By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
This, people, is how you know the fearsome bubble is finally bursting (as if the moss growing on your neighbor's For Sale sign weren't enough of a clue): We're finally left with nothing to do but watch. Indeed, this collective lust for landholding, this national pang for property, has morphed into a strange new obsession. Instead of shopping for a house, we've taken to camping out in front of the telly, watching other people on the prowl for a place : "House Hunters" and "What You Get for the Money" on HGTV. "Location, Location, Location" on BBC America.
For a change of pace, we watch other people trying to get rid of their homes: HGTV's "Designed to Sell" and A&E's "Sell This House" and "Flip This House" (not to be confused with TLC's "Flip That House"). For the truly desperate, there's "Buy Me," HGTV's 30-minute cinema-verite excursion into the addled brain of the distraught homeowner trying to unload a money pit, and quick. And for anyone addicted to the blood lust of the sport, there's Discovery Home Channel's "Double Agents," which pits two Realtors against each other.
These shows "are not really for people that are going to buy and sell a home," says Jeffrey Sconce, associate professor at Northwestern University's screen cultures program. "They're for people who have a fantasy of buying and selling a home."
We've moved beyond the makeover mania of a couple years ago, when everyone was "Trading Spaces" and doing unto their neighbor what they would not do unto themselves, painting living rooms chartreuse and carving up Grandma's dining table and turning it into faux modern modular blocks. This isn't about designing on a dime or extremely redoing our homes or our lives.
In the past year, a batch of new shows-- about 20 of them -- have cropped up on HGTV, Fine Living, Discovery Home, A&E and TLC. ("House Hunters" is the most popular, averaging just under a million viewers per episode, with the nakedly greedy "Flip This House" coming in at a close second, an average of 802,000 viewers per episode -- big numbers for cable TV.)
These shows are all about the minutiae of real estate, condensed into easy-to-digest, made-for-cable bites: Stomping around scary-looking fixer-uppers. Scoping out the moldy tile in a "vintage" bathroom. Sitting out open houses while complete strangers turn up their noses at your rehabbed kitchen. Signing reams of paperwork. Waiting for the Realtor to call you with the news: You've been outbid. Or, since this is The World of TV, where everyone (usually) has a happy ending: "Congratulations!"
And, this being television, these shows are just a beat or two behind real time, a case of pop culture bringing up the rear in what economists like to call your classic lagging indicator: The bubble's bursting, and now we have a slew of television programs coming at us, after the fact.
Never mind the softer market -- which many real estate industry types deny -- we're still obsessed. "All of America right now is having a love affair with real estate," says New York real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran, founder of the Corcoran Group.
Most Americans -- almost 70 percent -- are homeowners. "Everybody's bought in," Corcoran says, "everybody's in the parade. . . . With so many people bragging at cocktail parties or at church how much their properties have gone up," it was just a matter of time before we'd see our personal obsession played out on the little screen, says Corcoran, who has her own real estate television show in the works. Especially now that we can't brag so much anymore and are praying to hold on to that equity.
Plus, watching others suffer can be so darn compelling. Maybe this isn't destination TV -- most shows air during prime time and are repeated during the week -- but if you're surfing and happen to settle on one of them, it's hard not to get sucked in.
Witness a recent episode of "Buy Me": We see the breezy Natalie and Henry, who figure that while the market's hot, they might as well make a mint on their McMansion. And then, after the first open house, when no one bites, we find out the truth: Said McMansion costs about 10K a month just to keep the lights on, the propane gas grill fired up and the pool and the Jacuzzi bubbling along, and the couple is desperate to ditch their property. Still, they list their three-bedroom place at $875,000, when houses in their neighborhood go for $750,000 at most. Soon they're screaming at their agent, they're screaming at the buyer's agent, and they're screaming at each other, too.
Or, as the narrator intones at the show's end in a classic Rod Serling timbre:
"High expectations and economics often clash in the real estate market. . . . Buying and selling your home is more than just a business transaction. It's a roller coaster of emotion."
Which is exactly why it makes for good TV, says HGTV President Judy Girard. "Real estate lends itself very, very well to television. It touches people. It's storytelling at its best," she says. "It's a framework where people are bringing their lives, their hearts and souls into buying a house or selling a house."
Observes Kent Takano, vice president of programming for Fine Living: "We're all creatures of curiosity. It's very vicarious. It's window-shopping without" leaving the comfort of the couch.
While the audiences for these real estate shows are small compared with network TV, they attract a middle-class demographic that advertisers desire, Sconce says, hence lots of commercials for Home Depot and Benjamin Moore paint.
At HGTV, three of the five top-rated shows revolve around buying and selling homes. In 2004, the channel had two real-estate-related shows. This fall, it added two more, "Buy Me" and "What You Get for the Money." Next year, it will add four more, including "International House Hunters" (the titles of the others have not been announced), where yuppies from around the globe hunt for a home, for a total of eight shows. And that's just on one network.
Coming on Bravo: "Million Dollar Listing: Hollywood" is what the network describes as "a six-episode original series chronicling the high-stakes, cutthroat world of real estate in a thriving market."
Fine Living has two in the hopper, scheduled for early 2006 release. One will focus on architecture, the other on the "science" of real estate, the anatomy of the deal.
Yes, Takano says, the network is cutting "this pie thinner and thinner . . . ." But, he adds, "we're trying to skin it one more time. We think we're going to do great."
Even demi-celebrities are getting in on the act. The Learning Channel recently launched "The Adam Carolla Project," where the host of Comedy Central's "Too Late With Adam Carolla" (a former carpenter) guts his childhood home with the goal of flipping it for more than $1 million.
"Many of us are cynical," says Corcoran, who goes into production in January with her reality TV show, "The Bubble." "We don't trust the stock market. We don't trust corporate America. We don't trust the government. There's a tremendous need to put your money into something you can put your hands on."
Earlier this year, Vincent Hurteau, a D.C. real estate broker and president of Continental Properties, started shopping around a show he calls "Unreal Estate." His idea: Each episode would take viewers to a different city, contrasting the most expensive house in the city with what you can reasonably expect for your money -- say, a Dupont Circle mansion vs. a Brookland three-bedroom.
"A lot of people go to open houses," Hurteau says. "They love to see how other people live. And they love to know what things cost. Open houses are a way to that. Now they can do that on TV."
Hurteau started peddling his show around in the spring of 2004. And then the real estate market heated up. And then he got so busy working on real estate dreams, he says, he became too busy to pursue his small screen ones.