I want to tell you about my baby.
In the morning, my baby takes the train. She works hard all day and takes the train home again. She eats the dinner I cook, hugs the children, washes their bodies, and puts them to bed.
Then my baby walks into the living room. She doesn’t say anything. She just looks at me in a special way that says, “It’s time.” I give her a look back that says, “OK, baby. Do your thing.”
My baby sits down, reaches over and grabs hold of it. She gives it a little squeeze. The television comes on. She pushes the buttons. There’s the sound of a doorbell, a flourish of inoffensive music and a warm female voice introducing an eager couple who are hunting for a house.
Oh yeah. My baby’s about to drag these fools.
Housewife with Sweater Tied Around Her Neck: “These windows let in so much light!”
My Baby: “That’s what windows do, you fucking idiot.
Translucent-Skinned Wannabe Country Music Singer: “I reckon this basement would make a darn nice practice room.”
My Baby: “Your music sucks, jackass.”
Mousy Video Game Designer: “I don’t like the color of these walls.”
My Baby: “Buy some paint, dipshit!”
I could go on. I’ve got tons of mental notes. My wife and I have been watching House Hunters since we first began living together in Memphis back in 2000. We had a dining room table without chairs, beige paint on the walls, and a mattress and box springs on the floor. We were just out of college. We ate DiGiorno on the couch.
In case you’ve never seen it (you lying liar), let me explain the show. At the beginning of each episode, you are introduced to some people who want to buy a house. Usually, it’s a couple. They’re happy, or at least comfortably grouchy. With the help of a real estate agent and an intrepid camera crew, these people visit three properties and judge the design taste and handiwork of the current owners. At the end of the show, they pick one of the houses and move in. Dilemma, drama, resolution. It’s a tried and true formula.
When my wife and I first started watching, I’d never heard of HGTV before, but I accepted its introduction into my routine as part of the new normal. I was doing lots of things I never had before, like going to Pottery Barn on a Saturday morning and having brunch. I kept watching sports, kept listening to grungy alternative music, kept watching action movies. But I did new things, too. Like chatter about draperies.
For us, House Hunters was aspirational. It provided a template, explaining how to evaluate and acquire a domicile. At that point, neither of my parents had ever owned a house. Most of their furniture had been handed down through generations, or — in the case of my father — acquired along the side of the road. As a child, I was never asked my thoughts on a new apartment, or which style of sconces might best complement the dining area. A lease was signed. Rooms were filled with the same furniture I’d used all my life. End scene. Repeat 12 months later. That pattern continued through the end of college.
It wasn’t just our one-episode TV friends who modeled successful home buying. We met a couple while we were volunteering for the Kerry campaign (I know, right?) in 2004. They lived in a gigantic two-story house with intricate landscaping and furniture that looked like it belonged in a magazine. The first time they had us over for a party, I exclaimed, in my best inadvertent Gomer Pyle impression, “Y’all, it looks like adults live here!”
I wanted what they had, for my baby. Like Elton John, I wanted a big house where we both could live. That was around the time my baby put House Hunters into heavy rotation. She was trashing the couples even then, but she was motivated by envy. Her voyeurism and snarky comments were wrung out of her by a covetous desire.
A year after Kerry’s concession speech, a very patient and friendly real estate agent ushered us through a parade of homes (way more than three) while we aped the couples on the small screen, exclaiming over windows and countertops, poo-pooing carpet choice and paint colors. We bought a house. We moved out of it a few months later when a company made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Relocated to Maryland’s D.C. suburbs, we gaped at home prices, sneered at the bric-a-brac architecture, and resigned ourselves to high-rise apartment living. At least, I did. My baby see, had hunted a house, stalked it, pounced on it, and had her fill. There was no going back for her.
On television, we’d watch a couple tour through a trio of homes, none of them quite right, bickering about man caves and grand entrances and bathroom tile and closet space. Then we’d stroll the neighborhoods around us, going on “walks” that always revealed themselves as curbside window shopping. We looked at ads, noted open houses, collected fliers. But the market was too hot, and the houses kept sprinting out of our grasp.
Eventually we returned to Memphis and captured another trophy. Our house. Not yours. This was in the spring of 2008. Perhaps you recall what happened later that year. As our equity dropped like Wile E. Coyote off a cliff, the regular viewing of House Hunters took a dark and bitter turn. When some perfectly quaffed nincompoop said something like, “We’ll just remodel the kitchen if that’s what you want, honey,” I would snort derisively.
I’d watched the magic trick of House Hunters for years. I’d witnessed the prestige each time: happy people, hosting friends and family in a freshly painted lovely home. I knew it was fake, but after attaining homeowner status and mowing, spackling, jackhammering concrete, ripping out overgrown bushes, painting, hanging ceiling fans, replacing appliances, mulching, weeding, planting and sweating while the appraised value of my home plummeted, I figured out how the trick worked: It wasn’t the television version of home buying that was fake; the fugazi was home ownership itself.
The shining trophy was, in fact, a glossy, gold-colored piece of junk. It was a fragile thing that demanded constant attention to remain livable. It was a weekend-killer, a vacation-fund killer, a mobility killer. It was a fickle god, accepting tribute gladly only to unleash its economically destructive wrath if a few investment bankers made bad bets in the markets. It wasn’t a piece of the American dream. It was a symptom of the American experience.
Nearly a year ago, we sold that house for less than we paid eight years before. We relocated to the Pacific Northwest and signed a lease. We’re back to renting, and I couldn’t be happier.
These days, we watch House Hunters as a lark. It’s something to turn on when we want to play Don Rickles and let off a little steam, instead of assuming the burden of viewing Very Important Television on Netflix or HBO. We no longer feel covetous or bitter. The people on the show are merely nimrods paraded around for our amusement. So much the better if they’re filthy stinking rich, whining their way through palatially anodyne estates in Any Gated Suburb, USA. They are playacting in a farce, one that we’ve had roles in as well. But now we’ve quit the cast and gleefully returned to the theater with rotten tomatoes. We’re not alone.
In just about any city a person would want to move to, home prices are outpacing inflation and wage growth — by a lot. Here we are in Austin. Our budget is $500,000. Here we are in New Jersey. Our budget is $600,000. Here we are in Seattle. Our budget is $800,000. The prices are so far out of reach for all but a lucky few that they might as well be listed as qwoodibble fremptaang dizingots. Only qwoodibble fremptaang! What a steal!
My baby and I are older, slower, and wiser than when we first moved in together. Our free time and anxieties are filled with child-based events and conversations. There is no room in our schedules for the house hunting bloodlust we once felt.
Our new plan is to rent until the kids leave for college. Once we’re not tied to a school district or a neighborhood, we’ll sell everything. We’ll wander the country in an RV or a trailer, Lucy and Desi-style — hopefully with happier results. Our home will be wherever we park it. We’ll traverse the national park system, biking and kayaking, hiking and snowshoeing. Our backyard will be the great outdoors. Of course, that assumes that the great outdoors haven’t been put up for sale by then.
Hey, wait a minute. Maybe there’s a decent piece of the American dream left to buy after all.