Online real estate browsing sites like Trulia and Zillow put hundreds of homes at the fingertips of anyone who wants to view them. Although both started as websites, they also now have apps that let people examine homes from anywhere around the globe. In the market? Send prospective listings to your friends and family, or better yet, let them do some scouting for you. Or what about if you’re just a wannabe homeowner, or simple nosy and like to peep into the lives of others? They fulfill that need, too.
In the same way society has wholeheartedly embraced using the internet to peruse potential mates, weighing up his or her smile, body and back story, we’re now also spending time online swooning for wraparound porches, swimming pools and finished basements.
However, dating apps like Tinder, OKCupid and Bumble (to name only a few) have drawn negative attention recently because how their seemingly unlimited partnering options make it nearly impossible for users to settle on one person. The ease of finding a partner, it seems, is making us choosier about who that person should be. More options leads to only more particulars the right option needs to meet.
This kind of decision paralysis has also been noticed in Netflix users and grocery shoppers. So is it affecting the way we shop for houses, too?
It’s all about daydreams.
Decision paralysis is usually about a fear of buyers remorse…more options mean more ways to choose wrong. But the surprising trend among browsing apps is that many people are on them expecting not to make a decision at all. Sites like Trulia and Zillow are being used increasingly as forms of entertainment. We can’t help but browse through their beautiful photos, dreaming up what it would be like to live somewhere else, even when we’re already homeowners.
Zillow has 160 million visitors each month, according to information reported in Slate back in 2016. The interesting thing is, a lot of the millions of homes on Zillow aren’t for sale…they’re market reports, potential listings and homes recently sold. Instead of looking for properties they could buy, people examine abodes others have—looking inside them without leaving their couches.
In 2016, Google found that people visiting real estate apps spend nearly an hour per visit.
However, there’s no strong evidence to suggest these people are even casually in the market for buying homes. In fact, statistics from the Google study showed only one in five people who browsed real estate sites and apps intended to purchase.
Going back to 2016, when Zillow reported 160 million visitors per week, people bought nearly 5.5 million homes, which made that year the best for real estate in a decade. However, there’s still a huge gap between the people who look at homes and those who buy them.
What is the ‘just browsing’ experience?
Looking at homes and other desirable products instead of immediately buying them is called aspirational browsing.
It has become particularly prevalent among Generation Z (the ones born in the 90s through to the mid aughts). They love the thrill of the hunt and broadcast their progress on social media, window shopping to seemingly no end. Rather than having an end goal, browsing has become its own activity isolated from the purchase or the obtaining of a goal. How many times has a happily coupled individual been heard to ask a friend if they can see their potential online matches? They’re not looking for love, they’re just looking.
Is it getting harder to sell real estate?
Real estate companies aren’t at all disheartened about the discrepancy between the potential number of visits to a website versus homes sold in a given month. They know that while aspirational browsing may lead to longer periods of looking and decision-making, the fact that these sites are stoking aspirations is good for the market overall. I.e., it may be slowing people down, but it’s putting more potential buyers in the pool.
As Kelsey Kroon of Douglass Elliman Real Estate told Observer, “Consumers love of browsing real estate listings online generally helps real estate sales in that this may be a preliminary step for potential buyers to have full exposure to peruse what’s available on the market.”
Jeff Cates of Cates Real Estate Auction Company concurred. “We are always happy to have someone looking through our listings no matter what got them there. Even if they aren’t actively looking to buy, they get exposure to our company and may even mention something they saw to a friend or coworker. The more people talking about our listings, the better!”
What does this mean for the future of home buying?
It’s clear the internet has caused a shift in the way people buy homes, allowing them to shop around more before making decisions. But there are, of course, a number of other factors affecting how and why people make the decision to buy a home. An investigation of the decade after the recession and housing market crash of 2006 found that since that low point, housing market prices have climbed, and lending standards have gotten stricter, making it harder for people to buy homes.
Also, the health of the 2016 economy resulted in more job growth but caused a shortage of places to live. Therefore, some people considered renting and living with housemates to keep living costs manageable.
So, realistically, although aspirational browsing and massively popular real estate sites changed how people buy homes—and possibly made them pickier—they’re not necessarily the only factors causing delays in housing purchases. Buying a home takes a considerable amount of planning. This is one arena where aspirations browsing may not be hindering our ability to be strong decision makers; as long as we’re planning while browsing, these sites may actually be making people more prepared to enter the housing market.