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For 20 years, ‘House Hunters’ has been reliable reality TV. For millennials, it feels more like a fantasy.

A scene from “House Hunters,” HGTV’s low-budget, formulaic crown jewel. (HGTV)

When “House Hunters” premiered on Sept. 30, 1999, Kathleen Harward and Devon Mahallati were just 3 years old. They grew up watching the HGTV series with their parents in New Jersey, then obsessing over it with each other, and now the two best friends run a “House Hunters Screens” Instagram account, dedicated entirely to showcasing closed-captioned screen shots from the network’s flagship show for their nearly 12,000 followers.

Their Instagram audience is mostly women in their early to mid-20s who appreciate the “quotable” nature of the series, says Harward, a graduate student at the University of Washington. Neither of the 23-year-olds actually has cable. When they shared a rental house post-college, they streamed episodes on Hulu, and they currently watch from opposite coasts on the HGTV app using Harward’s parents’ account.

“We take screen shots of what we think is the funniest or most beautiful screen,” says Mahallati, a Brooklyn-based photographer. “They have such beautiful, creative shots that we thought other people needed to see this and appreciate it like we do.”

They’re not alone. Combined, millennial and Gen Z viewers make up a significant portion of HGTV’s audience. The network’s unscripted programming is decidedly uncool and yet endlessly appealing. And for generations coming of age post-recession (and possibly living on the brink of another), shows like “House Hunters” offer both an escape from global chaos and a window into the seemingly distant fantasy of homeownership.

Building a predictable brand

Twenty years after its debut, “House Hunters” is HGTV’s no-risk crown jewel. What began as a 26-episode run in 1999 has since ballooned into hundreds of episodes per year across more than a dozen spinoffs. Low budget, incredibly formulaic and lacking any prestige or even a host, “House Hunters” consistently ranks among the top 10 of all cable shows, thriving largely on its predictability.

Like most HGTV programming, it airs in blocks. Every weeknight at 10 p.m., then again at 1 a.m., night owls and insomniacs can get their soothing fix of “House Hunters” and its most popular spinoff, “House Hunters International.”

Each 22-minute episode stands alone and follows an identical procedure: A home buyer, often a couple, searches for a new place to live that fits their price range and criteria. A local real estate agent shows them three houses. They choose one.

Along the way, there will be quibbles about open floor plans vs. heritage charm, lack of closet space, an outdated kitchen or atrocious commute times. One property is guaranteed to be beyond their budget. As the credits roll, they’ll appear blissfully happy in their new abode, often toasting their good fortune over a cheese board.

While prestige TV may attract the Emmys, the monotony of “House Hunters” attracts the entire household, says Shawn Shimpach, an associate professor of cinema studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“It is an opportunity to spend low-stakes time peeking into other people’s domestic lives,” says Shimpach, who wrote the academic article “Realty Reality: HGTV and the Subprime Crisis.” “There’s some appeal in seeing how they interact with each other, how they interact with a [real estate agent] and the kinds of values they have when they’re looking for homes. You play along by deciding, which would I choose? And so, am I like these people, or am I different from these people?”

Quirkier demands, such as the Texas man who would only consider homes featuring a castle turret (Season 165, Episode 13) or the “House Hunters International” family in Germany who listed “no ghosts” among their criteria (Season 133, Episode 7), keep things exciting.

At times, buyers’ budgets are seemingly at odds with their job descriptions, a trend that helped launch a thousand memes and the “House Hunters Plot” Twitter account, which uses a bot to generate imagined show dialogue like: “HUSBAND: I build fainting couches out of common walnut. WIFE: And I watch. BOTH, IN UNISON: Our budget is $2.4 million.”

Coming of age in a recession

In 2009, during the Great Recession, Time listed Burton Jablin, head of HGTV’s then-parent company Scripps Networks, as one of its “25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis,” claiming that channels like HGTV “helped inflate the real estate bubble by teaching viewers how to extract value from their homes,” while shows like “House Hunters” gave “the housing game glamour and gusto.”

But for millennial viewers just leaving school and entering the job market during the collapse, “House Hunters” offered an idealized glimpse into a rapidly receding dream.

“Homeownership has been an aspect of the American Dream for much longer than HGTV has been around. On television, it’s been a feature at least since ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and ‘Father Knows Best,’ ” Shimpach says. “But what HGTV offers through its reality programming is the impression of demystifying the homeownership process: You’ve heard that homeownership is the dream — here you can see it being made accessible.”

Around the same time that the housing bubble burst, HGTV ramped up the episode count on “House Hunters,” ensuring new clips were available multiple times a week throughout the year, an endless parade of properties to tantalize a rent-check-writing audience.

“I don’t own a home, so I was hooked on seeing what kind of houses are out there, what kind of houses these other people were getting,” 28-year-old fan Jake Colvin says. “It gave me a sense of jealousy, sort of envy, like, man, I wish that could be me getting that house.”

For the last decade, American real estate has been a seller’s market, and the barrier to first-time homeownership continues to rise. The U.S. median home price reached a record high of $300,000 this March, per Still, ownership remains a goal for most millennials, says Jessica Lautz, vice president of Demographics and Behavioral Insights at the National Association of Realtors.

“All the research consistently says that non-owners do want to own homes in the future. But the biggest hurdle in obtaining homeownership is really the financial barrier,” Lautz says. “So whether that’s their own student loan debt or just saving up for a down payment when they have a high rental cost already, it becomes very difficult for that potential buyer to enter the market.”

It’s difficult, but not impossible. In fact, millennials — identified by NAR as those born between 1980 and 1998 — currently make up the largest generation and the largest share of home buyers in the United States.

But since 1996, the net worth of Americans ages 18 to 35 has dropped 34 percent, and often, those with higher incomes who can afford to purchase still require some assistance.

Nearly one-quarter of first-time buyers move directly from a family member’s home into homeownership, and more than one-third of first-time buyers receive a gift or loan from family or friends, according to NAR research.

When Amanda Robinson, a 29-year-old athletic trainer at Florida State University, appeared on a February 2019 episode of “House Hunters,” she came armed with a $180,000 budget and down-payment assistance from her parents. With her mom in tow, Robinson found her dream first home in Tallahassee, complete with her desired front porch and a shed for DIY projects.

“Millennials are pretty uninformed on the whole home-buying process,” she says. “I have so many friends who have reached out to me [since the show] saying, ‘I’m thinking about buying a house — what funding did you get?’ We just don’t talk about it because we don’t even think it’s within our reach.”

Staged to perfection

While “House Hunters” may help demystify the buying process for viewers who’ve never experienced it for themselves, it also presents a staged version of reality.

It’s an open secret that most “House Hunters” buyers, including Robinson, have already closed on a home before appearing on the show. The two additional properties shown are usually chosen by producers, recycled from the buyers’ now-finished hunt or staged by obliging friends.

Domestic buyers are typically paid $500 to film around 50 hours of footage, which is then edited down into a single, conclusive episode.

“To maximize production time, we seek out families who are pretty far along in the process,” a publicist for the series told Entertainment Weekly in 2012. “ . . . Showcasing three homes makes it easier for our audience to ‘play along’ and guess which one the family will select.”

Andromeda Dunker, the show’s voice-over narrator since 2009, stresses that while the show, like any reality series, is produced, the only thing scripted is her commentary. “If it weren’t produced, it would just be, like, you follow a couple around to see 90 different houses, and the shoot would be a year long for one episode,” she says. “It would just be someone’s home video of a house search. No one wants to see that.”

For Colvin, watching “House Hunters” inspired him to become a real estate agent in his native Oregon, and, he says, many of his clients approached the home-buying process as if they were participants on the show.

“It was interesting to have some really heart-to-heart conversations with people letting them know there’s a lot of misconceptions from what’s on TV versus reality,” he says. “The show made it seem like just about anybody can place an offer on a home. But if it’s a seller’s market, your chances of getting the house you want are going to be a lot slimmer because there’s way more competition. There are so many buyers making an offer on a home that the home ends up selling for $50,000 more than the asking price. There are more conflicts in the real world than were portrayed on the show.”

Colvin himself became disillusioned with the risky nature of real estate, and he now focuses full time on his personal Instagram and TikTok accounts, where he’s amassed 1.6 million followers. “I’m trying to eliminate the bad, negative stress in my life and come up with a healthier stress, I suppose,” he says.

An on-screen utopia

Since its inception, “House Hunters” has cast an array of buyers inclusive of age, race, sexual orientation and location. With little fanfare, it presents people from all backgrounds seamlessly achieving the same domestic goal of purchasing a home.

“I’m proud of the diversity of the house hunters we featured on the show — single, divorced, interracial couples, same sex couples — and yet we didn’t point it out,” original host Suzanne Whang, who appeared on the series until 2007, told The Washington Post in her final interview; she died this month after battling breast cancer for 13 years. “I never said ‘Interracial Sheila and Tom’ or ‘Gay Ron and Bryan.’ Any contribution the show made to increasing acceptance, compassion and tolerance in this country is a very good thing.”

While on-screen representation is important, the show’s lack of commentary ignores the substantial imbalance that exists across home-buying populations in the United States. Black homeownership rates are at record lows, for example, and research shows prospective buyers of color often face discrimination when attempting to secure a mortgage. While 72.9 percent of white Americans own a home, that number drops to 43 percent for African Americans and 46.2 percent for Hispanic Americans.

“This is a show that is incredibly inclusive, and there are all sorts of people who historically have been excluded from the home-buying process who are now, without comment, just naturally included [on ‘House Hunters’]. You have to erase a lot of reality in order to not comment upon that,” Shimpach says. “And in certain neighborhoods and homeowners’ associations, your sexuality, your ethnicity, even your gender can be a factor [in buying a home]. It’s great that everybody is shown as sharing in this dream, but the reality is not quite the same.”

Escaping the noise

In 2017, Discovery purchased Scripps Networks Interactive for $11.9 billion, and last year, HGTV was the fourth most-watched cable network behind Fox News, ESPN and CNN.

As other channels splinter to attract viewers on shock value or breaking news, HGTV remains a haven in a time when millennials and Gen Z Americans report the highest levels of stress. “HGTV used to refer to itself as ‘shelter TV,’ which has at least a double meaning,” Shimpach notes. “It’s shelter in that it’s about homes and places that you stay, but it also feels like a kind of television that you can shelter in and protect yourself from some of the other things that are going on in the world.”

In 2016, a year full of tumultuous presidential election coverage, HGTV placed third in the ratings, beating CNN.

“People want to just relax from the violence in the world and what’s on the news,” says Dunker. “It’s always on in doctors’ offices and hospital waiting rooms because there’s no bad news on ‘House Hunters.’ Maybe there’s a disagreement about a shower head, but it’s not life or death.”

And then there’s “House Hunters International.” While the Trump administration leans into an insular America, the globe-trotting spinoff, which debuted in 2006 and is now in its 147th season, highlights a subset of Americans moving abroad — ­either relocating temporarily to work or have a second home, or emigrating permanently.

“I prefer watching ‘International,’ because Americans’ expectations versus the reality of what they’re getting into is always off,” says “House Hunters Screens” co-creator Mahallati. “They expect a grand kitchen and a full bathroom with two sinks, and it’s never that. And I really like that where they go internationally is not typically a capital city. You can really get a sense of what these other towns are like, and it’s eye-opening.”

In addition to “House Hunters International,” the juggernaut franchise now encompasses an ever-growing catalogue of spinoffs, including newer attempts at millennial-enticing fare like “Tiny House Hunters” and “Roommate Hunters.” Still, the original reigns supreme. And for younger fans, perhaps it isn’t dangling a lost hope but rather showing just one possible avenue to achieving hope anew.

“I thought I would be married and have kids when I bought a house because that’s what our parents did, but now you see people like myself — a young, single female — buying a house and saying the American Dream has changed,” says Robinson, the Tallahassee homeowner. “And it’s not so much having a family and a house and a car and everything; it’s just making yourself happy.”