My daily use of real estate apps started off as a justifiable act: my husband, Kumar, and I we were in the market for a house after receiving the news that he’d matched for a gastroenterology fellowship in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the time, we were living in New York City, paying budget-breaking rent for a tiny apartment. Thus, we figured—why not put our money into a small starter home when we move? We wanted a yard for our two little dogs to run around in. We wanted enough floor space to unfold a yoga mat. And just the idea alone of having a guest bedroom instead of a guest blow-up mattress enticed me to use every bathroom break at work to scour online listings of houses for sale in our desired neighborhoods. I even clicked on the Zillow, Redfin, and Trulia apps on my phone underneath the table during meetings.
During dinner, I showed Kumar the properties that I’d “favorited” that day. “Look at the size of the front porch on this one!” I’d say. At night, after crawling into bed, I’d scroll through the interior and exterior photos of houses and fall asleep dreaming about garden plots, open space, and kitchen islands. I was obsessed.
It paid off—initially. From our studio in New York City, we put in an offer on an old two-bedroom Polish flat in a diverse city neighborhood. After receiving an excellent inspection report back, we bought the house sight unseen. Yet, despite the excitement of finalizing the sale, I felt an immediate loss: I no longer had an excuse to occupy my free time with these real estate apps. I used to scroll through digital property profiles for at least two hours every day for months. Now, whenever I picked up my phone, my thumb twitched with anticipation. I needed my fix.
Out of concern, I deleted everything but my favorite app: Zillow. I told myself I’d keep it in order to stay up-to-date on home values in our new neighborhood. That lie didn’t last long. By the end of the week, I was scrolling through pictures of properties in cities like New Orleans, Anchorage, Honolulu, Seattle, and Denver.
The National Association of Realtors estimates that 5.51 million existing homes were sold in the U.S. in 2017. When compared to the average number of users that Zillow reports they see in one month—160 million—it’s clear that I’m not the only person interested in scanning through real estate listings without the purpose of buying a house. Furthermore, I’m also not alone in becoming obsessed with these apps. In 2014, TIME reported that a survey from Discover Home Loans found that two-thirds of recent homebuyers surveyed said that looking at online properties had “become addicting.”
This is all especially interesting, given that homeownership rates in the U.S. have plunged dramatically during the last decade. The media reports frequently on the trend of millennials not buying houses, even if the number of young people taking on home mortgages might be increasing. Overall, it seems as if the American dream of owning your own home is still strong, even if just in our imaginations.
By the time closing day on the house rolled around, our lives had drastically changed. Kumar finished his medical residency, I quit my job, we moved across the country, and I got to work updating our new 120-year-old house. I painted the interior and exterior of the house, swapped out the bulky wooden ceiling fans for sleek and modern light fixtures, and renovated the kitchen. The yard, overgrown with thorns and weeds, took me two weeks to tame. And once everything we could afford to do was done, I looked around and realized that it was time for me to get back to real life. I had to figure out how to start a new career as a freelancer. I had to make friends in a city where I didn’t know a soul. I had to start writing a book.
All these things were overwhelming at points, so to escape, I opened up Zillow. I escaped into listings of historic farmhouses in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. Or I imagined my dogs running around a hundred acres of land on some million-dollar ranch in Montana. The act of envisioning myself in all of these different spaces was silly and indulgent, but it was also deeply relaxing.
Of course, this desire to see other people’s homes isn’t new. As a child, my mother and I would occasionally stop into open houses after running errands. “Let’s just see whether this place is as nice as it looks from the outside,” my mother would say. We’d stroll through finished basements that opened onto landscaped lawns. We’d “oooh” at jetted bathtubs and showers with pebble floors and imagined what our lives would be like if we lived here.
But now I can view the herringbone floors, the vintage transoms, and the rows of built-in bookshelves cleverly crafted underneath the stairs wherever and whenever I want. And there’s no realtor watching me in the corner, asking if I have any questions. I don’t have any questions; I just want to momentarily escape into this beautiful life that I’ll never be able to afford.
One morning—after eight months had passed since we carried our belongings into our first home—the desire to detox hit me. I took a deep breath and hovered a finger over the Zillow app button. I deleted it, along with all of its hundreds of saved homes.
There is no alternative universe in which my life is magically wonderful—where I am magically wonderful. These homes would never be the place where I baked bread, where I celebrated the publication of my first book, or finally took up the hobby of watercolor painting.
Here, in this little two-bedroom home that we own, I am safe from the brutal Wisconsin winters, the tomato plants in my garden have already reached the second rung of their round cages, and my dogs like to lie in the patches of sunlight that stream across the cedar floors. It is up to me to make it the space where I bake that loaf, write that book, and paint that painting. I realize now that even in the age where you can instantly see if the grass is actually greener elsewhere, I am so blessed to own the home I do. It is enough.