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Planet Upgrade

A writer discovers the seductive world of home-improvement television

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Did you know that it’s hard to sell a house with a wall between the kitchen and the dining room? That modern couples demand double sinks in their bathroom vanities? That blue countertops make people lose their appetites?

If none of that is news to you, you’re probably a realtor, an interior designer or an HGTV addict. I’m the last type. Last year, when I contemplated buying real estate for the first time in my life, I also tuned in to Home & Garden Television for the first time. In the stressful days of filling out mortgage papers, I found it strangely soothing. Then . . . dangerously absorbing.

Despite its name, HGTV doesn’t have much to say about basic home maintenance or gardening. (Those get-your-hands-dirty shows are relegated to unglamorous early-morning slots.) Its primetime shows are an unapologetic testament to the American love affair with real estate — buying it, selling it, remodeling it, “flipping” it, and generally finding ways to cash in. They have names such as “House Hunters,” “My First Place,” “Designed to Sell,” “Get It Sold,” “Curb Appeal,” “Buy Me” and “My Big Amazing Renovation.”

It’s frivolous, it’s out of touch, and I can’t get enough of it. Why? Because most HGTV shows embody the triumph of style over substance, of beauty over function. And their notions of what looks good in a home are almost as ephemeral as high fashion. Talk about escapist entertainment.

As someone who was raised in older, minimally renovated homes, I’m fascinated by the network’s twin obsessions with updating and upgrading. Even I can see that a harvest-gold electric stove is kind of dated. But who knew that a white stove is just as passé, or that wall-length mirrors scream “Reagan era,” or that bathroom fixtures absolutely must be nickel and not brass?

I can’t shake the habit of “House Hunters,” a reality show that’s about as real as amateur dinner theater. (Quick research reveals that show candidates must already be in escrow on their new dwelling: The “hunt” is staged.) But what fun it is to watch sweet young couples tour three homes and complain when they don’t discover hardwood floors, granite countertops and stainless-steel, chef-quality appliances. (These demands are so common that on an Internet message board devoted to the show, snarky viewers refer to hardwood, granite and stainless as “the Holy Trinity.”) Some folks moan and groan when they encounter a house with a hilly backyard, or only one walk-in closet, or stairs. (Isn’t exercise what the gym is for?)

These shows appeal straight to the viewer’s nosy side: Who hasn’t wanted to peek into a stranger’s house? (I’ll never forget the Australian bungalow that should have been preserved as a museum of Mod Era kitsch.) But there’s an aspirational element, too. Perhaps the show that best captures the essence of HGTV is “My House Is Worth What?” in which “real estate expert” Kendra Todd (who looks more like a spokesmodel) visits three remodeled, upscale homes whose owners are considering taking out home-equity loans for further renovations.

After a tour and a lengthy dramatic pause, the homeowners learn just how much the value of their house has soared — often more than a hundred grand in under a decade. Can they afford more improvements? You bet! In fact, the show suggests, they’d be robbing themselves by not getting a loan to upgrade that bathroom or put in those glass-doored cabinets. Bubble? What bubble?

Watching such shows used to make me feel sensible and grounded in my comparatively modest demands . . . until I realized the joke was on me. Slowly but surely, I’d started to internalize the values of HGTV. I’ve always liked the look of hardwood floors, but now I began thinking about replacing the almond laminate countertops in my new home with a glossy slab of granite. Stone is so much more durable, classier, prettier. Bacteria shun it! And even if I didn’t like the look of granite — which I do — what about my duty to make choices that would guarantee a good future sale? What if my condo eventually ended up the only one on the market in its original, almond-laminate, almond-appliances condition?

Just as I completed my education in fixtures, finishes and cosmetic upgrades, the market crashed. Though HGTV still produces new content, the realities of the mortgage crisis only enter its bright and shiny world tangentially — when a Detroit woman on “House Hunters” buys a gorgeous Victorian from the bank for less than $100,000, for instance. But the buyers on “My First Place” still use 100 percent financing and variable-rate mortgages to snag their dream homes, and the sellers on “Get It Sold” are still assured that proper staging is all they need for a tidy profit. Over on TLC, which specializes in drama-laden “flipping” shows, the realities of leery buyers and plummeting prices are more visible. But watching HGTV is a bit like sitting in the Roman Coliseum seeing the gladiators perform while barbarians assail the city gates.

Vermont’s a long way from Rome, though . . . right? Despite my own infatuation, I want to believe most local home buyers are sturdy, pragmatic folk, immune to the decadent lure of the Holy Trinity. The kind of people who use the same Maytag washer for 25 years; who look at cathedral ceilings and open floor plans and see whopping fuel bills. And just as the dream homes of people in Florida and Arizona aren’t our dream homes, their crisis isn’t our crisis.

Or is it? I’m certainly not going to find out from HGTV. Frugal New England has no allure for the network’s producers, who focus on the once-booming Southwest with occasional detours into an exotic foreign country or a metropolis such as Manhattan or Seattle. (What I have learned, to my rue, is that in the South and many parts of the Midwest you can get a four-bedroom Craftsman with crown molding and a huge yard for about the price of a midrange Burlington condo.)

There’s an upside to our stingy market. When I talk to a local realtor, Chris von Trapp of Coldwell Banker Hickok and Boardman, he’s quick to assure me that Vermont is different from other parts of the U.S. in that our prices are supported by chronic under-supply: “When I have a buyer in front of me, I can show them all the houses that meet their needs in a day and a half.”

Does that make Vermont buyers a lot less picky than the “House Hunters” when it comes to fixtures and finishes? Not necessarily, says von Trapp. While he doesn’t watch HGTV, he likes the sound of its emphasis on staging for sale: “That type of information is actually positive for people to be absorbing, because it is true.” Buyers love to sense something fresh in a house, he says, even if it’s a comparatively cheap finish like paint or carpeting: “Your olfactory senses are telling your brain this is a new house. Don’t worry about the color. When you get a new carpet, it’s like getting a new-car smell.”

Likewise, says von Trapp, “People get all dazzled by new appliances. I’ve seen it.” Would he put $4000 worth of granite slab in a low-end condo? “That’s not prudent.” But “if your countertops need replacing, it may make sense to replace them with a low-end countertop.” He recalls working with a woman who “did a great job negotiating her purchase price” and made a substantial profit on her condo after just one year, thanks to new paint and appliances: “She ended up with the equity the previous owner could have had.” More risky, von Trapp says, are the improvements people make without resale in mind — “a porch, a pool, a sunroom that’s too fancy for the neighborhood.” And he can’t overstress the importance of old-fashioned elbow grease when it comes to selling a home: “If you don’t have the budget to [remodel] it, clean it.”

I see his point. Human nature being what it is, new, shiny, telegenic stuff appeals, even in Vermont. While young professionals around here may scoff at McMansions, that doesn’t mean they don’t secretly want to see matching stainless appliances and new soapstone counters in their dream renovated Victorian farmhouse. If you’re going to spend all that money anyway, why not demand the best?

It’s all a matter of priorities. Somewhere along the line, as budgets tighten, buyers and sellers may agree there’s no reason to chuck a perfectly functional stove in the landfill just because you can’t see your reflection in it.

For now, I’ve compromised on new laminate countertops that cost about a tenth the price of granite. I limit my HGTV viewing, but I still like to remind myself of my favorite “House Hunters International” episode. In it, a stylish young Hong Kong woman rejoices in her purchase of a studio for about 400 grand. Why? Besides a kitchen sans appliances and an outdoor terrace barely big enough for a chair, it has a bathroom with its very own hot water tank. Now she can shower for 10 minutes instead of two.

One person’s upgrade is another person’s bare minimum. Suddenly those nickel fixtures don’t seem so important after all.

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