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Pandemic Pastime: Online Home Shopping Surges as Non-Buyers Browse Listings Just For Fun

HOUSTON – (By Michelle Leigh Smith for Realty News Report) – Isolated consumers locked down at home during the pandemic have become obsessed with looking online to view houses for sale.

“Texas Realtors have long known that browsing property search sites fed by MLS data is a favorite pastime for web surfers,” says Cindi Bulla, Chair of the Texas Realtors association. “No doubt, there was an uptick in that activity during the COVID-19 lockdowns.”

The Houston Association of Realtors reports a huge surge in consumers viewing online listings at its HAR.com. The last week of June, home listing views totaled 15.7 million views, up 60 percent from the same week last year, HAR said.

The huge jump in HAR’s listing view comes even as homes sales have declined.

Part of the online viewing surge comes from the inability to shop for houses in typical ways before social distancing was required – such as driving around with realty agents and walking into for-sale homes. Many sellers pulled homes off the market so strangers wouldn’t be traipsing around inside.

But some people are going online just to window shop, looking at homes for sale with no intention of buying.

It’s a voyeurism focused on mansions, condos, little bungalows and even three-bedroom tract houses in 1970s suburbs.

One Texas homes editor calls it “House Porn.”

Candace Evans
Candace Evans

CandysDirt.com website founder Candace Evans says she coined the term “House Porn” years ago when she inaugurated treating beautiful real estate listings as editorial reviews, much like restaurant reviews.

“I had helped launch DHome Magazine, and I saw a growing obsession with food coverage — television shows, blogs,” Evans says. “I have always been obsessed with real estate and beautiful homes. So I thought, why not ‘House Porn’?”

The game plan for Evans’ Candy’sDirt publication seems to be working. Readers love read about homes, especially in the pandemic when looking online to view houses for sale can be a fun pastime. The website is averaging close to 95,000 page views per day, Evans says.

“I think (the HAR listings website) is a fairly common resource for people my age and younger. It’s like a one-stop shop for all types of living setups,” says Leslie Herbst, a 30-something resident of the hip EaDo district in urban Houston. “My significant other uses similar websites in Florida to look at properties when he has free time (and he doesn’t necessarily have any plans to move to or buy property in Florida) but that’s where he’s from, so he keeps an eye out.”

Even the young can get hooked on online home shopping.

“I know that my daughter Elizabeth, 16, and a student at St. John’s School, spends a ton of time looking at homes online, but not just in Houston – she also loves the NYC listings,” says Laura Schaefer, Dean of Mechanical Engineering at Rice University. “Among my friends, there seems to be a reticence right now to visit homes in person, or to strongly curtail the number of homes they visit.”

And you never know when online perusing can lead to an actual done deal someday.

“It’s interesting to see where the looking will lead.  It’s always the why – the story of why buyers choose what they choose,” says Roger Martin, a broker and president of Roger Martin Properties in the West University Place, an upscale Houston municipality.

Houston has been a leader in online listings for almost a quarter of a century. Widespread internet usage was new in the 1990s. Some Realtors feared that they would be cut out of the transactions if consumers could gain online access to listing data on their own. But the leadership at the Houston Association of Realtors, including long-time HAR President Bob Hale, believed Realtors actually bring  a lot more to the table than just controlling the MLS listings information.

The wave of the future was coming, HAR believed, and if you didn’t swim with the current, you’d drown. So in the mid-1990s HAR became the first major Realtor association in the nation to take their listings online.

Cindo Bulla
Cindi Bulla

Cindi Bulla, the Texas Realtors leader,  sums it up like this: “Though the MLS was originally conceived as a proprietary system for member eyes only, to facilitate cooperation and compensation between brokers, most Texas Realtors decades ago saw value in authorizing a public facing component to that system. That public facing opportunity became a life line to our profession during this pandemic.”

The pandemic launched realty page views like a rocket. HAR traffic soared upward over 70 percent in some weeks. Sometimes more.

The online traffic for the Candy’sDirt realty publication has quadrupled since late March, Evans says.

“When print (advertising) went on pause during the Shelter-In-Place, our emails exploded with agents desperate for us to post about a listing. People stopped reading print, and everyone was skittish about the mail. So we became the only resource.” says Evans.

When the Covid hit, Evans says she immediately interviewed local real estate leaders for their take and advice: Robbie Briggs, owner of the independent Dallas brokerage bearing his family name, predicted that people were either going to upsize or downsize when the lock-downs finally ended.

Dallas Realtor Allie Beth Allman (who sold former President George W. Bush his Dallas home when he left the White House) said that the market would explode once quarantine lifted. People looking online to view houses may become buyers.

And with mortgage rates near all-time lows and pent-up demand more pent-up than ever before, a strong case can be made for a sales surge when the pandemic finally passes.

The explosion of online listing viewing tells us so. Or at least it looks that way.


July 7, 2020 Realty News Report Copyright 2020

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