It is a cliche at this point that perusing Zillow has become a national pastime for Americans. You’ve done it. I’ve done it. Saturday Night Live has done it. Zillow-scrolling is how we all spent the last two years.
But what if scrolling through Zillow was more like TikTok? And it was easier to do on a phone. And there was music? And it was a game?
Playhouse, a new real estate iPhone app, is the answer to those questions. The app launched this week and is currently in a beta version. In a press release Tuesday, the company explicitly compared it to TikTok — which is best known for dancing videos but has also cultivated a vibrant real estate community — and revealed that it has raised $2.8 million in seed funding. Among other things, the app’s founders bill it as a way for real estate agents “to join the creator economy” and as an experience “that keeps prospective buyers and window shoppers coming back again and again.”
The company’s founders both previously worked for real estate investment platform PeerStreet.
Playhouse is still in its infancy, but already it’s clear that the app does some really cool things — and that it faces some major challenges. So, here’s the thesis: Playhouse taps into the very real trend of people consuming real estate as entertainment, but it’s not clear if the app can be crazy enough or, frankly, mean enough to actually be entertaining.
First, the good.
As is the case with most successful apps, users who download Playhouse are walked through a quick intro, and then fed a stream of slick-looking real estate videos. The set up process is fast, and the interface works pretty much like TikTok and its many clones. Playhouse videos currently tend to include slow panning shots of various Bay Area listings, and they look good. The bottom left corner of the screen includes information on homes’ features, as well as the listing agents’ names. An agent who uses a professional videographer and posts on a platform like Instagram could pretty easily move that same content over to Playhouse.
Real estate professionals will also likely be pleased by a “details” button that lets users directly message listing agents.
But Playhouse’s pièce de résistance is its listing price game. Once users provide an email address, they can tap on the price the app displays and then either swipe up if they think the home’s real value is higher, or down if they believe it’s lower. The app then lets users know if they “nailed it” or “missed it.”
There’s not much that happens after playing the game, but it’s easy to imagine the feature evolving. For example, the game might have more steam if it allowed users to compete against each other. Or, perhaps it could somehow become a source of leads for the creator-agents on the app. The sky is the limit, but gamifying listings seems like the obvious next step in a world where real estate is already entertainment. And if the experience is a tad inert right now, it’s easy to imagine the game’s infrastructure evolving in fun and to-be-determined ways.
But Playhouse also has some serious obstacles.
Some have to do with the app’s newness, and will probably work themselves out over time. For example, most of the creators are brand new, and haven’t created much content yet. The audio in many videos also tends to sound like generic stock music, as opposed to the pop hits and meme sounds of TikTok.
Similarly, the videos on Playhouse are all superficially good. They’re well lit. They use drones. They’re just generally artful.
And yet, many are also very boring. Slow pans of a house might be handy if you’re preparing a listing presentation, but they’re not terribly entertaining. And they arguably don’t even show off a property as well as a carousel of still images that give the user more control.
Some of this will probably change over time as content creators get more sophisticated with the platform. It’s definitely worth cutting Playhouse some slack at this early stage.
But the problem may be more difficult to tackle than it seems.
One of the biggest challenges Playhouse faces is that it may not quite understand what it is people like about real estate content as entertainment. This becomes readily apparent when you scroll through TikTok; most real estate content there is not promoting listings, it’s roasting them.
The real estate roast-as-viral-content first gained serious mainstream attention thanks to the blog McMansion Hell, which mocked ostentatious homes around the U.S. Today, there are dozens of TikTokers, if not more, whose entire accounts are dedicated to doing the same thing.
Other accounts mock questions consumers ask their real estate agents. In one case, an agent went viral after criticizing Zillow’s iBuying practices. The list could go on.
There are people who use apps like TikTok to simply promote listings. But that tends to be the worst content with the least engagement on those platforms. Instead, the most successful content revels in critique and criticism. It’s funny, and it’s a little bit mean.
It’s hard to see how that reality works for Playhouse. The app is apparently designed for agents to share their listings, and it seems unlikely agents will post their properties for people to mock.
This also opens up another can of worms: On TikTok, much of the real estate content bubbles up from portals such as Zillow, which get their listings via agreements with multiple listing services (MLSs). So, someone makes a viral roast of homes on Zillow using images from Zillow. The roast is possible thanks to an MLS agreement that made the images widely available and, significantly, because the agent wasn’t the person making the viral content.
This arrangement has caused friction in the past. In 2017, for instance, Zillow went after McMansion Hell for sharing photos that originated on the portal. That case eventually resolved on its own, but Zillow has repeatedly refused to add things like a comments section.
Why? Because at the most basic level you can’t be in the business of selling real estate and mocking real estate. Zillow is for sales. TikTok is for roasts.
And therein lies Playhouse’s biggest challenge. It wants to be both, but risks being neither.
A useful analogy is a DJ remixing other people’s music. The DJ needs some primary source material to work with. The same is true with social media platforms that successfully host real estate content; the best content isn’t typically the primary source material on the homes themselves, the best stuff is the remixes — which is to say, roasts, analysis, critiques, etc. — from other creators.
So how does a platform like Playhouse solve this problem? How does it make the jump from hosting vanilla promotional videos to enabling the kind of crazy free-for-all that makes a platform like TikTok work so well?
There are potential ways around this issue.
In addition to making fun of houses, TikTok is home to an active community of agents who share market insights, home improvement tips and other housing-related content. While scrolling through Playhouse Wednesday, Inman did encounter some advice-oriented content along these lines. So, maybe Playhouse leans into that type of content.
But this, too, is a hard nut to crack.
On TikTok, many of these other real estate videos are tapping into broader memes on the platform. This works because TikTok’s users come from an array of disciplines. So, a musician like Gayle writes a song, “abcdefu,” based on a follower’s suggestion, that song goes viral on the app, it inspires dances and eventually ends up in real estate videos. It gives TikTok a multidimensional feel as everyone remixes everyone else. And ultimately it means that real estate videos aren’t just real estate videos; they’re bits of content in a vast content firmament.
Playhouse does have some users who put music into their advice videos. But the app faces an uphill battle to recreate a TikTok-type experience because it’s unlikely to have millions of musicians, comedians and other kinds of users natively on the app. And without those other creators, Playhouse could struggle to evolve into something more than a home for promotional videos.
None of this is to pick on Playhouse. Every successful app has evolved beyond its beta-phase origins. And if Playhouse ultimately succeeds, the TikTok comparisons could be moot as the platform becomes its own thing. Facebook, after all, was initially seen as a Myspace knockoff before turning into something entirely different.
On the other hand, Playhouse’s name sounds eerily similar to another recent app-turned-cautionary tale: Clubhouse. That app was one of the hottest tech stories of the pandemic years, but by late 2021 had mostly fizzled out. It was a testament to the challenge of building something new and keeping it top of mind for capricious consumers.
In any case, Playhouse is in many ways the natural outgrowth of a culture that has produced countless real estate reality shows as well as a crowded field of portals. Whether it proves to be the Next Big Thing or not remains to be seen, but its existence in the first place hints at the deep appeal real estate has to millions and millions of people.