Most economists attribute this phenomenon to historically low interest rates, which translate into extremely affordable mortgages. I have a different theory. I blame HGTV–the Home and Garden Television channel–one of the fastest-growing stations on cable and a certifiable cult phenomenon among many of my peers.
For the uninitiated, HGTV is one of those niche cable stations we all heard so much about back in the early ’90s that sounded preposterous at the time–who’d watch round-the-clock gardening, remodeling, and house-hunting tips?–but seems perfectly reasonable today alongside the dozens of specialty channels devoted to cooking, pets, sci-fi, soaps, books, and–on my cable system–one click below the NASA channel, which on weekends broadcasts continuous footage of the earth rotating. (Really.) Since its 1994 launch, HGTV has grown from a tiny startup to a cable colossus that reaches nearly 80 million households in the United States alone, broadcasts its programs to viewers as far away as Latvia and Brunei, and is even available to U.S. service personnel in 175 countries and on board Navy ships. The idea of rugged naval aviators, fresh from sorties over Iraq or Afghanistan, choosing to unwind before Home and Garden Television’s design and decorating tips is testament to the strange power this channel holds over its viewers.
At first blush, HGTV is a benign–even an edifying–form of entertainment that’s centered on a can-do ethos for the current or expectant homeowner. Instead of patrician decorating tips, HGTV shows like “Weekend Warriors” champion a Calvinist work ethic in which determined homeowners charge headlong into demanding-but-reasonably-priced projects that typically leave them spent, but never broke, and with a spectacular new veranda or stunning hardwood floors to show for their efforts. There are shows about improving your home’s appearance (“Curb Appeal”), tending to your home’s yard (“Landscapers’ Challenge”), decorating your home cheaply (“Design on a Dime”) or even more cheaply (“Designing Cents”), home-centric extreme-sports knockoffs (“inter Gardener,” “Extreme Homes”) and others, like “Help Around the House,” that extol the life-enhancing practicalities of previously mundane tasks like caulking or grout work.
Many HGTV shows feature a subtle, battle-of-the-sexes leitmotif that adds to the intrigue, while reinforcing and pandering to its audience’s prejudices in a way that surely boosts viewership. On the popular “Designing for the Sexes,” most men are of the hapless variety, puzzled as to why their wife is upset over the moose head they’d like to mount over the dining room table; most women display an alarming fondness for pink chenille or French country style or doilies. Viewers therefore identify quickly, privately relieved to discover that their own situation isn’t nearly as outlandish as they’d first imagined. They receive further encouragement from the show’s denouement, which invariably features a designer or decorator of Christ-like patience who steps in to mollify the warring factions by curbing even the tackiest excesses and delivering a touch of class and taste that both can live with. This men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus format presents itself merely as decorating help. But the effect upon the addled participants–and viewers, too–is not unlike that of a good marriage counselor, convincing couples that any problem can be overcome. I believe it is no coincidence that HGTV is the one channel my fiance and I can agree on. It accomplishes a feat previously thought to be impossible, bridging the chasm between “Oprah” and “SportsCenter.”
Like any 24-hour-a-day cable station, not all of HGTV’s programming is what one would consider to be of Emmy Award-winning caliber. I could do without a show called “Simply Quilts.” Certain others likewise seem best suited to the wee hours of the morning, such as “Flea Market Finds with the Kovels” (which could have been titled ‘Shopping for Junk with Old People”) and “Subterraneans,” a recent promo for which encouraged viewers to tune in and “meet unique people who make their home below the earth.”
But one show–the station’s flagship–renders these others mere trivialities. “House Hunters” is the source of my own HGTV addiction and, the latest Nielsen ratings suggest, many others’ as well. It is HGTV’s highest-rated show–and, I’m convinced, the clue to the network’s appeal.
The show’s premise is a simple one. In each episode, a friendly realtor helpfully accompanies a pair of prospective homebuyers as they shop for a house or condominium. Cameras follow them from room to room, allowing the viewer to examine the various properties in what amounts to a vicarious trial run for the potential homebuyer. The first time I tuned in, a young newlywed couple wanted to move out of their cramped apartment and buy their first home, but clearly had no idea what they were doing. These circumstances were reassuringly similar to my own. I watched with growing appreciation as the realtor listened patiently to their needs and then drove them to one beautiful house after another. If a house was too small, the realtor would smile and show them a larger one. If a house lacked a pool, the realtor would find them one that also had a jacuzzi. If a house was on a noisy street, the realtor would show them one in an area so remote it probably had not yet been mapped. And every visit was a leisurely, pressure-free stroll that seemed not only easy, but fun.
The young couple soon found a perfect home, conferred briefly with the realtor, and decided to place a bid on it. “House Hunters” cut to commercial. Despite having known them for just 22 minutes or so, I was transfixed, and found myself rooting vigorously for their bid to be accepted. When the show returned, our prayers–theirs and mine–were answered. As the couple sat emotionlessly in their worn rental, the phone rang. It was their realtor, with good news! I was privately impressed that HGTV had a camera crew on hand to document this happy occasion. The show ended by flashing forward several months to show the couple in joyous possession of their new home. I stole a glance at my fiance–who looked exactly as she had at the end of Titanic–and immediately began looking forward to my own home-buying experience.
It did not dawn on me until after I’d embarked on my own search for a house how wildly fictional this portrayal had been. But I quickly discovered that it was fundamentally dishonest on several levels and bore no resemblance at all to my own nightmarish experience.
To begin with, “House Hunters” promotes the fantasy that charming, spacious, reasonably priced homes are plentiful and always available in even the most desirable neighborhoods. Perhaps this is true in some distant corner of North Dakota where sprawl and gentrification have not yet driven up prices. But it is most certainly not the case in Washington, D.C., where I live, or in any surrounding suburb that I’ve been able to locate.
This shortage gives rise to another phenomenon that “House Hunters” does not acknowledge–the “open house.” These are the overly brief weekend showings in which sellers open their homes to potential buyers–but which in today’s hot real estate market quickly come to resemble cattle calls of anxious couples who strenuously avoid making eye contact with you as they rush around sizing up the house and potential competitors for it. Nor does “House Hunters” accurately depict the mood and temperament of these people, who tend to look wild-eyed and tormented and would probably arouse concern among security personnel if transported to any other setting. In the open houses I’ve experienced, the naifs who appear on “House Hunters” would be trampled and devoured like the herd weaklings in a pack of wildebeest on the Discovery Channel.
After awhile, once we had acclimated to the laws of the jungle, my fiance and I found a cozy brick rowhouse that seemed perfect. As we elbowed past the other prospective buyers and walked from room to room, I felt that small shiver of excitement I had seemed to detect when couples on “House Hunters” had finally come upon the home they would buy. That evening we filled out a mountain of paperwork at our realtor’s and submitted our bid. The next day I blew off work and sat expectantly by the phone, about to be educated in yet another way in which “House Hunters” differs from reality. By this point, I had become an avid fan of the show, but it had still never occurred to me that each episode’s happy ending might not mirror reality. When my phone rang, I leapt for it. It was my realtor, who informed me that we had not gotten the house–that in fact 22 others had bid on it and driven the sale price more than $100,000 above what originally had been asked.
Soon after, I became well acquainted with the concept of the escalation clause, the inspections waiver, the failed bid, and generally competing like gladiators for any property deemed livable and available. I also realized that “House Hunters” is totally staged–the couple always gets the house they want, and the show’s producers are probably wise to steer clear of markets like Washington, D.C., which would terrify viewers anyway and kill their ratings. I angrily swore off HGTV and the cheap fantasy it peddled, and sheepishly sought out my copy of Home Buying for Dummies.
Yet, strangely, life without HGTV did not improve–at least not for the six days that I held out against watching it. Houses remained overpriced, realtors unscrupulous, buyers frenzied, and I was no closer to escaping my one-bedroom. I found myself longing for familiar comforts. In the end, the siren call of reasonably priced homes and pressure-free bidding that always has a fairy-tale ending proved too powerful to resist. I cracked a beer and submitted to the evening’s “House Hunters.”
Only then did I truly understand the lure of HGTV–of what it is that grips me, and my addict-friends, and all those naval aviators overseas who are stressing about the availability of three-bedroom colonials in neighborhoods with decent schools. It’s not the reality television that HGTV pretends to be, but an escape from our own real-estate reality into a soothing world where things are different and better; a place to retreat to after those greedy sellers pass on your bid, where one will always find sustenance and encouragement; it’s what excites people to keep marching out and buying new homes.
My story has a happy ending, though not the type you’re likely to see on HGTV. Several weeks after our initial bid fell through (it seemed like years) our excellent realtor Vince–who, incidentally, could eat the realtors on “House Hunters” for breakfast–found us the perfect home and shrewdly snuck us in before the open house, preempting a bidding war by submitting a take-it-or-leave-it offer that cut out the competition. (I expect Vince will be surprised to learn he’s been nominated for a Congressional Medal of Honor.)
Impending homeownership has brought with it complicated new challenges, so I’ve turned to my wellspring of wisdom for guidance. I now possess a master gardener’s understanding of landscaping, and I’m confident that I can parry most of the feminine-looking accoutrements with which my fiance seems intent upon decorating our new home. In fact, there’s only one area where I’ve come up empty. I’ve searched in vain for a show called “Mortgage Hunters,” but none seems to exist–perhaps there are aspects of home buying that even HGTV can’t spin into fantasy.