices, pictures, mortgage rates—and made them available to the masses, while sites such as Curbed and the Observer energized real estate coverage by gossiping about it. Zillow, which now owns Trulia and Street Easy, was co-founded by the same man who started Expedia, a site that had similarly democratized travel information. Launched in 2006, Zillow let people price homes, see inside of homes, judge and covet homes from the comfort of their couches. Just as we could never know how much human beings enjoyed walking down the street listening to music until there was the technology to walk down the street and listen to music, we could never know how satisfying it was to scroll through listings for houses we were not seriously considering buying until there was the technology to do so. Owning a home has always been an American preoccupation, but the internet turned looking at homes into entertainment.
It is now possible to lose hours falling into Zillow holes and Street Easy morasses; to spend an evening in a haze of floor-plan porn; to eat a sad desk salad while scanning Pinterest’s “for the home” boards, the site’s most popular category. Money and style: These are the things that real estate online allow us to see. How much something costs and whether the cost was worth it. Brooklynites look at prices in Columbus and ponder moving. People in Bloomington look at prices in Chicago and shake their heads. We look at prices in our own neighborhoods, and when we meet someone whose home value we recently eyed, we have once-secret context with which to judge every statement he or she makes.
Zillow, which now has 160 million unique visitors a month and provides information on some 110 million homes, most of which are not on the market, also offers users a Zestimate, an estimate of a property’s market value that is reliably unreliable— which is to say, it’s a game. But the price tag is only the start. There is something about seeing the inside of a house, no matter what it looks like, that is so satisfying it must be hardwired into our lizard brains. Houses aren’t a metaphor; they are manifest. When you see inside of one, you are seeing not only the owner’s income, but her sophistication, her ambition, her taste—and comparing all of that with your own, an irresistible mix of solipsism and curiosity.
As real estate coverage has metastasized online, so it has on television. Consider House Hunters, which premiered on HGTV in 1999, a little before initially more popular shows such as Trading Spaces and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. According to the Washington Post, in its first year of production, House Hunters made a reasonable 26 episodes. By 2015, HGTV was making 447 episodes of House Hunters and its attendant spinoffs—House Hunters International, House Hunters Renovation, House Hunters International Renovation, House Hunters Off the Grid, House Hunters on Vacation, Tiny House Hunters. More than 30 million watch some iteration of House Hunters every month.
House Hunters is a warm bath, a calming tour through the notoriously stressful experience of homeownership. On any given episode someone looking for a place to live is shown three houses that hew to some but not all of his or her preferences. A couple looking for a starter home in Cincinnati has a budget of $150,000; they want to live on a certain side of town in a rambler with a kitchen big enough for an island and a washer and drier that aren’t in the basement. Will the couple choose the house that’s under budget but across town? The ranch or the colonial? The steal that has a purple living room? But it’s not just the repetition or the lack of serious conflict or the friendly female narrator that makes House Hunters so relaxing. It’s that on the show, real estate works as it should. People looking for houses can find them. First-time buyers can purchase places they love in their budgets. An older couple can afford a vacation home. No one is denied a mortgage. No one is outbid. With House Hunters, we vicariously live through a process that used to be considered banal and get satisfaction from its workaday completion.
Perhaps the way that these shows are soothing is in the manner of aspirin, a cure for a nagging ache. Our real estate obsession, after all, has taken hold most firmly not during a boom but a bust. Zillow, Curbed, and the rest began when the market was rising like the Hindenburg; in 2006, anyone could get a mortgage, and anyone could flip a house. It seemed straightforward why people would spend their leisure time eyeing real estate: It was fun and lucrative, the source only of happy endings. But interest in real estate has survived the crash, even as real estate has become one of the starkest examples of rising inequality. Rates of homeownership in America are lower than they have been since the ’60s. Homeowners in great swaths of the country lost equity, if their mortgages didn’t go underwater. It is much harder to secure a mortgage than it was, and more families are renting in perpetuity. And yet despite these facts, in certain cities, development, construction, and gentrification race ahead. The upper middle class, to say nothing of the poor, are being priced out of cities such as New York and San Francisco, where homes are scooped up at above asking all in cash, where prices regularly soar well over $1 million, and where long-term residents are being shoved out by new condos and bespoke coffee shops.
One might imagine this tension would make real estate too fraught to be entertaining. Who wants to spend one’s leisure time on that which is depressing or exorbitant? But all these complications have only given real estate the full flavor profile of something you can really sink your teeth into. As with the best entertainment, real estate makes you feel more than one thing at once. When you own a home, perhaps you check prices on Zillow to see them going up; when you don’t own a home, you check prices to see them going down. People watch House Hunters International and House Hunters on Vacation, in which couples acquire fantasy properties, just as they watch dozens of shows about tiny homes, which burnish frugality, thrift, and minimalism. When you see a gorgeous house you feel envy and aspiration and anger: You want it, and you want to copy it, and you love it, and you can’t have it. There’s pleasure and pain in fantasizing about owning a house that you can never afford, just as there is thrill and relief in seeing a house you would never want.
The earliest iterations of the reality TV real estate show, such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or Cribs, were (with memorable exception) aspirational, letting us peek into extravagant houses of wealthy celebrities, as were the predecessors to the real-estate sites, glossies such as Architectural Digest, that offered peeks into the bungalows and manses of the old and new rich. Now, in addition to series about tiny homes, Americans watch Storage Wars, which puts a silver lining on foreclosures, and Hoarders, which is like a horror movie where the house is the victim. More and more real estate–as-entertainment treats our anxieties, as it once exclusively treated our aspirations. Our fascination with shelter has grown alongside our anxieties about affording that shelter. In a world that is only getting more stratified, we’re only going to get more anxious. But look: There’s a two-bedroom down the street. I saw the pictures, and they can have it.