COMMENTARY

A tiny gingerbread house got listed on Zillow for 31 days, and the price felt all too real

As a comment on the squeeze many are feeling in today's brutal real estate market, this prank nailed it

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published January 20, 2023 5:07PM (EST)

Gingerbread House listed on Zillow (Photo by Michael Dugan)
Gingerbread House listed on Zillow (Photo by Michael Dugan)

It dropped this morning in the group chat where my friends and I dissect real estate listings for fun, the McMansions with bewildering custom sinks, murder house photo gallery jump-scares, wildly overpriced neighborhoods we remember used to be affordable, even just barely. This house, however, took the cake — if you'll forgive the pun. A 1 bedroom, zero bath, 1-sq. ft. home in Louisville, Kentucky, listed for sale by owner, and priced at a cool $399,999. The kicker? It was a gingerbread house — a real one, as the listing owner assured me when I called the number on the listing. Comes in a kit. Fits on a table. Decorated with candy. Edible, kind of. As a recent buyer in this market, I was surprised it wasn't snapped up in a cash offer in the first 24 hours.

A screenshot of the now-delisted 123 Gingerbread Lane listing, Zillow, taken Friday, January 20, 2023. 

"NEW CONSTRUCTION!!!" the listing for "123 Gingerbread Lane" trumpeted for 31 days before Zillow removed it after I contacted the company for comment, because of course. "This environmentally friendly home boasts charming historical elements, such as Gum Drop ™? string lights and actual peppermint sculptures along the rooftop, made of course by Harry P Peppermint of Austria."

I have read enough online listing BS — and watched enough terrible HGTV to make my own realtor's head hurt — that the line between parody and straight-faced is probably permanently blurred for me. The internal adjustments you learn to make to the manic cheerleading for basic structural details—sorry, "charming historical elements"—are a reflex at this point, to say nothing of the eye strain from listings that considered proper capitalization and punctuation and chose violence instead. I'm looking right now at a listing near my own house rhapsodizing about the kitchen's "Hood Vent!!" with, yes, two exclamation points. I would pay to watch an hour of Billy Eichner reading these out loud.

123 Gingerbread Lane continued its brag sheet with, "CUSTOM molded lights and holly, you won't find this ANYWHERE ELSE!! Stop now! Hot (baked) neighborhood!"

At first glance—ignoring the actual gingerbread house in the photos, of course—this home description ("Flooring: Other.") wouldn't even be out of place in any established (even "Hot," perhaps due to gentrification) neighborhood where "vintage charm" means the house has settled into a cheerful slump, leaving no angles perfectly right. "Environmentally friendly home" usually means "give it a week for the radon mitigation to kick in" but in this case, it's just a house that literally biodegrades in front of your eyes, a not-so-subtle visual metaphor for how home ownership will drain your finances and your energy.

"Comes with a WORK FROM HOME OPPORTUNITY! Own and operate your own Cocoa stand, selling thimbles full of hot cocoa, which is located STEPS from your own front door."

With housing costs that rose 30-40% in 2022, according to NPR, that side hustle slinging tiny artisanal cocoas can't hurt. "It's gotten nearly twice as expensive to buy basically the same house in just two years," correspondent Chris Arnold told Scott Simon on Weekend Edition last June, which, after a couple of years of pandemic home-buying energy, has once again priced many first-time would-be millennial buyers out of the market. 

"Rising prices, decreasing inventory and high mortgage rates shut out younger buyers," the Washington Post reported in November. By the middle of the year, "the share of homes purchased by first-time buyers plummeted from 34 to 26 percent, the lowest level in at least four decades."

I interpreted the gingerbread house listing as clever satire, a bit of gallows humor performance — with a side of whimsy — to call attention to the current housing market squeeze. But Michael Dugan, 44, a sales manager in Louisville, created the listing using a photo of the candy house kit he and his family built over the holidays for a laugh. "I thought it would be funny," he said. 

Dugan said he got daily inquiries about the "property" despite the photos clearly showing a roof held together with royal icing. The interior photos posted weren't his — he said he found them by searching online, and one showed the eerie twin girls from "The Shining," in gingerbread form — but the exteriors were on display in his real home during the holidays. ("We built the cocoa stand first.") He credits his sister with writing the listing copy, which really sells the whole thing if you ask me.

"I initially thought there's no way they would let this through," Dugan said when we spoke by phone Friday. "Surely someone verifying this information wouldn't let this be listed on Zillow."

And yet. Dugan told me Zillow contacted him to confirm details of the property through an automated system. He didn't have a chance to tell an actual Zillow employee, as he did straightaway when I contacted him, "It's a real gingerbread house."

I reached out to Zillow for comment and the listing disappeared pretty quickly. That's good news for folks concerned about actual scams on the platform, and understandable but still a bummer for those who just wanted a wholesome laugh on a Friday afternoon. 

"We love a bit of holiday cheer here at Zillow — we even created a 3D tour of Santa's house! At the same time, for buyers and renters outside the North Pole, we strive to provide the most accurate listings on our platform, and we recommend finding a home made of sturdier material than gingerbread," a Zillow spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Dugan, who worked in the mortgage industry for years before recently switching industries, says he's "happy to be renting right now" and might look more into buying "once things settle down" in the housing market.

This isn't the first baked goods home to grace Zillow's site. In November, Pop-Tarts collaborated with the real estate platform for a promotion featuring a house made entirely from toaster pastries, encouraging people to build their own Pop-Tart home and post it to social media for a chance to win $15,000. Pop-Tarts refused to put a price on their dream house, located "Just north of the Wild Berry Woods in the foothills of the Applefritterlachians," of course. 

Even if Zillow hadn't acted to remove the listing, Dugan said the structure itself was already on its way out. "The house was condemned due to mold," he deadpanned. 


By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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