People keep telling me that real estate is the new rock ‘n’ roll. The only similarity I can see is that both have the ability to send believers into a head-banging frenzy. All around me, sensible people have succumbed to property panic mode, tramping through endless open houses for brownstones they could never afford (the urban-adult version of D&D fantasy play), squinting with an obsessional eye at the classifieds, and bemoaning their failure to buy a place before prices went stratospheric (or looking for evidence that their modest apartment has appreciated enough to make them wealthy on paper). I have done these things too, and talk of a looming real estate bubble hasn’t put a stop to such irrational behavior—in fact, it’s only ratcheted up the emotional intensity. The home is no longer a castle but a calculated gamble.
Future historians may be grateful to a new batch of TV series for capturing this mood shift. Bubble mania collides head-on with the home renovation show craze in programs like TLC’s Property Ladder, the Discovery Home network’s brand-new Flip That House, and What You Get for the Money, a cable hit that appears on both HGTV and Fine Living. “It’s always fun to see how other people live,” purrs the host of What You Get for the Money. The series compares similarly priced homes around the country, so not only will you regret not buying in Park Slope when it was cheap, you’ll wonder why you didn’t snatch up a mansion in Minneapolis that costs less than your Williamsburg closet.
Although it’s structured like a virtual open house tour, the focus of this impersonal show is finance, often emphasizing the way owners increased the value of their homes. A couple in Denver proudly show off the place they transformed from a plain $600,000 house into a whimsical $2 million showplace. In Atlanta, a canny woman lavishly restored a run-down modernist home, elevating her $300,000 bargain into a multimillion-dollar palace. “Prices here dipped after the dot-com bust,” she admits, but quickly pronounces her neighborhood “back on the rise,” to quash any potential anxiety in viewers.
“It’s becoming an attractive gamble,” announces the narrator of Flip That House. He’s talking about the practice of flipping property—buying cheap, renovating quickly, and reselling for a profit. The homeowners of What You Get for the Money presumably poured time and money into their places not just to make a buck but to create an oasis and express their personalities (which inevitably bear a striking resemblance to a Pottery Barn catalog). The stars of Flip That House, on the other hand, have much more mercenary goals. Kelly, a Los Angeles musician-real estate agent, buys a North Hollywood house that has been inhabited by squatters for two years. Its pigsty state makes it “a gold mine.” Patting herself on the back for her own canniness, Kelly says, “It was so atrocious, and the other people coming through here who just wanted a nice place to live are not going to be willing to take on this project.”
Dreaming of a $100,000 profit, Kelly digs through debris-clogged rooms in search of something with resale value, but stops short in the bathroom. “Oh . . . ohhh!” she moans, backing away from a bucket on the floor. “That’s a . . . toilet. Oh-kay, I’m totally creeped out!” Being Californian, she lights a sage stick to clear out bad squatter energy and gets the place on the road to upward mobility in two months flat. “I hope to walk away with enough money from this to split it in two,” she says, eyes twinkling. But in a huge structural flaw, the program fails to tell the audience whether Kelly succeeded in getting rich quick, leaving us with a bad case of envy interruptus.
If you need a flip-porn show to take you right up to the money shot, Property Ladder is the ticket. Hosted by real estate developer Kirsten Kemp, it promises to show viewers “the secret of renovating property for profit.” Kirsten’s golden rule is that the flipster should forget about his or her own taste. This creates dramatic tension, since these amateur moguls have watched way too many episodes of Trading Spaces and Extreme Home Makeover. They treat the place as a creative outlet when they’d be better off leaving it as bland as possible for wide appeal. Twenty-three-year-old bartender Ashley gets totally wrapped up in her flipping fantasy. Ignoring Kirsten’s advice, she paints the bedroom red “like a Christmas present” and buys a garish pink sink with naked women to go with her “Tuscan villa” vision. “I think our buyer will really be attracted to it,” she coos.
Property Ladder frames the whole process as a profound test of physical and emotional strength, a way to conjure profit from your own sweat. Or in Ashley’s case, other people’s sweat, donated freely by her boyfriend and various bar patrons she persuades to help her renovate. (I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that she bears a striking resemblance to Natalie Portman.) The unseen narrator sets up participants for failure and derision. “Time management requires a basic sense of time,” he sneers, reminding us that Ashley’s losing money every day that she goes over her schedule. By the end, her unpaid male minions are calling her “a fascist dictator.” She says, “That’s fine with me, as long as they continue to work.”
Not every episode ends happily, signaling the hazards of wanton real estate speculation. Ashley’s does. Some potential buyers dislike the “artsy” sink, but offers roll in anyway. The heartwarming ending typical of renovation shows is absent here, though. No idyllic shots of the family ensconced in their brand-new stainless-steel kitchen. No testimonials about how the new space has helped the home owners live out their childhood dreams. All we have at the end of the flip show is the fantasy of a big fat profit.