House Hunters, or, The Wish List of Ubiquity
I live in a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis in a house that was built in 1949. In postwar America, my neighborhood was the pinnacle of American normalcy, where people retreated from the madness of the war years into adorable 900-square foot boxes. Women were pressured to abandon their wartime jobs, crank out babies, and make lovely concoctions out of lemon Jell-O and Veg-All. (All of this, of course, was dependent on whiteness.) And no, not everybody subscribed to this notion that conformity was synonymous with patriotism, but many did.
These days, we tend to look at the little houses and shake our heads at the conformity. But have things really changed? You might think so—until you warm up your television and flip the channel (so to speak) to HGTV and House Hunters.
If you’ve never seen House Hunters, the premise is simple. There’s a couple, or a single person, or a family. They want to buy a house. A realtor comes by and shows them three houses in their budget. The pros and cons of the house are weighed, and a decision is made. They buy their house. They are thrilled with their house. Buyer’s remorse does not happen on House Hunters, ever. They are always thrilled with their house.
Occasionally, House Hunters features people who are looking for something a little different, although the “different” people kind of fall into tropes, like the prototypical artsy couple who wants to fix up a 1920s Craftsman. What’s stunning to me, though, is how rare this is. By far, the majority of house hunters essentially want the same house.
So what house do they want? It’s clearly not a 900-square foot rambler. The New Conformists want a different house. They all state their Wish List at the beginning of each episode, which always includes the same upscale features.
And what are these upscale features? To illustrate these, I’ll walk you through a mock episode of House Hunters with Lindsay and Ryan. And who are Lindsay and Ryan? They are imaginary 20-something Minnesotans who I like to mock.
Lindsay and Ryan met at a Greek social in college (a classy one, not a drunken party). She was a communication major and he was a marketing major. After a lavish $50,000 wedding (see Say Yes to the Dress and Four Weddings to see their exact wedding), they settled into jobs in sales and marketing. They enjoy golf and drinking beer with their friends. They plan to have kids soon, of course, but in the meantime, they DESPERATELY have to get out of their two-bedroom apartment that doesn’t have any of the features they NEED.
Of course, it never crosses their minds to live in Minneapolis. Lindsay has a vegetarian cousin who lives in the city and fixed up a 1920s Craftsman, and well, she’s different. No, the suburbs it is—and by suburbs, I certainly don’t mean first-ring suburbs like mine with postwar houses and trees and public transit and black people. They want to move to a burb with an idyllic name like Eden Prairie or Maple Grove (which are fabulously idyllic names of real Minneapolis suburbs).
Even though they’re 25 years old, Lindsay and Ryan have a $450,000 budget for their first home. This is partly because they’re children of upper-middle class privilege and her daddy kicked in some money for the down payment, and partly because they have no lofty aspirations for their money, like world travel or grad school or charity. They intend to spend every last cent on their home. Why wouldn’t you?
After Lindsay and Ryan explain to the camera why they can’t possibly go in living in their apartment, the camera cuts to the Realtor. The Realtor explains that even though Lindsay and Ryan have a $450,000 budget, they can’t possibly get all the features they want on their Wish List. This happens pretty much on every episode of House Hunters. Even the people who want to fix up a 1920s Craftsman want more than they can afford. It’s the American way.
So what’s on Lindsay and Ryan’s wish list? The same wishes that are on everybody else’s list, of course. Let’s walk through a prospective house with Lindsay and Ryan and see what’s on the list.
The Open Floor Plan
Lindsay and Ryan are relieved that when they walk in, they don’t see too many pesky walls. The family room, kitchen, and dining room are in one big space. “We love to entertain,” coos Lindsay. “I want to be able to talk to my guests while I’m preparing food in the kitchen.” (Seriously. Watch any five random episodes of House Hunters and I guarantee you will hear almost these exact words.) However, the couple is disappointed to see that the family room is not at least two stories high, since apparently they are planning to have children who are twelve feet tall. They are happy to see that there’s a fireplace. This makes sense, since they live in Minnesota—although couples from all over the U.S. on House Hunters seems to want a fireplace, since apparently those 75 degree nights in Houston are a drag.
The couple is also happy to see that the home has hardwood floors. And new hardwood floors (not the vintage kind that are in my home, and in the home in Lindsay’s vegetarian cousin’s house). Hardwood floors are a must on just about everyone’s wish list. Carpet is okay in the bedrooms, maybe, but certainly not in the main living areas. Unfortunately, Ryan doesn’t think the floors are as dark as he’d like, which causes the couple to discuss/bicker/whine about the floor for a while.
Much time is spent discussing the kitchen, which is VERY important to Lindsay and Ryan. Fortunately, the kitchen has all the mandatory Wish List criteria. First of all, the room is big enough for twelve people to cook together without touching each other. That’s crucial, since owning a kitchen small enough for a couple to bump into each other = FAIL. Second, the appliances are all stainless steel and they match. Unmatched appliances = FAIL.
Third, and most important, there are GRANITE COUNTERTOPS. That is an absolute must. People who don’t own granite countertops are a failure. They may as well live in broken-down trailers by the railroad tracks. I know this because HGTV told me. Of course, Lindsay and Ryan aren’t sure if they like the exact color. But at least there’s granite. Whew.
Sadly, the backsplash doesn’t really match the granite. And the faucet! OMG, it’s GOLD! Gold features are so 1990s. (This phrase is actually uttered with some regularity on the show, as if 1996 was a retro bygone age.) Ryan bemoans to the camera that they may need to do some updates and that he can see dollar signs adding up. The Realtor smugly tells the camera that they’re not going to get all the features they want in their price range.
Lindsay and Ryan are pleased that there are five bedrooms. It doesn’t matter that there’s only two of them in this 4500-square foot house, and that they only want two kids (prospective names: Hunter and Emersyn.) Four bedrooms minimum is a mandatory item on everyone’s Wish List, regardless of family size.
Now they approach the master suite. It does seem to contain the mandatory Wish List features. The room is big enough to house several Third World families. It has a weird architectural feature called a “tray ceiling” that I’d never heard of before I started wasting hours of my life watching this show.
And, of course, it has a master closet that’s bigger than two of the bedrooms of my 1949 house combined. Now that we’ve reached the closet, it’s time for the mandatory House Hunters Gender Stereotype Joke about the Closet. “Well, that’s big enough for my stuff,” coos Lindsay, “but where are you going to put YOUR stuff, honey?” (Seriously, watch any TWO episodes of House Hunters and I guarantee that you will see this joke.)
And now for the master bathroom, which, needless to say, MUST BE ATTACHED to the master bedroom, because failure to own a true master suite is the trailer-trash equivalent of not owning granite countertops. Speaking of which, there are indeed granite countertops on the two mammoth-sized matching vanities. There’s a huge separate shower and even more huge soaking tub. (Hey, Americans have gotten bigger since the 1950s). And of course, the bathroom is in its own separate little water closet so that we won’t have to think about the true function of a bathroom.
Lindsay and Ryan seem happy. But wait. What is up with this 1990s tile? OMG, look at that grout! And… oh no, those aren’t gold fixtures, are they? The camera cuts to Ryan, who once again bemoans updates and the escalating dollar signs needed to bring the house up to their standards.
The Man Cave
But cheer up, Ryan. The Realtor takes the couple down to the basement, where they discover a ginormous space suitable for Ryan’s Man Cave. The offensive gold fixtures are all but forgotten as he imagines the 3,954-inch TV he’s going to buy to watch football and drink beer with a room full of his bros. Which is fine with Lindsay, as long as she has her big closet to play with.
The Realtor proudly leads Lindsay and Ryan to the half-acre yard. They debate whether it’s big enough. There’s a sky-high privacy fence, which is very important in case they want to adopt a dog, or six dogs, or a pony, or a herd of elephants. There’s also a deck that’s bigger than many postwar houses, which is important so that Ryan can grill crates full of meat for his bros after the game. But, oh my. The neighbor’s house is close. They might be able to see them barbecuing! That might be a deal breaker. The Realtor sighs and reminds the camera once again that they’re not going to get everything on their wish list.
What This all Says About American Culture
Things have changed since the 1950s, at least in some ways. There are plenty of minorities on this show. Gay people, too, sometimes with children. The ugly whiteness that came with 1950s conformity, at least to some degree, has broken down.
One thing that’s changed since the 1950s that’s worse is our ever increasing consumerist notion of what a “normal” middle-class family needs. People used to be really happy with those 900-square foot homes. Today, they need 4000 square feet and bedroom suites and huge kitchens with granite countertops. House Hunters presents these kinds of desires to us not as extravagant or exceptional, but as the normal standard we all should strive to attain. Of course, the majority of Americans can’t afford the houses Lindsay and Ryan were looking at, but you’d never know this by watching House Hunters.
This has always been a function of television. From the 1950s, when TVs first came into our homes, advertisers directly influenced programming by demanding that families have nice appliances and other things. Advertisers wanted to create an environment where middle-class consumption was the norm. And they have.
Here’s something else that’s changed since the 1950s: it’s no longer the expectation that women with families will stay home with the children. While this is mostly a good thing, the sad part is that many women (and men) these days can’t afford to make this choice—especially if they want to live in a home like Lindsay and Ryan’s. To truly live up to today’s middle-class standards, single-income families have become obsolete.
So, conformity lives. I’d so love to see someone walk into a suburban home on House Hunters and say, “I want to paint that ceiling bright red. And put in lots of gold fixtures. And hey, can you show us a house that’s closer to the neighbors?” And yes, like I said, House Hunters does show us people with alternative Wish Lists sometimes, and these episodes are often very interesting. But for the most part, everyone’s Wish List is ubiquitous. That’s what so sad about this show. In the name of consumerism, we’ve lost our ability to imagine a home that doesn’t look like everybody else’s home.
I’ve been making fun of ubiquitous House Hunters couples for years by calling them Lindsays and Ryans. Lo and behold, after years of this game, there was a real couple on House Hunters in search of an expensive home in the Minneapolis suburbs. And I kid you not, their names were Lindsay and Ryan!
Earlier this year, we did some remodeling in my 1949 postwar home. We gutted a blue-and-gold tiled midcentury bathroom and now have a shiny modern space with a massive walk in shower.
Also, we ripped out the circa-1970s hunter green linoleum counters. And replaced them with granite. Yes, that’s right. I, too, have granite countertops.