It’s 1 a.m. and I’m online again. I’ve got multiple windows open with hundreds of pictures scrolling across the screen, not to mention a few videos complete with funky background music. I’m dreaming of things that I know I’ll never have. I’m pretending I’m someone I’m not. I’m peering through the windows of strangers. I’m a voyeur and I’m addicted.
I’m a Sibcy Surfer.
Turns out, I’m not the only one. Last year, Sibcy Cline, Greater Cincinnati’s largest real estate agency in terms of sales volume, logged more than 40 million page views of property on its website, which at any given time displays as many as 45,000 houses, condos, and farms for sale in southwestern Ohio, northern Kentucky, and southeastern Indiana. The average visitor spends 10 minutes on the site each time he or she visits. (Average indeed. My sessions usually run about 45 minutes.) In the past five years, the real estate gatekeepers at Sibcy Cline say, daily visits to the site have increased 50 percent. Given that the last five years haven’t been especially good for the housing market, it stands to reason that it’s more than just serious buyers who are cruising the inviting red-and-white site to gawk at homes for sale. It seems that here in conservative Cincinnati, Internet users prefer their porn to have a “fabulous new custom kitchen,” “stunning woodwork,” “great closets,” and of course, 2.5 bathrooms.
Real estate voyeurism used to be a lot harder to pull off. Before the Internet, Americans found their dream homes through a combination of trusting real estate agents and good old-fashioned driving around. True, some people were content to simply peruse the classifieds (remember those?). But short of visiting an open house—which, face it, could be awkward if you were just there to ogle—voyeurs were limited to judging the finer points of shrubbery placement and driveway maintenance.
Online real estate pioneer Rob Sibcy, the president at Sibcy Cline, began to sense a big change in how people shop for homes when he started creating VHS tapes of houses for clients back in the 1980s. “We saw right from the start that people love looking at pictures,” he said. In 1985, property pornography found a home on local television; Sibcy used his video company to produce a television show on Channel 12 that previewed homes for sale. It was strangely tantalizing, like watching Bob Ross paint those “happy little trees” on PBS. Though it seems likely some viewers were slightly hungover and too lazy to change the channel, there were also serious homebuyers glued to the tube, looking for their next home.
Roughly a decade later, some property information began to migrate online. To access it, though, you needed an “in” with the Multiple Listing Service, a subscription-based service for area realtors. Sibcy and his wife Pam, the company’s vice president of marketing, are believers in the power of transparency. They wanted to find ways to free up the MLS listings and put information directly in the hands of customers. So they assembled a web team, built SibcyCline.com, and launched it before the MLS public site—or any other local real estate site—was up and running. As it happens, they helped set a trend for the entire country. When SibcyCline.com went live in 1995, it was just one of two sites in the United States that featured residential real estate photos.
Since its launch 17 years ago, the site has streamlined its interface to an almost Google-like user-friendliness. Sharing on social media? Check. Community profiles? Yep. Recommend to a friend? Absolutely. According to the company’s webmaster, during prime house-hunting season (from January to August), more than 15,000 e-mail recommendations are sent person-to-person each month.
As an inveterate Sibcy Surfer, I find “street view” the most intriguing feature: Just click the map and see what Google’s creepy-but-useful camera cars have documented near the property. The most intense snoopers will tell you that this is how you can catch sight of what kind of car is parked in the neighbor’s driveway. Even more important is the concept of “broker reciprocity.” This means that users can see listings and open houses for any home for sale through any agent in Greater Cincinnati. Pam Sibcy readily admits that the decision to include houses represented by other real estate companies was controversial. But, she adds, “We decided as a company to make it easy for people to find a home they want.”
As a measure of the site’s influence, Sibcy Cline’s webmaster regularly fields calls from rival real estate agents—by nature a fiercely competitive lot—asking for a change on SibcyCline.com so the house can be viewed properly by the house-hungry masses. (Full disclosure: When my wife and I bought our first house, our agent was with Coldwell Banker, but we spent our web time with SibcyCline.com.)
Functionality is important, of course, but the popularity of Sibcy Surfing is largely about the age-old desire to spy on our neighbors. Like Tom Hanks in the movie The ’Burbs, it’s easy to become obsessed with the reclusive neighbor down the street. When he puts his house on the market and it goes online, you can finally check out what he’s really got in there. Scrolling through the photos, we may not find evidence of skulls in the giant basement furnace (thank God), but we might discover that the guy has decorated his bedroom with Steelers paraphernalia (I always knew he wasn’t right in the head).
The creepy neighbors are interesting, but let’s be honest, so are our friends and relatives. I shamelessly admit to checking out my friends’ homes when they’ve gone up for sale. Sure, I had shared meals at their dining room table, but I still wanted to see what they kept upstairs. If you think about it, the website is like a regularly updated Architectural Digest for homes in your own backyard. Kim Houchen, a friend who lives in West Chester, has lost hours of her life clicking through SibcyCline.com, checking out the interiors of homes in some of our tonier neighborhoods. “They have a house in Indian Hill and they decorate it like THAT?!” is a typical reaction.
From the comfort of her own home, she’s a critic and a voyeur at the same time.
To be fair, Sibcy Cline’s competitors have robust sites too. Just click on comey.com (Comey & Shepherd), starone.com (Star One Realtors), cbws.com (Coldwell Banker West Shell), or hoeting.com (Hoeting Realtors) and you will slip down a rabbit hole of real estate shock, awe, and schadenfreude that will be hard to crawl back out of. And it’s not just the agency sites that can give you that fix. Looking for a massive time-waster? Check out the website (and mobile app) Trulia, which can show you open houses and other houses for sale in a specific zip code. Not getting enough celebrity gossip from The Cincinnati Enquirer? A few clicks on the Hamilton County Auditor’s site allows you to identify where local B-list celebs live—and how much they paid for their homes. A few hours of amateur sleuthing and you might be able to surmise how much closet space Bootsy Collins needs for those bodacious hats. (Sibcy Cline’s web team grudgingly acknowledges that the homes of local celebrities and sports stars generate unusually high click levels when they go on sale.)
And just as Facebook allows us to check on the lives and times of old high school friends, acquaintances, and nemeses, SibcyCline.com allows us to check up on our ex-houses. Case in point: John Landsman grew up in Cincinnati but has lived near Boston since 1996. Nevertheless, he logs in occasionally to use the site’s intended functions and stoke the embers of his own nostalgia. Recently his childhood home in North Avondale was listed.
“When I shared the link with my three siblings, we had a funny e-mail exchange about which rooms had been whose, why the backyard seemed so different, and our general reaction to the strange look of the place versus what we remember as kids,” said Landsman. He’s not sure how successful the site is at selling houses but he testifies wholeheartedly to its usefulness as a memory enhancer—or for when you’re jonesin’ to simply keep up with the Joneses. “There’s definitely a voyeuristic tinge to it,” he says.
The more I heard about other people’s snooping habits, it dawned on me that there is an even more intriguing dynamic at play. As Americans, we take great pride in being a nation of dreamers. We’ve crossed oceans and mountains and built cities and states; our collective history is nothing if not a document of dreaming extra large. SibcyCline.com is a literal window into the oldest and greatest of American dreams: to have a piece of this land to call your own.
Rob Sibcy knows he’s not the first person to realize this but he doesn’t mind contributing to that dream. “It’s your cave,” he says. “It’s where you’re going to live, where your family is going to be, and where your kids are going to be raised.” He’s adamant that it is not unhealthy to fantasize about homes that may be out of reach. Sibcy says it’s like watching an NBA superstar or an incredible golfer. “Hey, we all dream!” he says.
Think about it: Inasmuch as the home is a symbol of who we are, SibcyCline.com—and frankly, any real estate website—serves as a catalog for how you want to live your life. Planning for kids? Take a look at these extra bedrooms. What do you like to do for fun? Maybe you need a workout room or a study or a bar. You choose. This is your home and your life. Or at least what you want it to be at that moment.
Gabrielle and Luke Blocher grew up in Cincinnati but they first started dating in New York City. As they were courting, home came up and they both agreed that some day they might like to return to the Queen City. Sibcy Surfing became a tool to help them build their life together. They now live downtown—but she still uses the site to search for their next home.
“I imagine us living there as I’m looking at every single photo,” Gabrielle says. It’s more than just how they would decorate; it’s how they might build their marriage and perhaps a family: “I envision us having a life there.”
The aspirational factor is just as powerful for Melinda Davis of Columbia-Tusculum. She’s been checking the site weekly for two years, and though she and her family will likely move, they are in no hurry. That doesn’t stop her from looking for the diamond in the rough. “You have this fantasy,” she says, “that you could find this amazing house at a great deal.” Picking a house, she adds, can be like picking a life. “I automatically put myself in every house and think about what I would do with it.”
It’s remarkable how a handful of mundane photos of houses can so powerfully provoke our most personal hopes and dreams. I got a taste of this when my wife’s boss, a successful attorney and partner at her firm, put his house on the market. Within hours, she e-mailed me the link. The website allowed her to get a glimpse of what kind of lifestyle could be hers (well, ours) if she kept her nose to the grindstone. I know, it’s not a crystal ball, but it’s certainly admissible evidence, right? A modest and safe house in the ’burbs is enough motivation to keep someone enrolled in school or engaged at work. A downtown condo above a hip club can drive an artist to paint one more canvas. That remote cabin in Adams County might be all it takes to keep someone saving for retirement. And the promise of a new home can be powerful enough to sustain someone fighting a war on the other side of the planet.
During most of 2011, First Lieutenant Drew Rothmeeler was protecting military bases in Basra, Iraq, with the Ohio Army National Guard. “Literally every day” Rothmeeler says, he would click on SibcyCline.com and send his fiancée links to houses. He’d point out where he would put his prized 61-inch “gi-normous” TV in the basement and dream of coming home. “It’s corny,” he says, “but you start thinking about your dreams and the things you want in your future based on this website.”
Lt. Rothmeeler returned to Cincinnati in September and while he and his fiancée are finally closing in on their dream home, he hasn’t been able to break his addiction to the site. It’s serious: In November, Rothmeeler passed the real estate exam and became one of Sibcy Cline’s newest agents.
Illustration by Andrew Bannecker
Originally published in the March 2012 issue.