A $90,000 Dome Home To Give Your Life Purpose
September 12, 2020 10:54 AM   Subscribe

I have 72 saved searches on Zillow dot com. Some of these searches result in a daily email appearing in my inbox: a tight, cozy, completed list of the new houses that meet my search criteria. Sometimes I’ll get emails alerting me to every single house that arrives on the site as it appears, which is to say dozens of times per day. I have no idea how to change this, and I refuse to learn because the only hobby I’ve managed to maintain throughout this fire tornado of a year is scanning, with glazed eyes, through photos of dozens of houses I cannot afford and will not buy. I do this as a reward for completing the series of menial tasks and chores my life has become.

This is the beginning of an ongoing series about my obsession with terrible Zillow houses. By Kelsey Mckinney in the Defector.
This was new territory. I’ve looked at Zillow for years because I’m nosy as hell and must know how much every property owner I have ever met paid for their two bathrooms. But since the beginning of isolation in March, I started using Zillow the way other, saner, people might use a vision board or a self-help book. I started using house listings as a way to imagine myself in a different place, as a different person, in a reality that wasn’t overrun with a highly contagious disease and a huge economic collapse.
posted by medusa (45 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I feel her 100%, as I have been Zillow-ing through Canada this summer. In 2018 I made the mistake of bingeing the Handmaid’s Tale during election season and went through a couple days of Google street-viewing the best rural border crossings (I now know which corn field I’m running through).

Maybe I don’t want to know the answer, but Canadian Mefites, is there a better website for escapist Canadian house hunting?
posted by Maarika at 11:14 AM on September 12 [7 favorites]

Oh hey it me
posted by The otter lady at 11:17 AM on September 12 [8 favorites]

I think I have reached the point in my feelings about houses and home repair that I can't Zillow surf anymore. I want to build the damn thing from the ground up in a way that it doesn't break all the damn time, so I spend a lot of time designing the most efficient and sturdy possible house in my brain. But I guess it's the same impulse, just even less connected to reality.

(my landlord is sending out a plumber every three months at this point because the crappy pipes to the street will not stay clear no matter what we do, and yet replacing them would be more expensive yet. It's maddening.)
posted by emjaybee at 11:25 AM on September 12 [6 favorites]

My parents sometimes talk as if I will own a home sometime in the near future but they're quickly learning that any conceivable series of steps leading to that event begins like this:

1) you both die
posted by klanawa at 11:29 AM on September 12 [53 favorites]

In 2018 I made the mistake of bingeing the Handmaid’s Tale during election season and went through a couple days of Google street-viewing the best rural border crossings (I now know which corn field I’m running through).

I plotted out two routes back to Canada depending on whether Chicago got hit by a nuke when Donald Trump got elected.
posted by srboisvert at 11:31 AM on September 12 [7 favorites]

(hollow laugh)
posted by aramaic at 11:32 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]

I do love looking for weird houses on Zilllow.
The best I ever found (and toured in person) had what appeared to be a sex dungeon over the garage.
Also a bunch of really weird architecture choices that resulted in wasted space and stairs to nowhere.
posted by FleetMind at 11:35 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

Maarika: Check out realtor.ca and point2homes.com. The UX on both is definitely worse than Zillow but plenty of photos to check out. If you want weird or unusual, kijiji might be worth a look. It's like craigslist but more popular in certain parts of Canada.
posted by 100kb at 11:43 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]

Also a bunch of really weird architecture choices that resulted in wasted space and stairs to nowhere.


posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:54 AM on September 12 [8 favorites]

Following up emjaybee, I don’t understand who does the maintenance on vacation houses. Doing the maintenance on the house we live in is enough hassle to make spouse and self sulky, and we don’t have kids. Are they all being let rot away generation by generation? Are locals being paid under the table? *Two* sets of visits from actual professionals, since going-to-the-vacation-house long weekends preclude DIY long weekends?
posted by clew at 12:17 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]

We lived in (and renovated) a done for 2 years awhile back. Every day, I am thankful we did, and also that we no longer do.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 12:22 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]

You can search for domed homes? Way cool. Love them but from some previous post, they all leak. But I like buckets.
posted by sammyo at 12:25 PM on September 12

Oh maybe that was geodesics.
posted by sammyo at 12:26 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

Zillow? Nah, for real escapism you want to be looking at The Modern House, where you find on offer "the most incredible design-led homes in urban and rural locations in the UK". No lie. Dream away the hours and days wandering the halls of your beautiful countryside villa or your miniature castle in Marylebone.
posted by jokeefe at 12:45 PM on September 12 [8 favorites]

Lloyd Kahn: "In a previous life, I built geodesic domes, and my dome was featured in Life in the early ’70s... I was also the publisher of Domebook 2, the countercultural bible of domebuilding, but after 5 years of dome building and dome living, I concluded that domes didn’t work as homes, and were in fact, a poorer and less practical way of enclosing space as compared to rectilinear construction. I took Domebook 2 out of print (and went out and shot photos for our book Shelter). I kept getting so many inquiries as to why I gave up on domes that I published a newsprint booklet titled Refried Domes, to answer all the questions. If you’re a dome fan and wonder why in the world I gave up on such an exciting concept, please don’t write me, but go to the link above and read everything on our website about domes."
posted by fairmettle at 12:48 PM on September 12 [21 favorites]

Brian Feldman’s excellent BNET newsletter recently had a great issue about Zillow voyeurism as well.
posted by Ian A.T. at 1:24 PM on September 12

Canadian Mefites, is there a better website for escapist Canadian house hunting?

Ooh ooh! I'm not Canadian but there is a new website called Ninety Minutes From Toronto that does exactly this. Curated lists of homes. Dibs on the Innisfil Fairytale Cottage!
posted by rogerroger at 1:38 PM on September 12 [3 favorites]

clew From someone who lives in a place overflowing with vacation homes - yes, locals are being paid under the table to maintain them.
posted by entropyiswinning at 2:08 PM on September 12 [3 favorites]

I don’t understand who does the maintenance on vacation houses.

Most of the people that have the money to own a vacation home have the money to outsource the maintenance as well. There's management companies in the areas where the well off tend to buy vacation homes (pretty mountains, lakes, beaches) that will handle maintenance and yardwork so when you show up it's just chilling on the patio looking out over your manicured lawn. They're not cheap but if you have the money to pay a $2,000/month mortgage for a place you spend a few weekends a season at, who cares? You don't buy a second home because it makes economic sense. Or on the cheaper end but with less surity, you hire people directly to do the work.

At the other end of the spectrum, I've known people with modest incomes that had well kept second homes but they tended to be very handy and had seasonal jobs like farming or teaching that let them spend a lot of consecutive time there.

And I've also known some that did basically let them rot away - they put together something really cheap knowing it would only last a decade and planned on trashing it and building something new when it wore out.
posted by Candleman at 2:12 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

Or for the middle ground, if you rent out your vacation home when you're not there through an agency, most of the time you can have them handle all the maintenance as well.
posted by Candleman at 2:15 PM on September 12

My wife and I sold our house in Vermont last year. It was one of the worst experiences in our shared life, taking a full year of our stuff in storage, daily showings, dealing with sneers from people beyond Vermont, horrible classicism, endless "repairs" and refurbishing, fighting with realtors, constant self-doubt and self-loathing, and shoveling every shred of our savings and everything we could borrow into an increasingly desperate big to get the damn thing done.

We cannot read articles like this or watch that nightmarish cable tv channel without twitching.
posted by doctornemo at 2:22 PM on September 12 [4 favorites]

Ugh, I would pay serious, big budget video game money on the first day it was out for a house building and decorating simulator that includes every aspect of building a house, like from ripping out trees and smoothing grades to pouring a foundation and plumbing to wall color and couches. Like the build option in The Sims, but realistic.
posted by blnkfrnk at 2:32 PM on September 12 [19 favorites]

I want to build the damn thing from the ground up in a way that it doesn't break all the damn time, so I spend a lot of time designing the most efficient and sturdy possible house in my brain

I also want to say that I am very much in tune with this impulse; I have spent whole evenings idly mulling how I'd handle the MEP so that I never have to punch through a finished surface in order to repair something, how I'd try to arrange the plumbing such that any possible leak has somewhere to drain off, pre-positioned sealed LEDs to light up any place I might ever want to peer into, and so on and on and on. A house built by NASA, failsafes for the failsafes! Hinges that support 10x their contemplated load just in case, you never know! Full base isolation! Windows built to withstand blast pressures! Fireproof, not fire resistant!

It's ... it's oddly compelling to me, but also oddly embarrassing. Like, I fantasize about being able to tell the plumbing designer: "damn the cost, build the most completely bulletproof system you've ever imagined! Account for all maintenance! Fuck the aesthetics, I will address that later!"

It's a terribly prosaic way to fantasize, but I guess this is where we find ourselves these days.
posted by aramaic at 2:41 PM on September 12 [23 favorites]

I don’t understand who does the maintenance on vacation houses.

Many vacation homes are in locations where there is an entire service industry built up around maintaining these homes from lawn care to winter walk-throughs to seasonal furnace/generator/whatever maintenance. And it's a balance because you're not going to wind up with a lot of, say, pipe blockage issues when you're not using the system much. On the other hand you could be going down for a day trip, flush a toilet and... then you hear running water somewhere and have to call a guy (actual story). Hi, I am a person with a summer place which I got the way klanawa mentions. It's a lot. And yet! I rent a small place in my regular life so it's interesting and weird to have a place where... I can just do things to it and they stay done because the place is mine, unlike my apartment.

My sister and I share this vacation place and she owns her own home so has a slightly different relationship to the vacation place. I usually move there for the summer (not this year!) and spend the summer doing projects there, basically keeping the place fixed, looking nice and living in it. I would not have chosen this lifestyle but when my dad died it just made sense and continues to. It may not in the future. When we cruise Zillow, as this person does, we often look for places kinda like ours but smaller and simpler to maintain. We'd still like to have a vacation place, but we'd definitely like one that was a little more shack-ish, and maybe in a location with people who were a little less concerned about how our front yard looked. There was an old Carnegie Library for sale up the road from the place and I did get into a reverie of "If I were a slightly different person...." but I have to kind of get used to no, it's me, this is how it is for now. But I do like looking at the other places.
posted by jessamyn at 2:51 PM on September 12 [5 favorites]

My ex-husband (and his siblings) own a cabin about 2 hours outside of the city he grew up in. It is a lovely place on a bluff with a view of the water. But I often disliked going there because the ratio of work (oiling logs, cutting trees, rebuilding stairs to the beach etc.) to relaxation was tipped too far on the work side.
posted by vespabelle at 4:32 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]

I could look in the sales history of a property in my neighborhood to figure out the moment I became "serious" about buying a house someday. I had been idly watching as I would walk by, until got a for-sale sign in the front yard and I looked it up on Redfin. It seemed to be a price that was reasonable for where I was in life, yet I was not prepared to actually act if it ever came up for sale. Since I have a crippling case of rent control and poor money management, I didn't use my time in my apartment to save a million dollars so that I could bounce into my dream(ish) house on a day's whim.

However, what it did give me is a Redfin habit. It's abated a bit over the past year or so, but I have been monitoring the inventory in my preferred locations all the same. I have a few saved searches, but it sounds like those are amateur numbers, and at any rate I do get more in those searches than I'm actually interested.

An ex's family had a generational cabin in the mountains that was built by hand in the 30s from a one-room shack to a nice one bedroom midcentury thingy with a few downstairs rooms tacked on and...it gave me the cabin bug. One fantasy I've had is keeping the rent-controlled apartment and just getting a cabin within a few hours that I spend weekends or whatever at. A little cheaper, unless I want to choose a fancier Cabin-Oriented Locale.

As for the sites, I have a conspiracy theory that the MLS-as-organization dictates that websites using its data have to have increasingly frustrating and user-hostile design and features. Frankly, if I had to guess, if this is so, it would be to push people to visit open houses and prevent Zillow surfing.
posted by rhizome at 4:43 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]

I want to build the damn thing from the ground up in a way that it doesn't break all the damn time, so I spend a lot of time designing the most efficient and sturdy possible house in my brain

Meee threeeee!

I do own a condo. It's one of those townhouse style ones, built in the '80s, with windows all on one end (other units on both sides and back to back with my unit), a combined long living/dining room on the first floor (along with a small, interior kitchen and a half bath), cathedral ceilings in the two bedrooms on the second floor, and one room up on the third floor with an angled ceiling (lower than regular ceiling height at one end, higher on the other end). It has two porches and a little front deck! Of relevance, it is also built on a slab (no basement). About a month after I bought it and moved in (fortunately after I had unpacked my books and moved cardboard boxes with other water-damageable stuff to the second floor), the water heater burst and flooded the first floor.

Apparently the water in my area is particularly hard on water heaters, and they do that regularly around here. Turns out that one of the two main drains from the unit was in the wall in between the water heater closet and the adjacent little half bath, less than a foot from the water heater. It would have been so easy to install drain trays under the water heaters when the units were originally built! That was a key detail I insisted on in the renovation I had to have done (I can do a little carpentry and home maintenance, but lack proper tools and practice, so my skills/abilities are not really up to my standards), that ended up taking most of the rest of my first year of ownership/living in this place.

I had originally been intending to renovate the main bathroom and laundry closet on the second floor first. Other units have had leaks from the washing machine tap in the laundry closet, and my taps are pretty corroded. And there were some plumbing issues that were in the "this isn't a problem yet, but will be within some indeterminate but soon-ish time frame" in the bathroom. The bathroom sink has been leaking for months, since last winter or maybe late fall, but I haven't fixed it myself because the shut-off taps under the sink are also corroded stuck in the open position, and I haven't gotten around to the more extensive fix involving shutting off the water to my entire unit. Then, early in the pandemic, the shower faucet also started having some issues.

So now I am doing (well, hiring someone to do for me) a bathroom renovation, during a pandemic, even though I still have debt above my mortgage from the first floor renovation. You better believe the laundry closet is getting a drain tray under the washing machine (especially being directly above my newly renovated kitchen!), cost be darned (though, it really doesn't cost much; I have no idea why it's not standard or at least more common in the first place).

I probably would have at least gotten the bathroom sink tap fixed myself if I didn't spend so much time surfing real estate web sites to look at other houses, though.

(Eg. ones with actual yards. Because humans are never satisfied with what we have, and although my two porches and a small deck felt like quite a luxury at first, now I want a yard, too.)
posted by eviemath at 7:08 PM on September 12

I don’t understand who does the maintenance on vacation houses.

The vacation home my parents own, they do all the maintenance themselves, as do all the other people who vacation there. Like 50% of the time spent there when I was a kid was maintaining things. It's almost to the point now where it's close to maintenance free. If you walk around and know a bit about maintenance in any middle class or lower area, you will see all the homes (not just vacation homes) are maintained on shoe string budgets. Places with older residents are barely maintained at all.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:30 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]

why it's not standard or at least more common in the first place

Drain pans are required by code for water heaters and air conditioners now, so yours was either original from the 1980s or replaced long enough ago to where it was still not required, or done without a permit (insanely common, since water heaters are super easy to install).
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:33 PM on September 12

Drain pans are required by code for water heaters and air conditioners now

Not where I live; and permits are not required for a simple water heater replacement here, either.
posted by eviemath at 8:26 PM on September 12

I love to play Zillow window shopping. In one game, I take the current estimate of my perfectly boring 2400sqft expensive city house, and try to find the most amazing properties anywhere in the country that I could buy with that money instead. Then I ask my wife if we can do it and she says no. Gilded-age mansion in the Detroit suburbs? Let's go! I am hoping that indefinite work-from-home will shift the balance in my favor. The other game is daydreaming about moving to amazing estates out in the countryside, like this storied art deco mansion on Hood Canal.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:38 PM on September 12 [5 favorites]

A house built by NASA, failsafes for the failsafes! Hinges that support 10x their contemplated load just in case, you never know! Full base isolation! Windows built to withstand blast pressures! Fireproof, not fire resistant!

I'm not sure I want to think about windows needing blast pressure resistance but otherwise I'm with you.

My ex was 6'4" and yet kept fantasizing about a tiny house out in the woods, and I kept telling him he'd be doing it without me. I keep expecting to hear that he's finally moved out to one.

He was also fascinated by geodesic dome houses, but apparently it's impossible to get loans to build them because they'll be hard to sell later, so we never had to have that discussion.
posted by emjaybee at 9:12 PM on September 12

I wondered where I'd seen the dome home before.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 1:58 AM on September 13 [1 favorite]

The Zillow game has not been good escapism in Atlanta, because one can watch the continuous progress of the wealthy real estate investors who are using the pandemic to buy up the last affordable houses and, if they're small, tear them down and replace them with gentrification spec houses or, if they're large, take out lots of walls and put in lots of granite and unnecessary wall tiles. Housing prices keep going up, while regular Atlantans get evicted.

(okay, except for this, which was amazing)
posted by hydropsyche at 7:05 AM on September 13 [4 favorites]

I have friends who split their time between two houses (something like 2/3 in one and 1/3 in the other) and as far as I can tell one of the main pleasures for them is dealing with all of the doubled house maintenance. They complain about it in the same way that people with overachieving children fake-complain about all the college prep activities and sports championships. Personally the idea of having to manage all the small details like perishables sounds terrible, but obviously people enjoy it.

When I was a kid my parents had friends who lived in a geodesic-ish house. I loved how all the rooms had weird angles and despite their obvious impracticality would love to have one someday.

I've only ever used Zillow to check out houses in places where I have lived; I didn't know you could set national searches as an ongoing thing. I am intrigued.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:07 AM on September 13 [1 favorite]

Gilded-age mansion in the Detroit suburbs? Let's go!

I am so happy you brought this link into my life. I thought I knew what an inappropriate amount of wood panel looked like; it turns out my feeble mind could not comprehend the true totality of wood paneling. Can we talk about the... room... that has both a marble fireplace and a clawfoot tub installed next to one another? Or the one room where they decided to add Ionic pillars, and then strung Christmas lights on them to jazz up the place? Or the owners' varied and eclectic taste in chandeliers?
posted by Mayor West at 7:07 AM on September 13 [3 favorites]

Man, judging by the entirely unstained ceiling in that wildly under-ventilated kitchen, literally nobody has ever used the cooktops for anything but boiling water.
posted by aramaic at 9:51 AM on September 13 [3 favorites]

With all the abrupt covid-19 departures & arrivals and regular buyings & sellings in my neighborhood, I recently had the opportunity to take a virtual tour of a nearby house for sale. As soon as I "walked" in the front door I headed upstairs, down the hall, and to the bedroom. I clicked on the arrow to turn my virtual self toward the window. From there I could see my own bedroom and bathroom windows across the street. I spent quite a bit of time in that room, and frequently returned, wondering how well the woman who lives in that house was faring.
posted by cocoagirl at 10:35 AM on September 13

Uh, that is not my house but it is very close to identical to my house. It might actually be the same kit. (Our interior is much nicer, though - it's actually finished and contains rooms and drywall and stuff.)
posted by restless_nomad at 10:48 AM on September 13 [3 favorites]

One way a house can be made a bit more repairable is to have a plumbing chase with access hatches near the bathroom(s), so the piping is concentrated in the same vertical area and can be maintained more easily.

Another way is to have a suspended ceiling with removable tiles in the basement, so you can access plumbing and wiring, although that looks kind of bad; or you could have removable trim at the top or bottom of walls with a space behind to access building services.

Avoiding putting services in awful hard-to-access places like crawl-spaces and attics is also helpful, but that's just how things are done in some places.

You also want a roof that is as simple as possible, like a gable or hip roof with no dormers, and have a lot of overhang to protect the walls, windows and doors.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:58 AM on September 13 [3 favorites]

I spend a lot of time designing the most efficient and sturdy possible house in my brain
[...]I am very much in tune with this impulse[...]... it's oddly compelling to me, but also oddly embarrassing.
I've been chewing on this a lot -- why embarrassing? It should be embarrassing to spend resources on designs that will fail and need more resources sooner than necessary. It should be embarrassing to have anything you don't think is utterly beautiful that needs extra cleaning and maintenance effort. What makes that feel embarrassing? Is it embarrassing to be an engineer?

We have hatches to our main plumbing races and it's *great*. Plumbers love them, and we don't have to call plumbers as often because we can diagnose more things ourselves. Every time a wall had to be cut for a repair, it got a hatch instead of a wall-repair, not much extra cost or trouble.
posted by clew at 2:35 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]

why embarrassing?

We are in the Orange Plague Times, shouldn't I be fantasizing about exotic environs, wild sex, free socializing and a universal basic income?

Instead ... plumbing, electrical raceways, and seismic resisting frames.
posted by aramaic at 5:17 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]

I feel like putting wild sex in exotic environs above maintainability is one of the things that made the Orange Plague Times possible. Along the lines of ``you can't con an honest man''.
posted by clew at 5:52 PM on September 13

That ... seems like an unusual reach. People voted for Trump because they were dreaming of wild sex with him? Literally nobody has ever dreamed of sex with him, wild or not.
posted by aramaic at 6:00 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]

There are more steps in my ... jeremaiad? It approximately runs that being rich enough in the post-WWII, fossil-fuel age made people in rich countries susceptible to lazy optimism, so we quit planning ahead and doing the maintenance and, in fact, doing the *bookkeeping*, and were therefore easy marks for a lot of secretly plutocratic politics in the late 1970s, and that made it very likely that climate change and income inequality would both grow (as they did), and also made us all feel as though we'd been promised both wealth and idleness, which we sure aren't getting, so we feel like SOMEONE shortchanged us. Which makes it very easy to run on "them! They shortchanged you!" instead of "Okay, time to pull up our socks and do three generations' worth of cleaning."

I don't think any of this is deterministic, just that it tips the odds towards the bad things happening that did.
posted by clew at 6:49 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]

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