Real estate

The internet is obsessed with weird Zillow listings

Super-tacky McMansions! Basement nightclubs! Creepy crawl spaces! We can’t get enough.

11 April 2019, US, Hillsborough: View of a colorfully painted house in unusual construction in Hills...
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Everyone has taste: Some like pink walls, some like bold tile, and some like, um, a massive indoor mural of the Morton Salt girl. To each their own!

There’s a growing number of online creators dedicated to documenting residential disasters — gauche decorations, tacky architecture, and bizarre renovations made apparently without future buyers in mind. Thanks to online real estate listings, anyone can ogle the excessive taxidermy, ’90s-Taco-Bell-esque color schemes, or indoor waterslides that would otherwise be hidden behind closed doors.

As U.S. home prices surge, browsing Zillow is like window shopping through a screen, snooping at the weird and wonderful properties that are miles away and hopelessly out of your price range.

Since the “shelter magazines” of the late 19th century, the media has capitalized on our collective fascination with where people live. There’s a voyeuristic pleasure in zooming in on the Zillow photos of bathrooms we’ll never see in real life, analyzing design decisions and quietly judging the decorator’s taste. Between HGTV’s round-the-clock programming and social media home design critics, there have never been so many opportunities to gawk from behind a screen.

McMansion Hell — It’s obligatory to mention the architecture snark pioneered by McMansion Hell, a blog dedicated to obnoxiously tacky suburban homes. It’s a thoughtful satire of consumerism and a surprisingly informative lesson on architecture (check out the section of the site called McMansions 101 for a quick history lesson) but it hasn’t been appreciated by everyone.

The blog, which uses images from Zillow, received a cease-and-desist letter from the company in 2017, but because Zillow does not technically own the photos, the action garnered criticisms from law experts and the company ultimately did not file suit. All in all, the short-lived drama only made McMansion Hell more popular and paved the way for more people to lampoon weird home design.

Zillow Gone Wild — Samir Mezrahi, the creator of Instagram meme page @kalesalad, started Zillow Gone Wild in December 2020 to curate unusual home listings. After a year of explosive growth (he told me he once gained 100,000 followers in a single day), the account has now reached 1.3 million followers — three times as many as Zillow’s official Instagram account.

His posts come from follower submissions. There is a mansion whose foyer sculpture resembles massive anal beads. One Colorado home, unassuming from the curb, is actually just a bowling alley inside, and a home in Indianapolis has what appears to be a nightclub in its basement.

Some listings are funny on purpose. Take the decrepit Muskegon, Mich. abode that features a person dressed like a skeleton posing in every photo. Or the Chattaroy, Wash. castle-like home featuring photos of someone in a knight costume. These joky listings can work: When the “goth house,” an all-black octagonal home in Illinois, went viral for its spooky interiors, house-flipper Seth Goodman was “amazed” by how much interest he got in the house.

Zillow snooping is everywhere — On TikTok, @Zillowtastrophes (425,000 followers) marvels at trap doors, creepy crawlspaces, and what’s basically a 1953 time capsule. Elsewhere on the platform, realtor Lauren Matera has shared photos of a home that doubles as a shrine to Coca-Cola. And on Twitter, accounts like The Best of Zillow and Crappy Cheapo Architecture share home features that are so bizarre we can’t look away.

And this has all gone mainstream: In February, a Saturday Night Live skit poked fun at the pornographic pleasure of browsing Zillow. “I’d never live in North Carolina, but if I did, I could buy a big, gross mansion,” purrs Dan Levy.

As Omicron rages on, you may not be able to explore acquaintances’ homes IRL, but you can snoop around all the “big, gross mansions” you want on Zillow. Happy browsing!