How 'House Hunters' Explains America

It turns out you can learn a whole lot about this country by watching six different couples try to buy a home.
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It turns out you can learn a whole lot about this country by watching six different couples try to buy a home.
(Photo: romakoma/Shutterstock)

(Photo: romakoma/Shutterstock)

I have been watching House Hunters since before you were watching House Hunters. That may not actually be true. (How long have you been watching House Hunters?) Competitions aside, I have been watching the HGTV “reality” show—in which a couple or a single person or a pair of good friends or relatives, or just some group of humans who know one another in some way, sets out to purchase a home—for a very long time. They name their desired traits, with the help of a realtor peruse three options of various qualities, and, in the end, decide on a place to live and, in most cases, even move in. No matter how long you’ve been watching, you probably know the drill. (Ding-dong!)

Jennifer and Billy are looking for a home where they can start a family. She wants a dream kitchen, and he wants a finished basement for his four TVs. But with a budget of $650K in the pricey Arlington market, they may have to make some compromises to reach a decision.

The show began all the way back in 1999, and there are now more than 500 episodes to its 13-plus seasons, so many American dreams of status and identity and what a life should be compressed neatly into 30-minute time slots focused on home acquisition.

In my many years of watching House Hunters, which I find at once soothing, infuriating, hilarious, pleasingly full of schadenfreude, and, at times, reflective of cringe-worthy entitlement (“Isn't this a little small?” asks the couple perusing the football-field-sized master), I’ve come to believe that House Hunters delivers far more than simply a revealing glimpse into another’s search for a place to live, or even actionable how-tos about real estate. House Hunters has taught me about America.

FOR PROOF OF THIS, I watched six recently DVRed House Hunters, all in a row. In the first, newlyweds searched for a large house in the Minneapolis suburbs for the family they hope to begin. (He’s a sales rep for a data storage company; she’s a marketing manager at a medical device company.) They were both young, white, tall, and attractive, and they needed to mesh his “bigger is better” ideology with her desire for a house they could afford that wouldn’t be too overwhelming to clean. Well, sort of mesh: They decided to “roll the dice with the bank and see,” and they got the biggest house they found, for more than $500K. It’s not too terrible to clean, she says. Yet.

I watched Charlotte and Tyler (he’s a contract administrator, she’s a wedding and boudoir photographer), who have two kids and a budget of $185K, disagree over what they wanted in Nevada. Charlotte, who grew up living in apartments and at one point a car, had her heart set on a grand, two-story house without tile (she hates tile). Tyler, on the other hand, wanted a no-frills one-story that the kids could run around in. In the end, what Charlotte wanted most of all was simply a house: “If I own a home before I’m 30, that’s a sign I’ve been successful in life,” she says. She gets that in what’s “definitely our starter home” (it has tile).

Next came Joe and Jason, a buyer and an Army reservist studying accounting, best buddies and roommates. Though they both have steady girlfriends, “tired of throwing away their income on rent!” they decided to pool their money and invest in a house together, given the prices in the Bay Area. The result: a two-story townhouse priced at $410K, for which they gave up the dream of patio space for two master suites and central A.C. (They high-fived upon their purchase, and, later, Joe proposed to his girlfriend, making the twosome a three. In the last moments of the show, she looks a bit stunned: “We’re going to be living with his friend for a while now,” she says, sort of smiling.)

Perhaps the most American thing of all about House Hunters, in the end, is its underlying theme of unbridled domestic aspiration paired with the reality of compromise, the appearance versus the actuality of what we want and what we can have.

An Indian couple, Swati and Shakir, a fashion entrepreneur and an engineer, wanted an Eichler home in Palo Alto, close to their son’s school, and had a budget of more than a million dollars, not to mention an architect friend who came along with them for the search. Discussing whether they wanted the house that sat near train tracks, Swati told her husband the wisest thing I have ever heard about real estate: “You could live in the most serene neighborhood in this whole world and your head could be full of noise.” They did not, in the end, pick the house by the train tracks, but they did get an Eichler, neatly renovated by their architect pal.

Another married couple, Erin and Katie (Erin runs an entertainment transcription business; Katie’s a stay-at-home mom), needed a place in Vancouver, Washington, for their family, which includes Katie’s young son from a previous relationship. They had about $200K and went with the least expensive house they found. “I really feel like we’d be making the smart decision,” said Erin, discussing the inevitable choice in the inevitable House Hunters conversation before the big reveal.

In the last episode I watched, Randy and Mikail, a black couple—he works for the number-one laundry/uniform company in the U.S.; she’s an inventory control specialist for a computer company—search for a house in Las Vegas, Randy’s hometown, where they were returning with their nine-year-old daughter after six years in Northern California. They could pay up to $225K, but their tastes were radically different. He wanted a pool; she wanted carpet; he hated “old” (and the potential for ghosts); she liked “charm,” and didn’t mind popcorn ceilings. Their last option, a short sale—because nothing is perfect—was “almost a perfect compromise.” In the final scene, they’d just gotten the keys to the Almost Perfect Compromise. “I’m gonna love it,” Randy says, installing fake grass in the backyard of his new home after the pool table arrives, and just before the credits begin to roll.

DO NOT BE DECEIVED by appearances. House Hunters is not just about buying houses, though, certainly, the show reflects the temperature of real estate in America with regard to the market, the processes, the lingo, and what today’s buyer finds attractive in a home: Today, that means stainless steel, granite countertops, wood floors, gas stoves, walk-in closets, whirlpool tubs, privacy, crown molding, yards—but not yards that take too much work!—and, even in brownstone Brooklyn, as much space as possible. Marketwise, with the U.S. now in a time of real estate recovery, buyers are forced to contend with drama in the form of bidding wars, a dearth of options in high-population areas, and costs that can extend far beyond the initial asking price (Swati and Shakir, despite their million-dollar budget, were terrified of losing their dream home to a someone who could pay more; they’d seen it happen before). But in earlier years, due to the subprime mortgage crisis and the recession that hit hard in 2008, there was a trickle-down effect on the shows that followed; take one 2010 episode title: “A Neglected Home in Foreclosure Tempts Atlanta Buyers With a Pool and More Space Than the Other Homes in Their Price Range.” We’re still seeing short sales and foreclosures today, but as the market continues to evolve, so, surely, will the course of the search in each 30-minute time slot.

More broadly, House Hunters is about how people live together and in what iterations, and the sorts of things we can and try to do to make ourselves happy and fulfilled in our particular piece of the world. You can learn multitudes about American life from watching House Hunters, from its portrayals of people of varied ages and wealth, ethnicities and geographies and sexualities and genders, with different jobs and relationship statuses to, more broadly, a general sense of what it’s OK to desire in a modern life—note a spate of “going green” episodes, and the popularity of eco-housing—and the need to balance the dream with reality (even if it's just reality-televised life).

House Hunters, clearly, is about aspiration, and about what American living spaces mean to us with regard to our own expectations and personal identities. A home isn’t just a home, you learn from watching. It’s a milestone, its purchase a point at which grown children become full-fledged adults, or adults strive for more (even if sometimes that means scaling down to a smaller house) in later adulthood. In keeping with the dichotomy between community and the individual so widely reflected in the country in which we live, there’s no one perfect house for all. What our buyers have in common, though, is that they all do want to purchase a home, and maybe the show’s so compelling because most Americans have that in common, too: According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 81 percent of us own a home and hope to continue to do so, or don't own yet, but plan on buying in the next 10 years. To own property where one can live has long been a certain American dream, and it remains so.

Yes, much of the show is staged and compressed, which makes some viewers feel as if they’ve been sold a home without stainless steel appliances. And perhaps that’s a fair sentiment. Personally, I don’t mind too much, because I think any illusions in House Hunters are as American as anything else about it. Much like reality TV, buying a home is itself a kind of smoke-and-mirrors (what is the truth and what is not?) game. If the presentation in which we see that comes with its own smoke and mirrors, so be it. It makes for entertaining TV. And did any of us watching today really think reality TV was wholly and entirely real?

But perhaps the most American thing of all about House Hunters, in the end, is its underlying theme of unbridled domestic aspiration paired with the reality of compromise, the appearance versus the actuality of what we want and what we can have. We must come to terms with these two things over and over again in life, whether we buy a house or not. And, when we finally do attain a place with keys and a door and a mortgage and maybe, or maybe not, a three-car garage, this is a signifier of self-actualization, of success, of safety and comfort, of a life progressing the way it should. It is proof. We’ve made it. We’ve got curb appeal. We’ve house hunted, with at least four walls and a roof to show for it, and finally we can sit back and barbeque in our chosen yard, soak in our whirlpool bath, replace that hideous backsplash with one to our own sophisticated tastes, enjoy the comfort of our own master bedroom. But most of all, we can take a seat on the couch, turn on the TV, and watch those people we don’t know go through it all over again.

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