I’ll admit it right up front: after several months of steadily consuming panic porn real estate news — “Everyone is fleeing San Francisco! They’re never coming back!” — I perked up when I saw that per Redfin, home searches in urban areas have risen 200 percent year-over-year. Forget what you heard; everyone, save for Winona Ryder, who just listed the Cow Hollow home she bought in 1995, wants to move to The City.
Winona’s home, by the way, sold in 10 days.
This is when I should’ve clicked away and moved on feeling optimistic, but instead I read on. I learned that all searches are up by at least 200 percent. Rural searches are up 235 percent. Small towns: 218 percent. Everybody’s on Redfin. Everybody’s looking for a new house. Hang on here, I thought. I understand that COVID has ushered in A New Way To Live and Work (TM), but still — twice as many people looking to uproot and start over? It doesn’t seem likely, even in these unprecedented times. I mean, it’s December, the slowest time of the real estate year.
No, what’s happening here is something else.
Real estate search portals like Redfin and Zillow were created way back in the early 2000s with a high- minded publicly stated mission: “We’re going to change the way people buy and sell houses,” they claimed, by giving homebuyers (and sellers, but to a lesser degree) access to information that had previously only been available to Realtors. MLS access, once limited to licensed real estate professionals, was essentially now available to all; a treasure trove of dream homes, at your fingertips.
Their other mission, I overheard once while toiling away at my desk during a brief and wholly unsuccessful stint as a real estate agent, was to put Realtors out of business. Word was that the founder of Zillow, fresh off the success of his earlier venture, Expedia, had promised to “do to real estate agents what Expedia did to travel agents.”
That never happened.
What’s happened instead, 13 years later, is that 2020 has gotten us closer to understanding the actual purpose of real estate search portals and what has made them so popular during the Great Shutdown of 2020. It’s entirely possible, I guess, that twice as many people are looking for new homes in 2020 as were in 2019, but I think what Redfin’s data describes is a wholly different phenomenon, that the age of COVID is also the Golden Age of real estate search portals for one simple reason: We’re bored.
Several years ago I asked the owner of a local real estate blog to describe his readers. “They’re mostly buyers,” he said, to my great surprise, because my understanding was that his site was popular with news junkies, property strivers and personalities who needed desperately to be the first one to make a snarky comment about a seven-figure Pac Heights remodel. Maybe there were a few buyers surfing around in there, but mostly it seemed to be a place to turn your nose up at high-end architecture.
If you asked me what percentage of people surfing Redfin were actively engaged in a home search — had hooked up with a Realtor, had gotten pre-approved for a loan, actually lived in or were moving to their search area — I’d estimate it at less than 25 percent. The rest? They’re imagining having a view of the ocean. They’re wondering what it would be like to have a three- car garage, a pied-a-terre downtown; they’re wondering what they could afford if they left (insert name of large urban area presently bleeding residents); they’re trying to figure out what their present home would be worth if they just chucked it all and moved to Wyoming.
It’s been nine months now. Nine months of living in fear, baking sourdough bread and taking Zoom meetings. We’re tired, we’re freaked out and — low-key the underlying driver of so much behavior in 2020 — we’re bored. We can’t go anywhere but we need to go somewhere, we need some kind of break from our dreary, slightly terrifying reality.
Take me somewhere, Redfin. Take me to a penthouse on Central Park West. Take me to a horse farm in Virginia. Take me to a cabin in Big Sur. I’m not really going to buy that house, but I want to imagine what it would feel like if I did, kind of like how I understand that, despite the ad I saw last weekend, drinking a Stella Artois isn’t going to magically transport me to (pre-COVID) Paris. If drinking a beer can make me imagine that I’m in (pre-COVID) Paris, I’ll have two.
But you know, I’m still encouraged. Maybe there’s something to it. Maybe an army of potential urban buyers is surfing away, waiting for the right deal. I sort of doubt it, but it’s nice to know that, even during these turbulent times, the thrill of living in The City still lives on in people’s fantasies.
Larry Rosen is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, podcaster and recovering former Realtor. He is a guest columnist and his viewpoint is not necessarily that of the Examiner. The Market Musings real estate column appears every other week.