Are Real Estate Portals Addictive?

Psychologists, addiction experts and gamification specialists agree search portals like Zillow and Realtor.com can be irresistible to vulnerable users. But the question is, how big of a problem is it?

Consensus grows as users scroll…

“Redfin and Zillow put me to bed every night,” Patrice Grell Yursik admitted in a recent discussion on Facebook.

Yursik is creator of the natural hair, skincare, lifestyle and beauty blog Afrobella and a copywriter who lives in Chicago. She doesn’t plan on buying a home anytime soon, but that doesn’t stop her from saving listings across several states on different real estate listing portals.

And she isn’t the only one.

Yursik’s Facebook friend, Tricia Lee, who is a real estate agent in New York with SERHANT., said she witnesses behavior bordering on addiction from her clients regularly when it comes to getting hooked on scrolling through Zillow and other similar search portals.

“I call it ‘real estate porn’ because so many people have a really bad addiction with this,” Lee told Inman. “My clients send me properties in the middle of the night at 2 a.m., and 3 a.m., and 4 a.m. … I’m like, ‘I know you have to get up at 6 a.m. — how are you up at 3 a.m. sending me properties?’ But they do that in the middle of the night when they can’t sleep. It’s a huge thing. People are really addicted to shopping for homes they probably will never buy, but they critique the homes, they give feedback on the homes and they won’t even really be in the market.”

A thread Lee posted on Facebook at the beginning of February wondering who gets sucked into real estate listing sites for hours on end received 80 comments from self-professed “addicts” who have no intention of buying.

Psychologists, addiction experts and gamification specialistss say there are a number of reasons why someone might become “addicted” to real estate listing sites. But the question is, how big of a problem is it?

Back in November of 2014, an independent poll commissioned by Discover Home Loans about technology’s growing presence in the real estate transaction found that out of all buyers who use online resources during the homebuying process, two-thirds reported that “looking at online property listings has reached the point of becoming addictive.”

That was nearly eight years ago now, and the technology and design of listing portals has only become more sophisticated and sleek since then, with users sometimes turning to Zillow, Realtor.com and Redfin in an act of compulsion instead of as a true resource for homebuying.

How real estate ‘addictions’ happen…

Michele Waldron, a psychologist with Sexual Health and Healing, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based practice that specializes in sexual compulsivity issues, counsels a client who she’s had to work with on his addiction to real estate listing portals.

“It was creating problems with spending time with his wife because he also has a day job,” Waldron told Inman. “But, he sets a timer so that he only allows himself 15 or 20 minutes to go on [listing portals] and tries to be really focused about what he’s looking for and why.”

Waldron’s client isn’t looking to move, but he enjoys real estate. She said it gives him “a bit of a thrill” and “excitement,” but if he lets his real estate fantasies carry him “down the rabbit hole,” as he described it to her, it negatively impacts his relationships and other parts of his life.

“There’s so much of it as well,” Waldron said of the endless listings that people can find online. “It reminds me of YouTube or some porn sites where there’s so many different ways you can filter. It’s almost like you can design your own house, figure out where it is … But many [listing portals] will, sort of like with YouTube where other suggestions are made, ‘If you like this, you might like this,’ and then, ‘Oh, that looks interesting …’ and you click on that and the same thing replicates over and over again. Then after a while, you end up on there for a really long time.”

There’s not really an official, clinical definition of real estate listing portal addiction. But, it’s fair to say that getting hooked on looking at listings of houses online in succession is a kind of subset of the umbrella concept of an internet addiction, Dr. Raffaello Antonino, a counselling psychologist and senior lecturer in Counselling Psychology at London Metropolitan University, told Inman in an email.

Dr. Antonino explained that “endless scrolling” is one of the key identifiers of an internet addiction, perpetuated by little rewards users get along the way. In the case of someone ‘addicted’ to Zillow or Realtor.com, for instance, they might feel rewarded when they come across a particularly interesting home, or one that nearly fits their search criteria.

The principle of variable reinforcement may be at play here, Dr. Antonino explained further, which is when only part of a need is unpredictably satisfied in a response, causing users to continue to search because they’re not totally satisfied. It’s rare that a real estate search portal user can find a home that checks off all the boxes of their search requirements, but they’ll continue to find some that check off more boxes than others — and as they’re rewarded by those that do check off more boxes, they’ll be motivated to continue searching.

“You can never find only the things you like [in a home],” Dr. Antonino said, “and it’s because of this that you keep scrolling, hoping to find something more interesting.”

Variable reinforcement is intentionally used with gambling machines so that wins on a machine come unpredictably and seemingly at random — giving gamblers just enough motivation to keep playing.

This particular moment may also be leaving people more vulnerable to becoming hooked on real estate listings too, Dr. Philip Levendusky, director of psychology at McLean Hospital at Harvard Medical School, suggested to Inman. During the pandemic, people have felt larger degrees of uncertainty in their lives than perhaps ever before, and it’s natural for them to want to find the perfect home, or safe harbor, when the world has become unpredictable and less safe than we previously thought.

“In a time like the pandemic, when we’re all sort of on the edge … [ideas] on how we thought the world worked have been impacted,” Dr. Levendusky told Inman. “And to hear a word that says ‘home,’ it feels right, it feels protective. I think people, particularly in stressful times, when they look at their environment, it’s not their job they feel warm about or comfortable with, it’s where they have their home.”

“And you throw into it the real estate marketing strategies — [those] are very, very powerful.”

For Ro Johnson, a television producer at BRIC Arts Media in Brooklyn, regularly looking at home listings is a way of both trying to determine if and by how much she overpaid for her recent home purchase, and to track price appreciation in her new neighborhood. Since purchasing a two-family home in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn at the end of 2019, Johnson said she can’t help but click on pop-up ads for home listings that show up when she’s on Facebook or Instagram.

In the wake of buying the recently renovated property, she and her husband stumbled across less-than-desirable parts of the home (like shoddy workmanship and closed off sewer pipes, for instance) that led her to spiraling thoughts of whether or not they overpaid or if they could have gotten something better. As a result, whenever those pop-up ads surface (at least daily) — especially for homes in her old neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, which she was sad to leave but could no longer afford with a son in college — she can’t resist clicking and analyzing the listing.

“I’m always looking, wondering, ‘Could we have got something for a better price?’” she told Inman. “I feel kind of stupid that we paid more than we needed to, more than I feel the property value was worth or that we should have … So I keep going back, looking, like, ‘Oh, could we have gotten something comparable to what we have for a lot less?’ and/or, ‘Could we have stayed in our neighborhood?’”

“You know the saying, ‘[Leave] no stone unturned?’ Like, ‘If there was a stone I didn’t turn …’ That’s what [it is] — I’m like obsessively looking for the stone I didn’t turn or we didn’t overturn,” she explained.

Johnson said the ironic thing is, whenever she looks at listings that seem like they might be competitive with what she and her husband ended up buying, there’s alway something she doesn’t like. “Every time I look, I never see anything that I would have wanted more than what I already have,” she said.

Are search portals intentionally gamifying?

It’s hard to pin down concrete evidence that real estate search portals are intentionally gamifying their sites to get consumers hooked.

“I wouldn’t describe [Realtor.com or Zillow] as particularly gamified,” gamification expert and author Toby Beresford told Inman in an email. “Gamification is really best thought of as a feedback mechanism that encourages repeat transactions. It doesn’t lend itself to real estate since transactions are so infrequent.”

However, Beresford did tell Inman that each platform has qualities that suggest they’re gradually heading in the direction of gamification.

Simply creating a profile on each platform is one step in that direction, where individuals essentially adopt the avatar of a homebuyer. Likewise, the number of views and saves that Zillow displays on its platform’s listings helps to instill the feeling of a game of speed for consumers and the fear of missing out on something because of public demand.

“This creates a sense of a game — ‘Who can get this property first?’ — by providing the detailed quantified feedback — number of views, number of saves — they encourage the fear that someone else might get the property before you and so prompt you to act sooner,” Beresford said. “This is a fairly common tactic on holiday booking sites — number of people also looking at booking this home — mainly because it offers social proof (others are interested, not just me), which tends to trigger action. They also signpost the game of speed — with their own (unaccountable) estimates of how fast a particular home might sell.”

Another way these platforms are leaning towards gamification is through the option for homeowners to claim their home and track its value on the platform over time, Beresford said.

“Claiming a home to track its value on Realtor.com is a gamified approach,” he said. “The idea that you can track your way to success — quantitive feedback over time (in this case, your home value) — encourages people to ‘game’ the market and try to increase the value of their home.”

Zillow’s recent positioning in popular culture — even if it isn’t wholly the company’s own doing — has allowed it to embrace (maybe a bit tongue-in-cheek) the idea that looking at Zillow can serve as entertainment or a game. In 2020, then-New York Times and now Washington Post tech reporter Taylor Lorenz started a weekly column on Curbed about the houses she obsessed over on Zillow over the course of a week. In 2021, actor Dan Levy starred in a wildly popular Saturday Night Live sketch that likened scrolling through the company’s app to phone sex.

A Zillow spokesperson told Inman that the company doesn’t gamify its site, but that its features instead are an effort to address pain points that consumers face throughout the homebuying process. (Realtor.com likewise told Inman the company did not intentionally gamify its site.) That may be true, but some of Zillow’s newer features are pretty game-like anyways. The SharePlay feature, which debuted in December, for instance, allows users to view listings collaboratively through FaceTime. The tool eliminates the pain point of Zillow users having to look at listings separately and then come together to discuss them, but a press release issued by Zillow at the time also said the feature would enable “Zillow surfing” to turn into a “group sport on iPhones and iPads,” explicitly using language that suggests going on Zillow can be a game.

The company also recently hired its first-ever chief design officer, Jenny Arden, who has deep experience shaping digital design at Nike, Lyft, Airbnb and Google, and seems to have big ideas about how to reshape the site and its consumer engagement, according to a recent Fortune article. The fact that Zillow just decided to create this position now also speaks to the importance the company is placing on design and user engagement as Zillow gradually phases out its iBuying business and focuses on its primary role as a search portal.
Do addiction experts think it’s a problem?

The psychologists Inman spoke with didn’t think that real estate listing portals posed any significant public risk at this point.

For individuals that have a propensity for addiction, however, there are lots of everyday things that could become a threat — including real estate listing sites.

“I think some people are just prone to escaping their feelings or wanting to go into a more pleasant fantasy,” Waldron told Inman. “That could be any number of things — theoretically, somebody could be addicted to almost anything they found pleasurable and it’s not necessarily realistic to put a warning sign on all of those things.”

The manner in which users initially engage with real estate listings may also make a difference, studies have suggested. A recent Harvard Business Review study on social media usage showed that how much media an individual has viewed, the similarity of the media they’ve viewed, and how they view it can impact how long they continue viewing more media.

The study, which was conducted with 6,445 students and working adults based in the U.S., found that individuals who watched five videos consecutively on social media were 10 percent more likely to watch another video than if they had only watched one video and stopped. If videos were labeled as similar through a categorization label (versus videos presented without any kind of categorization), individuals were 21 percent more likely to want to watch an additional related video. Finally, if individuals watched videos in the order of completing two work-related tasks then watching two similar videos consecutively versus alternating work tasks and videos, they were 22 percent more likely to opt to watch another video compared to individuals who toggled between their work and videos.

The same principles can be applied for clicking on those “similar homes” on Zillow or Realtor.com, or allowing YouTube’s autoplay feature to roll on to the next virtual home tour — once a user moves on from looking at one home to “just one more,” they’re likely to be quickly catapulted down the rabbit hole.

Waldron said individuals who turn to real estate listings as escapism should ask themselves what it is they’re looking to get away from. “Try to stay in the moment and be curious about what it is that’s so uncomfortable,” she advised.

Or, for individuals who are just bored, create some self-boundaries.

“Sometimes people are feeling bored and looking for some excitement,” Waldron said. “So perhaps having a ready list of other things that they can do, or putting some boundaries on it … We might have an urge, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to act out on it. So we create some rules that feel healthier.”