Issue 299,  published March 30, 2021

The Chance Pleasures of a Branded Real Estate Podcast

If you heard a podcast host say, “We’re very well aware of the obstacles: We’re on an audio platform talking about things you need to see to experience and believe,” what might you assume this podcast is about? Movies? Magic? Bigfoot?

In this case, it’s a different topic, one that’s been garnering lots of attention while we’ve all been stuck at home: other people’s homes.

House Party, a branded show from realtor.com, is a chatcast about news and pop culture as it relates to real estate, and though it started in late 2018, it fits snugly into the recent boom of people longingly browsing properties they would never actually rent or purchase. The writers at Saturday Night Live have parodied the phenomenon, saying, “The pleasure you once got from sex now comes from looking at other people’s houses”; the writers at Curbed have captured the phenomenon in a series: “My Week in Zillow Saves.”

Realtor.com editors Rachel Stults and Natalie Way host House Party, covering such things as the particular interior details of The Weeknd’s Hidden Hills mansion. With the hosts’ familiar rapport, as well as the designated discussion segments, House Party is reminiscent of many daytime talk programs (particularly with, say, the recognizable jingle that signals the pivot to a certain topic, similar to how the strings would come in as “Travel Trivia” began on Live with Regis and Kelly). The difference, of course, is that this is an audio-only endeavor, meaning it’s possible that the audience might be left feeling unfulfilled without the visual component of what’s being discussed.

To help tie up those loose ends, a listener might end up going to realtor.com itself, where the show notes for each episode contain a tidy list of links, such as for professional photos of the properties mentioned. I ask Stults if this is a marketing tactic to drive traffic to the site. “I wish I could say that’s what it was!” laughs Stults, who admits that this was never actually the point. The show originated from the realtor.com staff finding the drama of their own housing chronicles — as well as the drama of higher-profile figures — fun, engaging, and interesting to listen to, at least in their internal meetings and conversations; pulling relevant visuals into one place was a bit of an afterthought (something like, “oh, right — the audience can’t see what we’re seeing”).

At first, I was drawn to looking at the pictures, and even though Stults describes that action as “asking a lot of the listener,” it truly didn’t take much effort; the links helped with that. What’s more, I didn’t feel compelled to linger on the site. It was enough to see Bon Jovi’s bizarre interior decorating choices, then move on. (It’s also, obviously, easy enough to just Google these things and never touch the site at all.)

Considering the fairly minimal interaction with realtor.com itself, let me remind you of the fundamental purpose of branded podcasts. Like any number of shows that fit that description, they ultimately exist to increase exposure, to rev up consumer’s recognition of companies, and, eventually, to yield revenue. It’s advertising, but theoretically softer (and maybe more consensual?). Stults says the goal of House Party is “to entertain, to inform and to convey the tone of realtor.com,” which, if everything worked as it should, would then mean that consumers would readily think of — and then use — the site when they need housing.

Shouldn’t listening to the show feel grimy and transactional, then, like when a salesperson takes the time to ask you where you got your shirt, even though you both know you’re really there to get nickel-and-dimed on a car lease? Along that vein, in the SNL skit about scouring housing listings, which positions the activity as quasipornographic, the equivalent of the cold shower is the real estate agent. Once someone wants your money, the fantasy no longer exists in your head. In this case, when the entranced Zillow voyeur actually picks up the phone to contact the listing agent, “Donna Lazaritti with ReMax” answers. The caller realizes, uncomfortably quickly, that the property was tantalizing because it was flawless, out of reach; when you’re not in the market or financial position to buy, the realtor — the middleman between you and the fantasy — shakes you out of your daze.

On House Party, the middlemen — the hosts — have the opposite effect. What’s more, it’s an effect that works even on a listener like me, who’s decidedly not a “My Week in Zillow Saves” kind of person. This is due in part to the hosts letting their own excitement and interest shine through, as well as to the hosts’ ever-improving approach to the show’s content. For example, Stults says, when describing properties, they’ve learned to tailor their focus to colors and wacky architectural elements, rather than square footage. Increasingly rich visual descriptions make looking up pictures less necessary, and if you’re still inclined to peek, there’s no pressure to do it specifically on realtor.com; this might not serve traditional capitalist goals, but it makes the show more enjoyable.

As both a piece of branded content and a chatcast about a topic you might think would fall flat without visuals, House Party feels neither impersonal nor unfulfilling. A feat in itself, it also speaks to something larger about the allure of real estate as entertainment: It allows spectators to place themselves in it.

As mentioned earlier, House Party isn’t a deliberate vehicle to get more active renters or buyers onto the company site. (For the record, it’s also not a service-oriented podcast for realtors, which, Stults says, “is a very popular podcast topic out there.” I can confirm this: It’s what overwhelmingly comes up when searching for real-estate-related shows.) The show isn’t even, in the immediate sense, to drive sales or deals. The similarly editorial content on realtor.com, like weekly aggregate lists of the oldest or most expensive listings, doesn’t serve to do that either, says Stults. It’s not an earnest effort to sell those homes; it’s just for fun.

“We’re here, honestly, for entertainment,” Stults says of the podcast specifically. “We’re trying to be for everybody.”

And for everybody it is. It doesn’t matter if a house being discussed belongs to Shaq or is “the worst house on the street.” In fact, Stults says, when the team pulls together the most-clicked articles on the site each week, they’re often not about celebrity homes at all, just interesting ones. The absence of characters makes your gaze not only permissible but necessary for bringing it to life, which is also what allows an audio-only show about real estate, when executed well, to still draw you in.

As I said, I’m not the kind of person who would scroll through real estate on Curbed, or even on realtor.com. I’m a pragmatic browser, and I look for listings exclusively within my price range and only if I have genuine intent to move. I might, however, look at listings in places I’d never before pictured myself moving, considering versions of my life that seem slightly out of reach.

It does take a little imagination, as does another activity I wouldn’t have necessarily pictured myself doing: listening to House Party. But being presented with the bare bones of other people’s lives can help you determine how you’d like to flesh out yours, a realization about “real estate as entertainment” that I’m not sure I would’ve had if not for this show.

Unlike when you’re in a spiral in the depths of Instagram, where the focus might be a stranger’s physique or blemish-free skin or interpersonal relationships, looking at properties leaves room for the observer. Real estate is just a stage; the story is yours.

I run this thing.