Maybe you were wondering which Hawaiian vacation retreat a retired couple from Los Angeles would buy on “Log Cabin Living,” a show entirely dedicated to homes with an abundance of exposed wood. Even the Hawaiian broker seemed baffled, pointing out that log cabins aren’t exactly typical in a tropical climate. No matter. Would it be the Cozy Cottage? The Hilo Hideway? Or the Volcano Cabin? A decision would be made, and joy would be realized.
“It’s my ‘Real Housewives,’” said Erin Gates, an interior designer in Boston who writes the blog “Elements of Style” and watches enough HGTV that even her toddler knows when to shout at the television. “You watch and it’s just kind of gross, but awesome at the same time.”
For many of us, HGTV is the antidote to Fox News and MSNBC. In an era of political uncertainty, turmoil and real-life cliffhangers, who doesn’t want to escape to an alternate universe where, with the right blend of shiplap and granite, you could achieve perfection in your home, and by extension, your life?
Live in a real house and you know that the list of unfinished projects and repairs seems endless. But watch Jonathan and Drew Scott on the “Property Brothers” promise a dream home on a delusional budget, and that checklist can be dealt with in less than an hour.
In this fantasy world, we don’t waste countless afternoons wandering the aisles of Home Depot in search of hardware. Jonathan will take care of it, selecting an oversize mirror to sit atop your Moroccan tiled fireplace. No weeks spent waiting for inspectors to arrive to close out electrical permits. Instead, you walk away from the chaos to an undisclosed location and return with a blowout and skinny jeans, ready to be wowed.
“In America, the idea that our lives can be improved by consumption is an integral cultural belief,” said Kate Wagner, who writes McMansion Hell, a blog that lambastes bad home design.
The typical HGTV narrative also tells us that our homes are inadequate beasts needing to be tamed. Yes, the stars of shows like “Home Town” can make shutters out of reclaimed wood and restore the original built-ins, but, for the most part, dated elements, like wood paneling or a ’90s kitchen, are tumors to be excised on the journey to an Instagram-ready retreat. A house with an enclosed kitchen is one in need of a crew willing to demolish it, not a family hoping to live in it.
“The home is no longer a place,” Ms. Wagner said. “It’s no longer a backdrop for the complex lives that we live. Now it’s a flaw.”
To fix such a flaw offscreen has real financial consequences. Americans spend a huge amount of money on home improvement, and that sum is growing. This year, Americans are expected to spend $340 billion on home upgrades, up 7.5 percent from 2017, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.
The biggest spenders last year were those who had lived in their homes for less than six years, according to HomeAdvisor. How are we paying for all these new farmhouse sinks and waterfall shower heads? With debt. Over the next five years, an estimated 10 million Americans will take out home equity lines of credit, according to TransUnion, more than double the 4.8 million credit lines opened over the previous five.
But if you live in a high cost area like New York, you cannot hope to remodel a kitchen for $25,000, a price often quoted on “Home Town,” which is set in the far more affordable state of Mississippi. Here, contractors don’t wow you with fancy computer graphics where walls pull away like curtains and fresh cabinets magically descend from the ceiling. In real life, you’re lucky if your contractor even calls you back with a quote.
“It’s escapism,” said Allison Page, the general manager of United States programming for HGTV, Food Network and Travel Channel. “You can watch something and believe things will get better — and in this show, they will. It will happen every single episode.” All that obsessive demolition is meant to draw in the male viewer, whose happy place appears to be watching other people’s homes get torn apart.
Back to Janna and Jason, the “Property Brothers” newlyweds. After choosing the downtown Tudor, they reveal they are expecting a baby. Naturally, this plot twist means they must throw another $40,000 at their perfectly functional home and rip out what little character survived their original vision. “Open her up!” Janna breathlessly declares.
Through it all, I am transfixed, horrified as the last historic remnants are stripped away — but fascinated, too. What will it look like when this is all over? How will this lobotomized shell of a house be reborn?
“It’s a different house,” Jason says, gawking at his living room overstuffed with glam furniture, but lacking walls. “This is the house of our dreams.” And so, I guess, it is.