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It was about a year into the coronavirus pandemic when Saturday Night Live put real estate in the crosshairs. In a now famous sketch, the show lampooned people who treat their boredom by scrolling for houses on Zillow.
“Real estate is your sex now, and our listings are just standing by,” SNL cast member Heidi Gardner whispers in the sketch.
The video caught the attention of many in the real estate industry and captured the way the portal had evolved into a form of entertainment, or even an addiction. But it also spoke to something else: The elevated cultural status real estate achieved during the early stages of the pandemic.
With record low interest rates, free flowing stimulus checks, and not much else to do, real estate seemed to be on everyone’s minds in 2020 and 2021. Indeed, two months before the SNL sketch, Inman had reported that Zillow was becoming for many people an antidote to “doomscrolling,” or the practice of endlessly consuming depressing social media.
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All of which is to say it wasn’t a coincidence that SNL and Inman both picked up on how much mind share — or the amount of attention and awareness the public devotes to a concept — real estate had come to occupy.
But consider this: Have you seen any viral real estate videos in the past year?
The answer probably depends on your social media feeds, but at least some of the content creators Inman highlighted in the doomscrolling piece have seen engagement wane, or have pivoted away from a focus on real estate content. And the most talked-about viral video this summer was “Planet of the Bass,” a parody of 90s Europop that had nothing at all to do about real estate.
All of this leads to a hypothesis: Perhaps real estate has lost significant mind share. Perhaps, as mortgage rates soared, inflation took off and the stimulus dried up, people simply aren’t interested in housing the way they were a couple of years ago. Obviously with a more brutal economic landscape and little inventory there’s more anxiety and worry about housing. But what we’re talking about here is something else; it’s the idea that real estate’s viral moment, or its potential to be viral in the first place, may have ended. Maybe real estate is no longer “your sex now.”
Inman tested this hypothesis by combing through different data sources, and the numbers do seem to suggest that the public, or at least the internet, just isn’t as interested in houses as it was only a few years ago. And if that’s true, it means real estate leaders will have to fight harder and be more creative if they want to break through and get attention.
Traffic is down
Probably the easiest way to gauge how much interest the public has in real estate is via portal traffic numbers — which are down across the board. In the second quarter, for instance, Zillow’s various sites and apps received 2.7 billion visits. That’s down 8 percent year over year. The company also averaged 226 million average monthly unique users, which represents a 3 percent year-over-year dip.
Realtor.com fared even worse, with average unique monthly users falling 20 percent year over year to 74 million. Redfin fared comparatively better, but still saw traffic dip slightly in the second quarter from 52.7 million average monthly users to 52.3 million.
Of course, the executives of the major portals acknowledged the dips in traffic and attributed the lower numbers simply to a tougher market characterized by fewer transactions. They didn’t weigh in on the idea that the numbers might represent diminished mind share.
But other data suggests there may indeed be a shrinking appetite for real estate content. For instance, the popular social media entity Zillow Gone Wild has been posting entertaining listings on Instagram since March of 2021. But when the number of likes for all those posts are plotted together, a gradual downward trend becomes apparent.
Zillow Gone Wild is still a huge presence on the internet — it also has popular accounts on Twitter, Facebook and TikTok — and this graph shows that it still consistently manages to score big hits. But the graph also shows that posts in recent months have in general racked up fewer average likes than posts that went up in 2022 and early 2023. Some of the more recent hits have also been slightly smaller than those of the account’s early days.
It’s also worth noting that Zillow Gone Wild (along with other accounts such as McMansion Hell) isn’t focused on facilitating actual home sales the way portals do. It’s explicitly meant to be entertainment, meaning a down market shouldn’t necessarily drive down engagement. People may not be able to afford as much home today compared to two years ago, but that doesn’t have to mean real estate is less entertaining. And yet, the numbers here hint that it may indeed be what happened: Real estate just isn’t as entertaining as it was when many Americans were stuck at home, wishing for a bigger backyard or “zoom room.”
Real estate searches become less popular
Mind share is a difficult thing to quantify, but real estate-related Google searches also suggest the SNL-meets-real estate moment has passed. For instance, a Google Trends analysis shows that searches for the word “Zillow,” while following normal market cyclicality, have also been on a general downward trajectory since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
Graphs showing Google searches for terms such as “mortgage” and “home buying” look similar, with high points early in the pandemic followed by repeated seasonality, with a general cooling trend over the last several years.
In the case of searches for the word “mortgage,” interest this summer was only about a third of what it was at the beginning of the pandemic. And while there’s always ebbing and flowing, this summer’s mortgage-related search traffic looks closer to what happened in previous years’ winter months, when the real estate industry typically slows down.
Other home-related searches have also become less popular. For instance, “FHA” has gradually ebbed in popularity over time, perhaps hinting at how hard the inventory shortage has hit younger and first-time homebuyers.
Finally, one more: Searches for “closing costs” have also steadily declined since the beginning of the pandemic era. In fact, the drop off in searches for closing costs is more pronounced than any of the examples above.
There’s no question that a lot of what’s going on here is simply the slower market. There are fewer homes available compared to historical averages, and that’s translating into fewer sales.
But in the context of lower traffic to the portals and less engagement with one of the most popular real estate-themed social media accounts, it also appears that real estate is simply less on the public’s mind. People are buying fewer homes, yes, but also they seem to be fantasizing less and deriving less entertainment value from real estate.
Anxiety is high
While many buying-related searches have slowed down slightly, other types of inquiries have surged. One of the most striking examples of this trend is Google searches for the phrase “interest rates,” which jumped last year as rates rose and which have remained elevated through the present.
The graph above also highlights the volatility in rates over the last year; not only are people doing more searches for rates today, but the number of those searches tends to rise and fall more dramatically than it did during the early years of the pandemic.
Something similar has happened with searches for the phrase “will rates go down”; basically no one cared about the topic in 2020 and 2021, but now its popularity only continues to rise.
Rent affordability also remains a major concern, with Google searches for “rent cost” remaining significantly elevated relative to where they were at similar points in 2020 and 2021.
Google shows that searches for rent costs are most common in the West and Southeast, with states including Utah, Oregon, Georgia and seeing the highest levels of interest in the topic. Unsurprisingly, those areas also saw significant rent growth in recent years.
Unlike general searches for things like “home buying,” the type of inquiries Inman identified as experiencing rising interest tend to be pegged to specific costs, and ones that are highly variable. That suggests people are still moving and need information. In fact, according to an analysis on Wednesday by Redfin, a whopping 25.8 percent of homebuyers are currently considering relocating to a different state, up from 23.7 percent a year earlier.
But it also hints at a more practical turn among consumer preferences; you don’t look for information about rent costs if you’re just perusing listings for entertainment value. You don’t Google mortgage rates if “real estate is your sex now.”
A harder world for real estate professionals
What all of this means is that the current housing landscape may include an under-appreciated challenge for real estate pros. Obviously everyone knowns about the inventory shortage and the high rates. Everyone knows it’s tough to find and win a house right now. But if real estate has lost mind share, then brokers also have to push consumers to remain aware of the market before they can even think about coming off the sidelines.
There are, however, ways to do that.
At Inman Connect earlier this month, industry leaders shared a number of tips for thriving in a time when real estate has ebbed. Among them Douglas Elliman agent Frances Katzen urged industry members to be transparent and to “say what you think, not what they want to hear.”
Serhant.’s Talia McKinney suggested reminding homeowners that prices remain elevated, meaning that this is a time when “you can get a lot more money than you were thinking than you could have otherwise.”
Other tips from Connect include Keller Williams’ Sarita Dua’s advice to remind buyers that there are programs to help them; The Real Brokerage President Sharran Srivatsaa’s suggestion to sell the fact that agents can facilitate appointments rather than focusing on listings; and Coldwell Banker’s Brett Matsuura’s recommendation to be “always proactive” rather than reactive.
Meanwhile, Buying Beverly Hills star and member of The Agency Jon Grauman argued at Inman Connect that relationships will pay off during times like these, adding that “every conversation becomes a new opportunity.”
“When the market does take a turn,” Grauman said, “I’ve stockpiled a bunch of goodwill and relationships and just trying to educate myself to what’s happening and be able to provide that value to clients.”
Email Jim Dalrymple II