Friday, January 16, 2009

House Hunters

According to the Home & Garden TV site, "House Hunters takes viewers behind the scenes as individuals, couples and families learn what to look for and decide whether or not a home is meant for them. Focusing on the emotional experience of finding and purchasing a new home, each episode shows the process as buyers search for a home." Among many people I know, from my parents to friends my own age, this show is a cult hit. Although real estate shows in general have skyrocketed in popularity according to my anecdotal evidence, this one is the favorite. The bubbly host Suzanne Whang, with her signature head tilt/bob and huge smile, drives the narrative and re-creates it as it's happening either on or off camera as the voice over. The show has a reassuringly standard structure:

First you meet the real estate seeker and see where they live as they tell you the pros and cons. Anyone with the least bit of curiosity will love the chance to see how a stranger lives. You "meet" their real estate agent and get to see what the buyer's wants are, including price range. You see the buyers and their agent visit 3 or 4 homes. At each they see the entire property and you see them discussing it including the price.

Common comments are: I (like / hate) the wall color, window treatments, flooring, kitchen appliances etc. Terms that were unfamiliar to me years ago such as crown molding, great room, bonus room, window treatment (hello? what about just curtains or blinds?), California King beds (everyone is bigger in the US so we need a mattresss larger than King size!), ensuite master bath, Jack & Jill bath (where a bath is open to two bedrooms on either side, like they had in The Brady Bunch for the boys and girls). Many of these comments are absurd because if you buy the freaking property you can paint, change the drapes ect. but of course they are also realistic because one does tend to waste time focusing on those details instead on how large a closet is or how noisy it is outside. After the first home they cut to commercials. Then they return and REPEAT what just happened in edited form, just in case in the 1-2 minute interval you somehow forgot. Then you see the same procedure repeated for two or three additional homes.

Another commercial break and AGAIN they repeat and summarize. You see the buyers discussing the pros and cons of each place, which entails yet another synopsis of what they saw. They then sign an offer contract somewhere like on top of a car in a parking lot, in a park, at a cafe, but never at the agent's office which is really how it is done. (my father is in real estate so I know). Following this, the buyers' options are recapitulated in a voice over by Whang, and they tell you which house they ended up with. Finally, you see them in the new home: their new decoration, their new habits, often having a party where the agent is a guest.

Perfect Closure. Always a Happy Ending. Buying Property is the ultimate end for an American. Rarely do they discuss bidding wars and never do they show the actual back and forth of negotiations between the agents. No one ever regrets their purchases. Often they discuss the purchase as a "Starter Home" and openly anticipate selling it in the near to later term. The desiderata for the Ideal Kitchen is always the same: Granite counters, stainless steel appliances. For flooring it is almost always wood.

Although in many ways the messages sent are very conservative, you have to own property, and conflicts are smoothed over, in other ways the show can be read as slightly subversive. Many of the people featured are gay or interracial couples, most are not weatlhy, for example. Whis is why recently I was floored when they presented a married couple living on an Army Base who home-school their kids and are seeking a home off base and near their Church. The children dress in little baby camo outfits as does the dad of course, and their home's window treatments were done in US Flag-patterned bunting!!!! Terrifying.

There's a spin-off show called House Hunters International which allows us to fantasize about moving abroad. But I find it particularly annoying to say the least because it's all about rich Americans buying up cheap property in often less-developed countries and having the privilege to parachute into a luxury (usually tropilcal resort type) lifestyle. They often they work from home, and you see them eating papaya at their laptop and walking on the beach, hanging out with other expats and of course their broker at the end of the episode. Most often they move down to these places for the weather and scenery without knowing anything about the culture and language. Examples of places they tend to go are Costa Rica or Honduras. They also have shows where rich tacky Americans buy lavish homes in the center of Paris, or people from the UK buy up properties in Spain, which really irritates me, because again, they have no knowlege of the language or culture for the most part, but can afford to buy property there because of their strong currency.

Discussing the show's narrative arc at a party a few months ago led several (then) 30-somethings to hysterical laughter as we realized that if you want to know what is happening on a given episode you don't need to watch the entire half hour, you can tune in at around 25 minutes and see a recapitulation of the episode and shortcut your way to the money shot: when they reveal the house selected. Of course this led us to consider that they know their audience: thirty to forty somethings with short attention spans and short term memory issues (let's not say any more about the whys) and retirees!!

They rarely feature NY but rather focus on small town America, though they did a week of (ridiculously expensive) NYC house hunting hosted by the repellent Star Jones. I can attest to the fact that MY experience with House Hunting in NYC was nothing like what I saw then.

In fact, my "journey" was featured in a less-popular venue for our collective real estate ownership obsession, the New York Post. Whis was fitting because I used to play a game with colleagues at an old job of trying to one-up their ridiculously tasteless bad cover and article title puns (one time I suggested "It's not over till the Arafat lady sings" as the Palestinian leader was about to meet his maker). I was delighted that in the same issue where the article about my house hunt appeared was the following headline: "Good `BI' Norma Jean: Marilyn's lesbian fling with Joan Crawford revealed."

In order to "protect" my anonymity, identifying details are missing from the article below.
My New Home
The New York Post - sometime in the 2000s
Author: Max Gross

Yes, it would have been nice to buy a co-op in the early '90s. We'd be all paid up by now and the only thing we'd have to worry about is the maintenance. But, as Petite Maoiste found out, maintenance charges are nothing to scoff at.

Petite bought her 700-square-foot West Village one-bedroom in 1991, when the market was at a low ebb. Working on her PhD in art history, she blissfully sat back as the value of her co-op soared.

But about two years ago, thanks to numerous repairs, Petite noticed that maintenance was shooting up. What had been a bargain was now costing half of her take-home pay in maintenance charges alone. (Petite, who will begin teaching at large university in the fall, was working at a large museum as a curator [sic] assistant at the time.)

And while many New Yorkers would sell their parents into slavery to stay in the Village, she grew disenchanted. "When I moved in it was really a bohemian neighborhood. But when you have an Olive Garden opening on Sixth Avenue, it starts to be, 'Why did I leave the suburbs again?'"

Buying however, turned into a yearlong ordeal.

"I wanted to sell, and take the money and turn around and buy something," Petite says. "But I couldn't take the time - with my job - to sell and then sublet and then look for a place to buy."

So she tried for simultaneous transactions, telling co-op boards she'd buy with cash from her sale. But boards didn't want to chance that her place might not sell. She looked at between 50 and 60 co-ops and found no board willing to accept her - or she got outbid.

Petite finally settled on a co-op whose board accepted her, although it was just half the size of her old place.

"I was basically panicking," says Petite, who liked the prewar building but had concerns about the apartment's size.

Fortunately, the buyer that Petite found for her old apartment was rejected without even interviewing with the board.

Six months later, when Petite went to visit her sister in [lovely Brooklyn neighborhood], she met her sister's real-estate broker, [nice man working for a large real estate company]. He urged Petite to consider Brooklyn.

At first, Brooklyn was just as formidable as Manhattan. "I went to one apartment that was a fixer-upper, and it was a dark winter night," Petite says. "When I got there the broker said, 'I apologize, but there's no light.' I was literally wandering around the apartment with my Hello Kitty flashlight."

It didn't stop her from making a bid that same night - she didn't get it.

But Petite benefited from an optimistic broker. "He kept saying, 'You should upgrade.'" her broker began showing her bigger co-ops, and in March he found a two-bedroom and a sizable living room that she fell in love with on a leafy green street in [a lovely neighborhood]. She made her bid and got it.

"You know 'The Price is Right'?" says Petite. "I felt like I had just gotten a showcase."

The search was tremendously stressful though I can't really complain since at the end of the day I am lucky that I had property to sell!!!! But it is interesting that someone with valuable property cannot earn enough to pay the co-op fees and has to sell for that reason. This is quite common as real estate prices soar and is happening in my current builidng as well. Suddenly Manhattan transplants with a lot of money move to Brooklyn and decide their new building needs upgrades (the slightly worn pre-War charm of the Brooklyn buildings isn't enough for them). These require co-op fee increases and/or assessments, which means shareholders with less money have been living in the co-op for years are not able to remain and sell to yet more Manhattan transplants. In my current building in about 3 years, the monthly maintenance has gone up over 30%. But I have a different job now so it is nowhere near half of my take home pay like it was in Manhattan, for now.

The disturbing thing about this dynamic is that, just as my prior building had racially and class-diverse shareholders, all of whom (including me) sold between 1998-2005, in my new racially and class-diverse historically African-American neighborhood, many of the African-Americans are selling and moving away. I truly felt like the end of the world was near when I saw the first nanny in my building. The people at my subway stop are also changing, some look like they belong in the Upper East Side or in a J. Crew ad. It worries me that just like it is now pretty much impossible for teachers, artists, and lower middle class and even middle class people to live anywhere in Manhattan, that in my new neighborhood this will soon be the case.

My broker and I were recruited by House Hunters, but sadly by the time we replied, someone else had already accepted. I would have killed to be featured on that show, mostly to know how they do it logistically speaking because this is not "reality" and they must reconstruct the entire thing but I cannot figure out how they orchestrate this!
Posted by Petite Maoiste at 11:20 AM Dec. 8 2007

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