This is the beginning of an ongoing series about my obsession with terrible Zillow houses.
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.
Some of the alerts are specific: homes built before 1950 in the Lakewood neighborhood of Dallas, Texas under $2 million that contain the words “craftsman” and “built-ins” and have two bathrooms and could be the childhood homes of the rich girls I knew in high school and wished I was. Some alerts are solely for my own entertainment.
I found this week’s home because I have a Zillow alert for the word “unique.” Unique is a terrible word which was banned at my college newspaper because it means absolutely nothing and is a lazy way to write. In real estate listings, though, the word unique often means “ugly” or, “contains a secret jail” or, in this case, “is only half completed.”
What really is unique about this house, though, is that it’s a dome.
The dome home is an absolute mess and I want it very badly. The whole thing is built like an angular, ugly, snowglobe. It is built atop a first floor made of concrete with eight sides as wide as they are high, like one of those mid-2000s bangles you bought at Forever 21. The dome part is made of triangles tilted together into a geometric turtle shell shape. Were it not covered in shingles, brown and flat like a pile of leaves, it would look like one of the playground structures a kid in my elementary school class fell off of and broke his arm. The windows are placed at uneven intervals and the railing on the porch is clearly much newer than the porch itself. There is one giant pentagon window, though, which seems to be convex and I imagine would cast rainbows on the ceiling of the dome in the late afternoons after it rains.
Frankly, the interior of the dome is not that much better. You enter through the basement. The floors here are still gravel and there are several copper poles shoved into the ground at odd angles. They look like they are load-bearing. When I showed these photos to the structural engineer I am married to he raised his eyebrow and said, “I do not like this.” The ceiling here is not closed so you can see all the wires. The home does have electricity! There is a flight of stairs to the right of the entrance that spits you out into the magnificent, really exciting, also uncompleted dome.
The walls of the dome look like a kindergartener was asked to trace all the lines of each dome triangle in white paint. Some of the triangles are polka dotted. This is because the drywall has not been finished either. There is a kitchen with a refrigerator and stove top but no oven. There is a bathroom with the same terrible graying tile on the floor and the walls. Someone was in the process of building a loft out of beautiful red wood, but ran out of money or will or both halfway through and the only way up there currently is a ladder that I am not sure comes with the house.
But since the beginning of isolation in March, I started using Zillow the way other people might use a vision board or a self-help book.
The dome home has all sorts of problems, but there’s also a wood fire stove and a big window at the very top that I’m sure you’d be able to see stars through. It has a deck where you could drink your morning coffee and grill a steak. It sits on 5.45 acres: big enough to avoid your neighbors, small enough that they would probably hear you if you screamed.
The other really special thing about this home is that it is only $90,000.
$90,000 is cheap enough that for three weeks earlier this summer, I became obsessed with buying this dome home. Could I have actually afforded to buy this dome home while working in an industry that has been collapsing for the entire time I have been employed in it and while my husband’s hours and pay were reduced? No, I could not. Did I read a half dozen blogs about house flipping and come up with a kind of sketchy way by which we could get some money from the bank to use to renovate this dome home (which again, we could not buy) by simply taking out a larger mortgage with a cash up-front to fix the house? I sure did.
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.
“Definitely geared toward weekend or vacation use,” the listing says. The dome home is located in Great Cacapon, West Virginia, an easy two and a half hours from my cramped apartment in the city. I imagined myself loading up the car on Friday afternoon, tapping my foot while I waited for the minute I could drive to my dome. No one in my family has ever had a second home, but during the early days of this pandemic I realized just how many of my acquaintances were much richer than I realized. They escaped to family homes in the mountains or at the beach. Imagine a weekend escape, I tell myself, but better because it is a dome.
I imagine having the roof reshingled in a darker gray. I imagine putting in wooden floors over the gravel covered basement and drywall over the cinderblock, running half wood paneling around the walls and painting the top half a dark cherry. I imagine installing a liquor cabinet and a pool table and a couch that pulls out into a bed my friends could stay on. I imagine laying tin on the ceiling.
I imagine carrying a bag of groceries for the weekend up the painted stairs and into the dome kitchen, now with open shelving and a peg board and all the tools I need to cook, and sorting the groceries into the fridge. I imagine sighing with relief. The dome home is not very big (908 square feet), but it is bigger than my apartment. I imagine gazing up at the dome, all white except for the flat panels at the very tippy-top, painted navy with tiny white dots to resemble stars, and feeling grateful to be able to escape to a place that has different walls.
I imagine how accomplished I would feel after months of haggling with contractors and running into snafus that delayed us weeks, as I climbed the small spiral staircase up to the loft, running my hand along the smooth new railing, and dropped my weekender bag on the dresser by the big bed. I imagine hurrying down the stairs, my dog at my heels, and grabbing a beer from the fridge leftover from my last visit, and carrying it out to the power-washed porch and watching the sky grow darker and darker, moths banging into the double doors behind me, stretching my legs out on the patio furniture while a fire roars in one of those fancy coffee table fire pits. I imagine being able to press the keys into the palms of my friends having a terrible week and tell them to go: go to the dome and relax, the kitchen is stocked, the bathroom has shampoo, the pool table is a little uneven.
What I imagine is a form of wealth that exudes freedom: the freedom to have another safe space to be; the freedom to enjoy both nature and the comfort of city takeout; the freedom of being able to look up on a particularly terrible Thursday night and say, “Hey, let’s go to the dome tomorrow” and not have to worry about exposure risk or credit card payments.
Now that I’ve described it, when you look at the photos of the incomplete loft and the mirrors stacked against the wall and the messy basement, can’t you imagine it, too? How the dome might smell like a wood fire? How it might give you the room to take the really deep breath you need?
I showed my friends the dome home and they all said, “Kelsey.” in the voice they always use when I am spiraling into an obsession that makes absolutely no sense. They all told me it would be too much work, that it would take over my life, that the dome was not a good investment. Of course, they had a point.
But the appeal of window shopping for houses online isn’t to find an actual house to buy, which seems like a stressful and terrible process. The whole joy of looking at houses online is that you aren’t going to buy them, that you can’t buy them. The point is just to remind yourself that walls other than ones you’ve been staring at for more than 150 days exist. The point is that there are other futures out there. The point is that despite the fact that your life feels like it is spiraling out of your control and everything seems at the whim of people who aren’t you and don’t care about you, actually, you’re the boss. Actually, you choose not to buy the dome home, you choose only to look at it and dream.
The dome was listed on Zillow for 124 days before being pulled from the market August 20. If you bought my dome home, please give it to me. Thank you.