June 12, 2015
I love HGTV. At the end of a long, stressful day, there are few things I enjoy more than kicking back with some rehab/design porn. There’s almost nothing I won’t watch on Home and Garden Television, and it’s equally great whether you’re blow drying your hair, folding laundry, doing the dishes, or drafting deposition summaries. Nothing on HGTV requires more than a preschool education (if that), and it’s family friendly – no F bombs or full frontal. You can watch with your four-year old, your mother-in-law…you can even watch with someone whose political or religious views are diametrically opposed to yours without fear of fisticuffs or long, angry silences. There’s nothing controversial, ever, on HGTV, and it’s enormously satisfying to watch someone reno an entire home in the space of thirty minutes – who doesn’t love that?
My favorite shows on HGTV are “House Hunters,” “Love It or List It,” and “Property Brothers.” Part of the reason—and I feel small admitting this—is because I find the homeowners so unintentionally entertaining. A more demanding, unreasonable, and out-of-touch group of people you’ve never seen (unless you regularly tune into “The Real Housewives of New Jersey”), so, in addition to drooling over a brand new outdoor kitchen or high-end master suite retreat, I get to feel just a little bit superior, and that’s always sort of nice.
For those of you who have never watched “House Hunters,” the basic premise is that someone is looking to buy a new home and is taken to see three contenders. The suspense builds (sort of, I guess) as the buyers mull over their choices, and culminates with the (drumroll, please!) announcement as to which property they’ve picked. (Viewing Suggestion: To make this fairly benign show more interesting, you can engage in some low-stakes gambling or, perhaps, turn it into a drinking game, though people who gamble and play drinking games probably aren’t the classic HGTV demographic).
What makes “House Hunters” so fun to watch (and keep in mind, as you decide just how much weight to give that assessment, that one of my favorite things to do, after looking at pictures of koalas, is reading about the Supreme Court) is that most of the home buyers appear to know as much about purchasing residential real estate as I know about automotive repair. It never ceases to amaze me when our homebuyer, looking to buy a place in suburban Washington, D.C. with a budget of $200,000, demonstrates genuine surprise when told that his or her budget is not going to be sufficient to buy a restored townhouse in Georgetown with a gourmet kitchen and Brazilian cherrywood floors.
What’s more, when told by experienced real estate professionals (who, you just know, want to shoot these people in the head by the end of the show), these buyers always act as though it’s the agent’s fault that the most you’re going to get for $150,000 in Manhattan is a “studio apartment” the size of a handicapped bathroom stall. I also love the sorts of things that seem to be deal breakers for these potential homeowners: Walls painted a color they don’t like, for example; as my oldest has observed, it’s a shame you can’t do anything about that.
Another favorite show is “Love It or List It.” Here, you’ve got a couple who already owns a home that one of them LOVES, and wants to redo, but which the other one hates, and wants to LIST. Enter Hillary, a design professional, and David, a realtor; Hillary is given a budget to make the house they’re living in now more suitable to the couple’s needs, while David is charged with finding a new place within the family’s budget that will address whatever isn’t working in their current home. Once again, unrealistic expectations abound as David and Hillary are given a “must have” list that will cost three times whatever money they have to spend. As an aside, I’m not sure where “LIOLI” is filmed, though I think it’s somewhere in Canada, but wherever it is, the housing prices (even in Canadian dollars) are astronomical—like, $900,000 for a three-bedroom, 1,200 square foot row house—which is all the more reason why I find myself scratching my head over the disconnect between what the couple wants and what they can actually afford.
Instead of scaling back on their demands and adopting a workable plan based upon the realities of their budget, however, the couple spends the next hour in abject fury as Hillary tells them that she’s not going to be able to convert their cramped, poorly-designed mudroom into a spacious home office, add a guest bedroom, and completely redo the basement, all for $30,000, or when David can’t find them a home twice the size of their current residence for roughly what they paid ten years ago for the home they now live in, located in their current (criminally expensive) neighborhood, with stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, more bedrooms, and the all-important “open concept floor plan.”
To be fair, the couple’s outrage is sometimes justified; anyone who has ever been through a home improvement project knows that it can be an emotional, stressful experience and, as well, there’s always some surprise on LIOLI that you would have expected Hillary to discover before she gutted the entire downstairs or ripped off the back wall of the house, like, that the entire electrical system has to be rewired because it’s not up to code, or that the wall the couple wanted gone is load-bearing, and can’t be removed. You would sort of think that before undertaking the massive overhaul that is always involved on this show that Hillary or her faithful sidekick, Desta, would have conducted some sort of inspection or other due diligence to see whether or not they were going to be able to pull off the reno, especially since there is an unpleasant, expensive surprise EVERY SINGLE EPISODE. I guess that’s part of the drama.
“Love It or List It” ends with the couple being shown their old home, the remodeling of which has given them roughly half of their “must haves,” and then being asked to decide if they’re going to keep their current home or else “List It” so they can move into one of the houses David’s found for them. There’s some of the suspense of “House Hunters,” I guess, but when you consider that this beleaguered couple has just been through a major home improvement project which was about as much fun as prepping for a colonoscopy, it’s not surprising that most opt to forego the joy of moving house to stay where they already are, even if their home doesn’t have cathedral ceilings or his and hers vanities in the master bath (another feature about which some homeowners are borderline pathological). I always feel sorry for these homeowners, because they never get what they were hoping for, but by the time the project is over, they’re just happy to have functioning plumbing.
My absolute favorite home improvement show is “Property Brothers,” because it combines all of the worst behavior you see on “House Hunters” and “Love It or List It,” including on the part of the hosts, Jonathan and Drew, whom, I think are twin brothers. Drew is a real estate agent, Jonathan is a contractor. Under the guise of helping a couple find a new home, Jonathan and Drew show them a gorgeous, perfect, move-in ready home which they (Jonathan and Drew) already know costs way more than the couple can afford—like, way more. They walk the couple through this palace and allow them to salivate over the restaurant-grade appliances and walk-in closets that are larger than my first apartment. The couple is over the moon—this is exactly what they’ve been looking for (and these are the only people on HGTV you will ever see who have an unreservedly positive reaction to a home they are shown)—which is when the Property Brothers reveal that the house is three times more than their maximum budget.
Our couple is crushed – their disappointment is palpable—but here’s what always gets me: How is this a surprise? This is how the show always starts – always – so, if you’ve ever actually seen the “Property Brothers,” you ought to understand the premise and appreciate that Jonathan and Drew are going to show you a house you could never, in your wildest dreams, afford. So here’s what I want to know: Are these people agreeing to go on the show without ever having viewed a single episode? What kind of person signs up to be on a television show they’ve never watched, especially when it involves the biggest purchase most people will ever make? And yet, the couple is always stupefied and, occasionally, just a little bit pissed. Which is why it’s sort of hard to care that the duration of the hour is a study in watching someone’s dreams die as they slowly go bankrupt.
Then, when this couple is at their most vulnerable, Jonathan and Drew try to convince them that all is not lost, that they can find a crappy old fixer-upper and make it just as nice, for half the price. Which is a total lie, because in the five years this show has been on the air, this has never happened—not once, and if in fact this were even possible, people would be doing it all the time, but they don’t, because it’s not. But Drew and Jonathan (whose facial hair, it must be said, is sort of sketchy) are very convincing, and so they take our heartbroken couple to a bunch of woefully dated homes built during the architectural renaissance of the 1970’s; homes in serious need of repair; ugly, wallpapered, split-level, popcorn ceiling’ed homes that are screaming to be razed to the ground and put out of their misery.
The couple, who is so emotionally beaten up from watching their dream of living in a mansion they can’t afford swirl down the sludge-clogged drain, allows themselves to be drawn into Jonathan’s vision of how he’s going to turn this eyesore with no curb appeal into an exact replica of the house of their dreams, and because they are either irrationally optimistic or else irredeemably stupid, they believe him. With Drew’s promise that they will be able to buy the house for nothing more than a bag of magic beans and some pixie dust, the couple ponies up pretty much all they have to purchase a clunker of a house, but there’s always some catch: There’s a bidding war, or else the seller refuses to accept the couple’s offer despite Drew’s not-so-expert assurances that the house is listed above market value and can be purchased a fraction of its asking price.
Thus, our couple ends up having to pay more than they originally anticipated in order to buy a shitty house they didn’t want in the first place, but now they’re so emotionally invested they can’t walk away. They’ve drunk the Kool Aid and they believe that Jonathan is going to turn this crapbox into Buckingham Palace, complete with stacked-stone hearth and jetted soaking tub.
Then the renovations start, and it gets even better.
When I sit down to watch “Property Brothers” with my girls, each of us picks some problem – plumbing, HVAC, infestation, you name it—because something always goes wrong, and it’s always expensive. Like, really expensive. It’s sort of like what happens on “Love It or List It,” except on “Property Brothers,” the couple has no choice – they’ve already committed every penny they have into what almost always turns out to be a money pit, and what usually happens is that instead of a beautifully, completely remodeled home, the couple ends up with a house that still looks like crap but has a really nice kitchen. The rest of the rooms have stained carpets, velvet-flocked wallpaper, and termites, probably, but at least they’ve got a tumbled marble backsplash, a large island, and custom cabinetry. During the reveal, the couple feigns excitement, pretends they are not monumentally disappointed, and tries to forget that they’ve sunk a small fortune into a home that still needs massive amounts of renovation they won’t be able to afford for another ten years. In addition to the fresh flowers and bowl of color coordinated fruit on the kitchen counter, Jonathan and Drew should leave a bottle of Xanax and the number of a good marriage counselor.
I think the moral of the story is that if you decide to go on a show on HGTV, there’s a good chance you’ll end up disappointed and disillusioned, which is also sort of sad, because a home is a lot less about four walls and a roof and far more about the people who live there. A custom-designed en suite can’t make up for a bad marriage, and a gourmet kitchen isn’t much comfort when your daughter is 14 and hates you (trust me – I’ve been on that journey three times, and neither the double oven nor the second prep sink made me feel any better about the withering looks of contempt that were a regular part of each day).
So, while I can temporarily lose myself with the thought of a new home with a kitchen floor unscratched by too-long canine nails or walls that haven’t been dinged by laundry baskets or bookbags, while I can think of a few home improvement projects that would put a smile on my face (so long as they’re not being overseeing by Hillary or Jonathan), I remind myself to be content with the damp basement, to be grateful for the laundry room that would feel spacious only if I’d been locked in the trunk of a Honda Civic for six weeks, and the HVAC system that reliably guarantees a 20-degree difference in temperature depending upon which room of the house you’re standing in. I love my home, I wouldn’t List it, even if David showed me one of Jonathan and Drew’s Cruelty Houses and told me I could afford it. After all, you never hear anyone say, “Home is where the granite countertop and brushed nickel drawer pulls are.”