A few years ago, during the height of the real estate bubble, my husband and I set out to buy a house in an extremely glutted market; “a buyer’s market,” we were told over and over again. I can’t count how many times we shared a sardonic laugh over that phrase as we slogged through hundreds of listings in our search, which lasted over a year and finally ended with a great house. But not before my better half -- a most punctilious, financial man -- was tortured by the demands of an over-corrective mortgage process.
Somewhere along the line, to ease our pain, we picked up the habit of checking out the fare on HGTV, the Home & Garden Television network, to see if our heroic struggles were shared by other Americans. To some extent they were, but in most cases they hilariously were not, though to be honest, most of the shows on the network take place in the Great White North, so I don’t really know. I do know that some of these programs are a real hoot and we still watch some of them just for fun.
The first to catch our eye and probably the most popular is House Hunters, which features couples visiting three houses, then choosing the one that most fits their needs. We watched with eager glee, these earnest home-seekers, almost without exception give forth with the required HGTV groupspeak terms. Homes must have ”hardwood floors throughout,” be “huge” and “amazing” and my personal favorite, the ubiquitous proclamation that the kitchen area MUST have an “open concept” so homeowners can “talk to our guests while entertaining.” You could keep a scorecard on how many times these often inapplicable platitudes are uttered, and never be bored.
Along the same lines is Property Virgins, which, up until the end of 2011 starred Sandra Rinomato, a Canadian real estate agent who nurses first-time buyers through the perils of the search and buy process. This is the show that most closely paralleled our experience, though we didn’t need the sage advice of Rinomato to point out the pitfalls of property ownership. In the course of the program Sandra breaks down her charges from starry-eyed romantics to battle-scarred veterans who have been force-fed the dreadful realities of realty. The show always begins with the couple strolling down some idyllic street in a “highly desirable” neighborhood with a beaming Sandra, who soon crushes their dreams by quoting the price range in their hoped-for utopia. Were it up to me, Sandra would be in the U.S. Congress.
A startlingly tacky but curiously entertaining entry and one most representative of all that is wrong with America and/or Canada, is a show called My House, Your Money, which chronicles the foibles of young people who are eminently unqualified for home ownership, yet team up with enabling relatives for financial support; kind of like the subprime collapse in microcosm. This show was on prime time in the U.S. only briefly, due I’m sure, to the too-bad-to-be-true characters: from spoiled children who wouldn’t lower themselves to raise a paint brush, to indulgent parents who feign horror at the boorish behavior of their youngsters but usually hand over the do-re-mi by the end of the show anyway. If, as I’ve felt, this show is totally scripted, the writers should immediately receive a government grant for an anthropological study of college campuses.
Probably one of the most popular, certainly among my friends, is Love It or List It, which, along with megahit Holmes on Homes, highlights the bottomless depths of the ever-deepening pit of American and Canadian building codes. In Love It, a family must choose between renovating their current home -- nearly always a cramped, row house -- under the auspices of designer Hilary Farr, or moving to a new one, hand picked by realtor David Visentin. Although almost all of the episodes are suspiciously alike, it’s worth watching to the end just to hear David finally ask the homeowners: “Are you going to list it?”
Still in all, our personal favorite has to be House Hunters International. Conceived along the lines of “you are what you eat,” this show features people who feel that immersing themselves in new and often exotic locations will in some way help them to absorb the local culture; perhaps by osmosis. And make no mistake about it, the number one reason they seek abodes abroad is to escape “uptight” environments like Southern California. Off they rush with their children and upscale belongings -- what do these people actually do for a living? -- to the coasts of Borneo or some other such place to flee the evil influences of capitalism, only to inform their native real estate agents that they must have western toilets, dishwashers, and space for their king beds.… Talk about an open concept!