We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.

Photography by Amy Neunsinger

There are days when I embark on an Internet search for a country house so deep and comprehensive that I am convinced the click-trackers at the online real-estate resource Zillow are truly worried about me. From my home in Los Angeles, I start looking for cottages in the Hudson Valley and then hop the state line to the Berkshires in Massachusetts to hunt for a farmhouse. Once I’ve exhausted all of those possibilities, I zip over to lakeside hamlets in Michigan, then maybe the San Juan Islands in Washington State. An hour or two (or three) later, I snap back to reality, vision blurred and parched. I think that if there were an Internet version of a search-and-rescue team, they’d be sending a Saint Bernard out to locate me and bring me back to safety. To be honest, I fear that my online real-estate hobby is verging on obsession. 

As it turns out, I’m not alone. “We get 150 million unique site visits every month, but only 50 percent of users say they’re serious about buying or selling a home,” says Zillow lifestyle expert Amanda Pendleton. While I find some comfort in knowing that there are 75 million other creepers like me out there, peeping into the windows of another life, I’m still perplexed by the appeal. Seeking an explanation for my somewhat odd addiction to looking for houses that I will likely never own, I asked some experts for their insights. Here’s what they told me.

I’m flirting with the possibility of another life. “If you’re in a committed relationship, or you own your home, or you are tied to your city because of work, this is a way of flirting—not with people but with possibilities,” says marriage and family therapist Lara Harris. “You can transplant yourself to a new place for a while.” We find comfort in the reminder that we could one day escape an urban sprawl for a historic house on eight rolling acres, convincing ourselves that we aren’t trapped, she explains, even if our lives are happy and fulfilling. 

I’m taking stock of my current living situation, and my priorities. It’s no secret that housing costs in Los Angeles, like many urban centers, are astronomical. “We look at what a million dollars will get you in different areas of the country,” says Pendleton. “It’s less than 1,000 square feet in San Francisco and 7,000 square feet in El Paso, Texas.” Lookie-loos like me might be engaging in a form of self-flagellation when they see what’s possible in another town. So we reevaluate: Is it more important to me to have access to the art, culture, jobs, food, and major airports that a metropolis offers, even if it involves major traffic and mind-boggling home prices? Or is a dream house in a smaller community the new dream? For now, the urban life is working for me. But that might change. It’s good to understand options.

I’m in the market for ideas. A friend of mine just bought a house in rural Nova Scotia, and she’s looking for ideas of what native stone fireplaces are possible in that area. She is looking at online real-estate sites for ideas. “Maybe you walk with your dog by a certain house that’s similar to yours, and it’s for sale or recently sold,” says Pendleton. “You can just look it up for interiors inspiration. I have a 1929 Tudor home, and I am always looking for authentic landscaping ideas. Now it’s all at your fingertips.” In many ways, people use Zillow and Compass and Redfin like they do social media platforms, mining the endless trove of ideas they offer, minus the negative comments. 

I’m a blatant voyeur. “Aspirational shoppers tend to favor houses that are luxurious and expensive, even if they can’t afford them—yet,” says Sally Forster Jones, a star real-estate agent with Compass in Beverly Hills. By searching certain neighborhoods or zip codes, you get to peek into a dream. The top favorite neighborhoods on Zillow include Lake Nona Estates, a golf community near Orlando, Florida; the Kingswood section of Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood; and the Oaks in Calabasas, California, where many a Kardashian lives. Need we say more?

My front yard may be someone else’s greener grass. As I’m mentally moving into a house in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Harris reminds me that someone may very well be typing in my address and dreaming about living where I do now. “I sometimes think about buying a second home somewhere, and then I realize that unless I got some friends to come with me, I might not be so happy,” she says. “Maybe it’s like The Wizard of Oz. When you’re back to reality, you think: There’s no place like home.”