I lived in an apartment in my town for eight years before I decided to buy a house. I’d been to the seasonal festivals, carnivals, holiday activities. I’d met people in the aftermath of storms, when the town had no power for days on end and everyone was motivated to talk because it was the best source for news and updates. It’s the kind of town in which you can pass the mayor on the walking path in the morning or run into him at a coffee shop later on. After eight years, I felt I knew this town.
That was before I discovered Zillow.
Once I started browsing the listings, I realized that I knew the parts of town that were closest to businesses, the library, and our little downtown square. What I didn’t know? The neighborhoods that spread out from the central parts of town. I didn’t know the residential areas.
A Writer’s Guide to Finding Inspiration in Real Estate Listings
Searching through homes in the area became a hobby that lasted after we bought our house and moved in. Here are some ways real estate listings can lead to story ideas:
- Neighborhoods arose at different times. Houses aren’t built at random. The entire town is like concentric circles. It starts with the large historic houses I’d seen, which are located near the heart of town and around which local tattoo parlors and pizzerias sprung up. Spreading out from there, you have clusters where all of the houses were built in a certain decade, in a certain style. How did the town’s founding families feel as they watched new neighborhoods develop? Was there friction between the old families and the more recently relocated?
- There is an actual “wrong side of the tracks.” As in, when we looked at houses past the railroad tracks, they literally looked like they belonged to a different place altogether. Was this the result of zoning laws? How long have the railroad tracks been there? How did/does this dividing line matter in the lives of the residents?
- I was able to browse homes that I would not waste my agent’s time touring. Some were mansions I could never afford, while others were poorly maintained “deals” being sold as-is which would undoubtedly cost more to repair than they sell for. I could see which areas were thriving and which had bottomed out. Why would a four-bedroom, three-bath house of 3328 sq ft be boarded up and listed for only $15,000?
- I ended up buying an adorable little 1940’s cape cod on a street full of similar homes. At signing, I learned that our street was WWII era military housing, and that the street just south of us was an air field. This led to a discussion with the research librarian and a stack of photocopies. The answers I went home with led to even more questions, and before I knew it I was back on Zillow, looking at every house for sale in my area. Which were built first? Why are they all the same size except these two? Why are they all red brick except this one? A question that leads to more questions is a portal to story ideas.
- A lot of the houses for sale still have people living in them. Unlike staged homes you see on HGTV, these houses are a peek into people’s actual lives, from their shot glass collections to their Pittsburgh Steelers themed man caves. Some of the homes with outdated floral wallpaper and heavy oak furniture made me wonder if someone’s grandma died there, while others were decorated in a style best described as Pinteresque. I’ve seen writing prompts that involve browsing magazine photos featuring professional interior design, but how much more could you learn about your characters by looking into houses whose design scheme was based on personal interest?
- One unique home was a Zen home, with Japanese design and clean uncluttered spaces — except for the walk-in pantry, which was packed full of jumbled miscellany. In what way do your character’s closets and storage areas reveal a discrepancy between their public persona and private lives?
- A gorgeous impeccably-kept house from 1910 came on the market for an exorbitant price. It had only been owned by one family — it was the home’s first time ever on the market. The walls were lined with antique photos that I assume were actual family members who’d lived there over the last century. Why was it for sale? How would the spirits of the original inhabitants adjust to new ownership? Would the house always feel like it belonged to someone else? Would that feeling be imagined or supernatural?
Even if you aren’t in the market for a home, real estate listings can be a tool in your brainstorming kit. You could even use them to do research on setting if you’re writing about a place you don’t live. Short searches in any town can lead to story prompts and insights into character. Experiment with tools like Zillow and who knows what ideas you’ll dream up.