Friday, January 16, 2009

HGTV as Real Estate Pornography: A Fragile Fiction?

Yesterday I was mesmerized by a tote carried by a woman on the A train bearing the legend "PHAT CRIBS REAL ESTATE" followed by a Harlem address. Only in NY. Though we know that before I was obsessed by real estate related programming of the Home and Garden TV network, I was a huge fan of MTV Cribs (Mariah Carey's house is my all-time favorite). Then I read the CNN article (see below) and began to think yet again: House Hunters is the opiate of the real-estate obsessed masses. As I have discussed here before (under Foucault and You - my posts about reality TV), that is my favorite TV show, despite its repetitive, indeed incessantly reiterative narrative structure, its recurring tropes (the three homes to choose from, the realtors' pointing to things that are obvious - "this is the kitchen", the shoppers bitching about things they can change or that are irrelevant - "I hate the wall color/window treatment....", the signing of the contract anywhere but at a realty company office, the summary prior to the big reveal) all of which serve to cloak the show's manifest lack of any relationship to an actual search. And no, that sentence was not in German, sadly, despite the number of clauses.

A huge part of the distinctions made that reinforce particular canons of US taste in middle and upper middle class domestic architecture and interior decoration have to do with the following: quality of window treatments (the plantation shutter being at the apex), wood floors vs. carpets, tiles especially Travertine tiles, en suite bathrooms with double sink in the "Master" bedroom, something called a "Great Room" (formerly a living room with a dining room included?), and even more bizarrely a "Bonus Room" (can't you just add it to the total number of bedrooms?). Molding - crown molding, chair rail and other types are also regarded as the highest indicator of luxury. Kitchens must have custom cabinets, marble or poured cement counter tops and stainless steel appliances.

There are many many other shows on HGTV all predicated on a real estate boom, on flippers' speculative economies, and on estimating value. "My House is Worth What?" often involves people getting an appraisal so that they can take out a home equity loan (WTF? why would you risk your home to borrow against it for some cosmetic reason if you are not planning on selling it, or, if you are not sure you can sell the house? You run the risk of having a house with a huge mortage and a huge debt on top of that!) to put marble counter tops and the whole make-over for the kitchen. HGTV has not caught up with the major recession and foreclosure crisis so now the shows seem like a laughable vision of fictive excess or foolhardy over-reaching. I wonder if their ratings will drop or increase similarly to the popularity of lavish musicals during the Depression....

Say good-bye to granite countertops
High-end kitchen and bath renovations just aren't boosting a home's value the way they used to. Sellers who succumbed to home over-improvement syndrome are feeling the pain.
By Les Christie, staff writer
Last Updated: March 14, 2008: 10:49 AM EDT

NEW YORK ( -- The granite countertop's glory days might be over.

During the housing boom, updating a kitchen with high end materials like cherry wood cabinets and a Viking stove was a sure bet to boost a home's value. Homeowners often recovered about 80% of the cost when the house was later sold.

But with so much more inventory on the market for buyers to choose from, they just aren't as impressed with the bells and whistles. Now most upscale renovations are returning less than 70% of their cost, according to a recent survey from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and Remodeling magazine.


No comments: