The pandemic upended life in countless ways, including the collective realization of just how important home is.
For millions of Americans, that safe haven remains in jeopardy despite a recent injection of federal money. There are important stories being reported about the challenges people face, please go read them. But this story is not one of them. Instead, this story is about escape and the world of safe-scrolling that is Zillow.
Pittsburghers spent a lot of time on the real estate app Zillow this year. Of the country’s 50 largest metro areas, ours saw the biggest jump in traffic; the company says traffic to Pittsburgh-area listings more than doubled from last year.
“I desire change, I don’t like to get stuck in the same routine, and I think that’s part of the reason why I look at houses on Zillow,” said Emily Wilson, who lives with her husband in Bridgeville.
Before the coronavirus shifted her routine, Wilson used to ride the bus to and from downtown every day. Now, when the work day ends, she likes to hang out on the couch, watch the news and open Zillow. She said it’s sort of a replacement for scrolling Instagram or Twitter.
“Where you get sick of seeing the same news and the same influencers, it’s something that’s realistic, it’s not a woman with a perfect body on a beach in southern California,” she said with a laugh.
There’s no pressure to comment or like, and the worlds in Zillow are tangible: real houses that real people live in, decorated in ways Wilson could replicate if she wanted to. So far, there hasn’t been a major project spurred by Zillow, but Wilson said it did motivate her to clean out the garage.
The combination of the pandemic and a newborn meant Jennifer Flango spent a lot of time in her house in Zelienople this year, so she’s been using Zillow to travel.
“What if we got jobs in Paris? What would our apartment look like? Could I find something near a park?”
Flango said she and her family are happy in their house, she’s not looking to move; it’s just fun.
“There’s nothing that comes up that makes you think, ‘Oh, there’s a pandemic, an election,’” she said. “It’s just kind of simple.”
Dorey Scheimer has a foot in both worlds of real estate scrolling: she’s always loved looking at houses and imagining what life would be like in them, but for years she’s kept a Zillow tab on Pittsburgh, and recently put in an offer on a house.
“It was this amazing house, it had been redone, with a perfect price point,” she said. “Because I look so often I feel like I have a pretty good sense of what’s on the market and what it’s selling for and this just felt like, ‘OK, this is worth jumping on.’”
Scheimer grew up in Mt. Lebanon but has lived in Washington, D.C. and now works in public radio in Boston. The experience of renting in incredibly expensive cities always made moving back to the Pittsburgh region an enticing prospect, and the pandemic only heightened her hometown's appeal.
But “the Pittsburgh market is insane right now,” she said, as people in the city move to houses with bigger yards and residents from other cities see what she sees in the region: a more affordable way of life. Scheimer’s bid didn’t get accepted, but she said it’s all right, she’ll keep her Pittsburgh tab open to keep an eye on things.
Dave Hartman has a similar approach to real estate: he just likes to know what’s happening in the neighborhoods around him, what kinds of things are driving prices up. And he also just really likes houses.
“I love taking walks around the city and just looking at houses,” he said. “They’re interesting.”
His fascination dates back to 2000, when he was a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. He paid $500 or $600 per month for his shared room and he said the shower didn’t really work. Fed up, “call it cheap or frugal or what have you,” Hartman bought a five-bedroom house in South Oakland for $5,900 and spent the next few years learning how to fix it up.
A few weeks ago, after a hike, Hartman and his wife took their two kids by the house just to show them. As his wife drove the family home, Hartman saw a home for sale and pulled it up on Zillow to show his sons. They quickly figured out that if they played with the price filter they could see expensive houses. For 9-year-old Evan it’s a gold mine.
“I build super cool stuff in Minecraft with my best friends and my brother,” he said. “When I look at the houses I find some pretty good ideas I can build in Minecraft.”
They’re not allowed to play the world-building video game that much, so Evan keeps a Zillow-inspired notebook of ideas. Right now, turrets are big. So is the White House.