HGTV and the Fantasy of Home Improvement
Here are some scenes from my rich inner fantasy life. The paint is buckling on the walls of my living room. It is because there is certainly mold, or water damage, or ancient knob and tube wiring, causing it to distort. The floorboards in my apartment are possibly original, but could be stripped and sanded. I should dust the chandelier that hangs precariously in my living room, but I should check to make sure it’s right for the time and era of my home before I put in the work. The wall that separates my kitchen and bedroom is surely unnecessary and most likely not load bearing; I will take it down to the studs. I will punch through the sheetrock and the plaster with a sledgehammer, and create a flowing sanctum of peace. There will be clean linens and the trim will shine. I will do this all and stay under my budget. I have been watching a lot of HGTV.
HGTV gets you good by shedding light on your insecurities. What you are living with is inadequate, so here is a neat tidy solution. It succeeds because it packages the great American Dream of a custom home into bingeable, half-hour and hour-long chunks. The shows on HGTV have the same appeal as the shows we love to consume in great gulps, but somehow feels more edifying. We watch “Game of Thrones” for the drama, the beautiful settings and the complex political machinations. It makes for excellent water cooler discussion, to be discussed with great breathlessness in various work chat rooms and lunch breaks. We watch a four-hour marathon of “Rehab Addict” to live out our fantasy of packing up our tiny apartments, buying an old house in Detroit and renovating it to the Pinterest-ready home of our dreams. These shoes are entry-level fantasy, tempered with just enough reality to make you think that you could actually do that, too.
I have been on board with HGTV for a while. I stumble upon it one weekend at my dad’s house, and spent an entire day under blankets on the couch watching house after house transform from weird and smelly to shiny, antiseptic and gleaming. The best thing about every show is that there’s no need for prior knowledge. If you tune in to the middle of a “Love It Or List It” marathon, you find yourself hooked immediately. You don’t need to know what character did what with whom and when, because everything you need is right in front of you. There is a house. There are people with a finite amount of money. They will get the house they want, after a solid 20 minutes of renovation porn, and they will be happy. It is, as Philip Maciak at Pacific Standard notes, a procedural. Like that marathon of CSI that you end up watching as morning gives way to afternoon, it’s easy to process. Its the best kind of television, but it’s especially delicious if you live in a tiny apartment in a crowded city where viable housing options are scarce.
The real estate market is a new form of bloodsport, one of the most compelling things to watch and keep tabs on. I’ve lived in New York for six years, and I have watched myself slowly priced out of neighborhoods that I lived in only a couple of years ago. Right now, I live in Williamsburg, in a fairly nice apartment with three roommates, two cats and a roof deck that becomes a graveyard of beer bottles and dead leaves by the end of each summer. It’s affordable—strangely, scarily affordable—because I think our landlord doesn’t give enough of a shit to sell the whole building and gut it for condos. I’m grateful that he’s not paying attention, but I’m fearful of the day that he realizes we are all living in a gold mine.
Like anyone else who lives in a city, I dream of more space, an actual home that is all mine. Watching a show like the Property Brothers makes me think that it could be easy. Drew and Jonathan Scott—bland, dead-eyed and handsome, like Pound Puppies—are identical twin brothers who help couples find and renovate fixer-uppers, turning them into the Ikea showroom cum model house, replete with feature walls. Every show is precisely the same. First, they walk a couple into a house that has everything on their “wishlist.” When the couple is ready to sign the paperwork, they break the news: They can’t afford the house they are standing in, but if they put their faith and all of their hard-earned money into their capable hands, they will find them a fixer upper that will be custom to exactly what they want. Roll 30 minutes of people snootily complaining about paint problems and then wait for the big reveal: a shiny, new interior, antiseptic and new, gleaming like an Ikea showroom or a model home. The couples cry, the Property Brothers high five each other and the show ends. Everyone is happy.
These interiors are nice enough, but they shout instead of whisper. The features in these homes are blatantly expensive—designed to look expensive, but purchased at what is hopefully a discount. Hardwood floor is torn up, only to be replaced by new hardwood, a great, shiny expanse that just looks like it cost money. Clawfoot tubs that some people would gladly keep are removed, and in their place, cool ceramic cubes are set down, all sharp edges and slippery sides. In a Property Brothers Home, all the furniture comes from Wayfair and every surface is shiny, not with age and love, but with aggressive, tacky newness. It’s conspicuous consumption at its best, money being spent in a flashy and flagrant way. A “feature wall” in a Property Brothers home exists purely as an aesthetic choice, but it’s generally hideous. Why look at a freshly plastered wall when you can slap a faux finish on it and create a gallery wall full of pictures and clutter, items that signify character? Their houses are nothing more than McMansions writ small, with great slabs of Carrara marble plunked down on an island because it’s functional, yes, but also because it costs $7 a square foot. The Property Brothers succeed because they feed off the desire for the new, the fresh, the clean, and strip every home they touch of any charm.
Where the Property Brothers present the fantasy of a clean slate, Nicole Curtis, the star of “Rehab Addict”, brings something else to the table. Her passion is restoring old, crumbling mansions that look like they smell strongly of cat pee, to their former glory. She’s a spitfire with tireless energy and an uncompromising vision, speaking in the flat vowels of the Midwest. Where Drew and Jonathan Scott lack any discernible personality, Nicole Curtis has it in spades. Her focus is on “character,” which I have determined means original sconces, restored wood burning fireplaces and copious amounts of subway tile. When she restores a house, she does it with a fanaticism that borders obsession, sanding floors and stair treads, and meticulously repairing old lead windows. Once she’s done, the houses are showstoppers, the kind of place you’d walk into and gasp at how the light comes through the stained glass transom window and bounces off the gleaming knotty pine floors.
They’re the kinds of homes that people simply have in the family, the ancestral home of former scions of industry. They reek of old money. Curtis prides herself on saving money where she can. Instead of kitting out an entire kitchen with drawer pulls from Ikea, she comes through salvage houses and antique shops, searching through the junk to find the finishes that fit the time era of the house. Often you see her hauling reclaimed barn doors and bits of flooring into her truck and driving off, crowing about how much money she saved. The effect is stunning. Each interior looks comfortable, and seems clean without being soulless. It is the kind of house you wish you’d inherit from a maiden aunt, the one who lived to be 95 and died leaving you a vast fortune. You know that the room you’re standing in costs a lot of money, but it’s not loud about it at all.
Tear down the walls, rip up the floor, plop an island with a breakfast peninsula in the middle of it all. Create a clear sightline from the front of the house to the back of the house, so you can keep an eye on the kiddies while you make ants on a log. Make the master bedroom a “retreat,” fill with overstuffed armchairs and a walk-in closet like the one on that episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” when Kanye cleans out Kim’s closet. The bathroom should be spa-like, with a shower and a tub and a bidet and a vanity so large that it could double as a pie rolling station, made of cool marble. Wipe the house of any charm, and give them a feature wall, something with river rocks or glass tile. Make it full of cool, white, dustable surfaces. Renovate so that there’s equity in your pocket for when you inevitably sell and move on to something larger, with hallways that echo and a driveway that curves around, like your own private traffic circle outside your front door. Give them all of this, and give it to them for $10,000 under their budget. Will it work out? Of course it will. This is the power of HGTV.
Megan Reynolds lives in New York.