Editor's Note

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By Tom Shroder
Sunday, March 1, 2009

I've become addicted to the Home & Garden Television show "House Hunters International." In each episode, a buyer looks for a new home in some exotic locale, whether it be an ocean-view apartment in Portugal, a centuries-old stone house in the French countryside, a contemporary mansion in Costa Rica or a townhouse in Paris. After weeks of gaping at granite countertops, marble fireplaces and 10-foot ceilings, I suddenly grasped why I was so hooked. The foreign locales emphasize something true about all house-hunting. When you buy a new house, you're not just buying four walls and a bunch of gutters to clean -- you're buying a new life. Confronted with any fresh landscape, people tend to anticipate the buried treasures and ignore the inevitable land mines. If that new landscape happens to include a patisserie next door or palms swaying on the sugary beach, well, fetch a mop for my drool.

But for me, the show panders to an even bigger fantasy. Three words: home price differential. If you happen to live in one of the highest-priced housing markets in the known universe (and, congratulations, you do!), it's hard to overestimate the rubbing-your-greedy-palms-together glee available from imagining the gaudy real estate baubles you could acquire for the price of your ratty Bethesda bungalow. (Of course, that doesn't apply to Paris, where one of the "House Hunters International" apartments, priced at more than $300,000, had a "galley" kitchen so narrow you had to turn sideways and suck in your gut to walk from one end to the other.)

Unfortunately, like most fantasies, the thrill breaks down as it transforms to reality. The fun of seeing yourself in other homes and other lives pales when you are also making an all-in wager. Observing the legions of lost and bleeding strewn across the real estate battlefield doesn't inspire much optimism. Will you borrow a mint and sign away your life only to discover the home's value has wasted away even before the cable guy arrives?

That's the central dilemma of the stories in this Home and Real Estate Issue. On Page 18, we follow a fearless couple as they plunge into the icy cold market, hoping that it's an act of foresight, not financial suicide. On Page 12, we follow a woman whose job is to help rescue those who fell on the wrong side of that unforgiving calculus.

These days it can be a little unsettling watching "House Hunters International." Maybe I'd feel differently if the show appeared in another context, if instead of airing after "Curb Appeal" on HGTV, it moved to ESPN2, following the "World Series of Poker."

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.

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