The Time-Wasting Magic of Online Real Estate Listings

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

I am not sure when exactly it started, but for a few early years of our relationship, this is how my now-husband Dustin and I filled the void: by emailing each other links to real estate listings. Sometimes we edited the subject line (WHAT, oh shitttt, our future home, etc.), but mostly we left intact the one that was auto-generated: the address of some house in a city where we did not live. In the body of the email was a link, commentary often absent but implied: What if this was our life?

It was easier to page through pictures of other people’s houses than to talk about our actual career goals, or our big fears, or what we wanted from each other. Talking about houses was a way into that other stuff, too, though — a way to dream up what we wanted in a home, and in a family. What we could afford, or ever afford, was a way to talk about what we valued, or what we were willing to do without.

Real estate was a shared fantasy. The web platform varied according to whatever region we were fixated on at the time. Upstate New York and Trulia came first, the summer we first renewed the lease on our railroad apartment in Brooklyn. It was 2012 and we’d been together for two years, and I wanted nothing to ever come between us and all the unexpected domestic happiness I was experiencing.

“Okay, but next year we’ll be somewhere else.” “Yes.” “But where?” “No idea.”

I was 28 years old. I think that’s when it starts, if it starts for you — when the impulse to completely rearrange your life by the time you’re 30 still feels reasonable; doable. I imagined life in Not–New York to be like the weekend trips we took on Metro-North, but forever. My naïvete sustained the fantasy. We didn’t scroll down to the school district ratings or think about property taxes or fully consider what, say, we would do for income. We emailed each other in the middle of the workday about what kind of farm animals each of us would like to take care of, which I found appealing only in the vaguest of terms. I liked the idea of owning a goat farm in Vermont, like those people on Tumblr who made caramels, if not, you know, touching a goat, specifically.

We never bothered with listings in New York City, where we lived and worked and had friends and family. I had seen enough of them by chance — Googling the address of someone’s brownstone to get directions, then being affronted by how many million dollars they must have paid (“And that was three years ago! Imagine it now”). The real estate in our immediate vicinity always seemed like a losing game. Out of reach. “Even if you could do it, which we can’t …” There’s always a trailing off. A personal accounting. Knowing you’re being dishonest with yourself, but it feels good to say anyway: “Even if you could afford it, would you really want to spend all that money?” This is when everyone at the table shakes their head. “No way.” “Not unless I was rich.” “But then wouldn’t you want a mansion somewhere else?” This is the conviction of the untested. You brush up against such wealth and achievement (and its opposite) in the city, there is a constant calibration of desire. What is worth spending the energy on wanting? There is so much to want.

When the romance of wanting something out of reach gave way to melancholy, there was always real estate internet to help us imagine something different. The cure was to go home, deflated, and sit on different ends of the apartment, scrolling through Trulia or Redfin or Zillow, whatever, and send each other old houses on big plots of land in cities we’d never heard of.

“Can you imagine?”

“No.”

“We could live in the little shack while we fix up the barn. And then we live in a barn.”

“This one has TWO barns and I think it mentioned a bowling alley?”

“I don’t even know what I’m looking at here. Is it a school? We could turn it into some kind of writing retreat.”

“Or a bed-and-breakfast.”

“I mean we could teach ourselves to cook Thai food, right?”

“Yeah, and you can always order stuff online.”

“Take trips into the city every few weeks.”

Of course it would be insane to leave New York, the land of job opportunities and friends and family and everything (everything except a home of our own!) to go live in tiny town where, surprise, everyone was actually deeply conservative and we had no friends. But this was not something we acknowledged to each other. Imagining some better future together felt warm and possible in the way only abstract things can feel. Like reading evangelical Christian mommy blogs and imagining chubby baby legs in cute onesies — nice if you don’t think about it too hard, and if you let yourself forget that you’d still be you with that baby, still you snowed into that decrepit Victorian house.

We were better people in our real estate fantasies. We got up early to milk goats and renovate kitchens and start small businesses out of not just economic necessity but entrepreneurial spirit.

It wasn’t until we left New York once and for all that our real estate fantasies, now within reach, lost their sheen. On Craigslist, I’d found us a furnished house to rent short-term in Portland, Oregon, where the weather was mild and we knew some people and there was still takeout available. Dustin kept on forwarding me real estate listings. I felt a sort of bourgeois imposter syndrome. “Who would give us a mortgage?” I snapped at him. “I certainly wouldn’t!”

He would chat me a link; I’d offer a noncommittal “nice” then change the subject. “We could finish the basement,” he’d say. Or, “We could build a studio for you out back.”

“We don’t know how to do that,” I’d reply. Now that it was for real, at least to him, the game was much less fun. We seemed ridiculous and foolish, like our bluff had been called. We were actually miserable children, or I was, and I did not want to learn about real estate for real, about contracts and mortgages and what it cost to pay for garbage service. Actually trying to buy a house is nowhere near as fun as recreationally imagining what kind of house you’d like to live in, it turns out. And there are few things I hate more than the period before making a big purchase where you have to become an expert in something you previously knew nothing about.

It took three more years — time spent building up our credit and getting steady jobs — before I felt ready to open 100 tabs on Redfin again. It was around this time that my friend Amanda joked on Twitter that “Redfin is Tinder for married people,” and I all but screamed in recognition, thinking of the way the site emails you when your “co-buyer” adds the same house to his or her favorites. The two hearts, overlapping; they display in the upper right corner of the listing. The way hungrily scanning through the photos fills you with some false (but not so false!) sense of urgency, cycling between anticipation and dread. Burning out but then finding renewed hope, or just workmanlike persistence, imagining “the one” is just around the corner. The accompanying fear that it has already passed you by. The way that after a while, you open Redfin reflexively, habitually, on your phone, even when you’re not in the mood.

Looking at houses for real, in person,was more fascinating but also more stressful and competitive, full of class hangups and emotional reactions to beige carpeting that were hard to talk about out loud. As a chronically indecisive second-guesser, married to another one, my new fantasy went something like, We accidentally buy a house we don’t want and then we have to live in it and can stop thinking about it.

In a way that is almost what happened, or how it felt to me. We drew up an offer on the place we’d eventually come to live within the same day we saw it at an open house. It was not the best house. It was very small. Further south than we wanted to live. Not the kind of Portland Craftsman fantasy I’d had in mind. But we got excited when we walked around in there. There was a coffee shop nearby, and a big park. A huge backyard. It’s not that I felt like I urgently wanted the house, the way I’d felt about so many other houses. I just felt lighter, and lucky: relieved that there was something we could see ourselves living in, in a price range we could actually afford.

It felt sort of like settling.

When we did meet with the oddly attractive home inspector (I’m a sucker for a man in workwear, what can I say) and he congratulated us on buying, or trying to buy, a 95-year-old house that had not a thing wrong with it, he asked how we felt.

“Ambivalent,” I said. I had my hands in the back pocket of my jeans. I shrugged like a teen without meaning to. I guess I meant nervous, unsure.

“Well, I’ve never heard that before!” he said.

“Yeah …” I said, “My friend reminded me yesterday that this won’t be the house we die in. I mean, hopefully. If things go well for us.”

It was not romantic, but there it was.

We already had a life. And this house would fit into it. Our life would fit into this house and I knew we could be happy here. The weirdest thing is, goats or no goats, we are. Or, happy in all house-specific ways. I keep telling people I can’t believe I don’t regret it yet.

The biggest way my life changed after buying a house is that real estate internet no longer exists for me. In fact, it seems like the worst thing one could do after buying a house is to log on to see if there are other, better houses, still for sale — so I’ve mentally deleted it from my repertoire of things to care about. The only questions that remains is, Now that my marriage has reached this next level of utter conventionality, what other internet will we use to fill the void?

Part of me hopes it would be Petfinder but suspects it will be Scandinavian home design. I feel moved to apologize but cannot be held responsible for what shows up in my Instagram Explore tab.

The Time-Wasting Magic of Online Real Estate Listings