Real estate reality TV

Published: Tuesday, January 3, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 2, 2006 at 10:07 p.m.
This, people, is how you know the fearsome bubble is finally bursting (as if the moss growing on your neighbor's For Sale sign weren't enough of a clue): We're finally left with nothing to do but watch. This collective lust for landholding, this national pang for property, has morphed into a strange new obsession. Instead of shopping for a house, we've taken to camping out in front of the telly, watching other people on the prowl for a place: "House Hunters" and "What You Get for the Money" on HGTV. "Location, Location, Location" on BBC America.
For a change of pace, we watch other people trying to get rid of their homes: HGTV's "Designed to Sell" and A&E's "Sell This House" and "Flip This House" (not to be confused with TLC's "Flip That House"). The Discovery Home Channel's "Double Agents" pits two Realtors against each other. For the truly desperate, there's "Buy Me," HGTV's 30-minute cinema-verite excursion into the addled brain of the distraught homeowner trying to unload a money pit, and quick.
These shows "are not really for people that are going to buy and sell a home," says Jeffrey Sconce, associate professor at Northwestern University's screen cultures program. "They're for people who have a fantasy of buying and selling a home."
We've moved beyond the makeover mania of a couple years ago, when everyone was "Trading Spaces" and doing unto their neighbor what they would not do unto themselves, painting living rooms chartreuse and turning Grandma's dining table into faux modern modular blocks. This isn't about designing on a dime or extremely redoing our homes.
In the past year, about 20 new shows have cropped up on HGTV, Fine Living, Discovery Home, A&E and TLC. "House Hunters" is the most popular, averaging just under a million viewers per episode, with the nakedly greedy "Flip This House" coming in at a close second, an average of 802,000 viewers per episode - big numbers for cable TV.
These shows are all about the minutiae of real estate, condensed into easy-to-digest, made-for-cable bites: Stomping around scary-looking fixer-uppers. Scoping out the moldy tile in a "vintage" bathroom. Sitting out open houses while complete strangers turn up their noses at your rehabbed kitchen. Signing reams of paperwork. Waiting for the Realtor to call you with the news: You've been outbid. Or, since this is The World of TV, where everyone (usually) has a happy ending: "Congratulations!"
And, this being television, these shows are just a beat or two behind real time, a case of pop culture bringing up the rear in what economists like to call your classic lagging indicator: The bubble's bursting, and now we have a slew of television programs coming at us, after the fact.
Never mind the softer market - which many real estate industry types deny - we're still obsessed. "All of America right now is having a love affair with real estate," says New York real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran, founder of the Corcoran Group.
Most Americans - almost 70 percent - are homeowners. "Everybody's bought in," Corcoran says, "everybody's in the parade. ... With so many people bragging at cocktail parties or at church how much their properties have gone up," it was just a matter of time before we'd see it on the little screen, says Corcoran.
Plus, watching others suffer can be so darn compelling. Maybe this isn't destination TV - most shows air during prime time and are repeated during the week - but if you're surfing and happen to settle on one of them, it's hard not to get sucked in.
Witness a recent episode of "Buy Me": We see the breezy Natalie and Henry, who figure that while the market's hot, they might as well make a mint on their McMansion. And then, after the first open house, when no one bites, we find out the truth: Said McMansion costs about 10K a month just to keep the lights on, the propane gas grill fired up and the pool and the Jacuzzi bubbling along, and the couple is desperate to ditch their property. Still, they list their three-bedroom place at $875,000, when houses in their neighborhood go for $750,000 at most. Soon they're screaming at their agent, they're screaming at the buyer's agent, and they're screaming at each other, too.
Drama. Or, as the narrator intones at the show's end in a classic Rod Serling timbre:
"High expectations and economics often clash in the real estate market. ... Buying and selling your home is more than just a business transaction. It's a roller coaster of emotion."
Observes Kent Takano, vice president of programming for Fine Living: "We're all creatures of curiosity. It's very vicarious. It's window-shopping without" leaving the comfort of the couch.
While the audiences for these real estate shows are small compared with network TV, they attract a middle-class demographic that advertisers desire, Sconce says, hence lots of commercials for Home Depot and Benjamin Moore paint.
At HGTV, three of the five top-rated shows revolve around buying and selling homes. In 2004, the channel had two real-estate-related shows. This fall, it added two more, "Buy Me" and "What You Get for the Money." Next year, it will add four. And that's just on one network.
Coming on Bravo: "Million Dollar Listing: Hollywood" is what the network describes as "a six-episode original series chronicling the high-stakes, cutthroat world of real estate in a thriving market."
Fine Living has two scheduled for 2006 release. One will focus on architecture, the other on the "science" of real estate, the anatomy of the deal.
Yes, Takano says, the network is cutting "this pie thinner and thinner ...." But, he adds, "we're trying to skin it one more time. We think we're going to do great."
"Many of us are cynical," says Corcoran, who goes into production in January with her reality TV show, "The Bubble." "We don't trust the stock market. We don't trust corporate America. We don't trust the government. There's a tremendous need to put your money into something you can put your hands on."

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