Recently I have become hooked on HGTV, the home improvement channel. Probably my interest in buying a home, the novelty of having cable TV for the first time in my life, combined with the hotness of Drew and Jonathan Scott (twin real estate gurus), fueled my obsession with the home channel. There is the curiosity of looking into other people's homes, the anticipation of whether the couple will love it or list it, and the aesthetic gratification of seeing a drab apartment turned into a chic, designed interior. Home is sacred to many Americans; it’s a place on which we devote an enormous amount of money and time, so much that the collapse of the real estate market catapulted the U.S. economy into a recession in 2008. So what do our homes say about our values? After watching countless hours of HGTV, I think it's fair to say that home, or the house, is where it all begins.
The first thing I noticed about homebuyers is that Americans want a lot of space. We want five bedrooms and five baths. We want large backyards and two-car garages. We want granite countertops, high-end appliances, islands and peninsulas. We want home theaters and playrooms. Not only do we want a home big enough for ourselves, we want a home that's large enough for in-laws, guests, the children's sleepovers, and all our relatives when they come over for Thanksgiving dinner. One viewing of “House Hunters International” makes clear how vastly different American living standards are from the rest of the world’s. Americans looking for real estate abroad are shocked by the amount of space foreigners live in. What? I can't get a terrace and walk-in closet in Hong Kong? I can't get a yard for my dog in London? I can't have a washer and dryer in my apartment in Rome?
Americans have an obsession with privacy. “Oh no! We can see the neighbor's window out of the living room window. We can't buy this house. The backyard is not fenced and our neighbors can see everything. Next.” One woman, buying a million dollar home in Montana, complained about having houses in sight of her future home. "I don't feel comfortable living that close to other people," she said, even though the nearest house was more than a mile away and one of her goals was to live closer to the city, after life on a ranch in rural Montana proved to be too inconvenient. Even though we want our family under one roof, we don't want to be too close to them either. Children must have their own bedrooms and play areas. The man must have the entire finished basement as his man cave. The woman needs her own spa-like master bathroom. If in-laws visit often, they need their own bathroom and living room as well. Multipurpose is a dirty word in the real estate world.
Usually, the selection criteria for a home includes location, price, function and aesthetics. While all of these are important, what about eco-efficiency? What about energy? A home is a huge investment that determines one's lifestyle for years. For example, instead of getting the most square feet one can afford, how about buying the smallest house that fits the family's needs? Do we really need those miles of countertops and two-story living rooms? How often do we have all our friends and family over anyway? More space means more stuff needed to furnish and decorate those spaces, more energy to heat and cool those spaces, and more time and energy spent cleaning them. Why don't people say, "I want a home that will produce the least amount of carbon emissions and enable me to live with a minimal amount of stuff"?
When people talk about location, they usually mean the quality of the school district, the distance to work or friends, the closeness to amenities. But what about the environmental impact of a location? Can I walk to work? Can I take public transportation? Can I walk to the grocery store? Can my children bike to school? Once you buy that home in the suburbs, you have locked yourself into an automobile-dependent lifestyle. Isn't that something to consider? I won't be able to see my neighbors if I live in the middle of three acres, but they won't be able to help me either in case of an emergency.
I am looking for that family, on HGTV, who looks for more than what is good for the family, but what is good for the community and society. I am looking for that individual who resists the pitch to spend as much money as possible. I am looking for a society that is less obsessed about houses and more concerned about communities. In Europe, the neighborhood is everything; life is in the city, not in the apartment. In America, the house is a world unto itself, built to fulfill every need of the family, and they are all alike, no matter where you go. Those two-car garages and fenced backyards aren't even special anymore because everyone has them. When all our neighbors are “the Jones,” having what they have doesn't make us proud. And as for the vast portion of America that doesn’t have it all, well, who needs to see them?
This week I discontinued my subscription to HGTV and TV. At $90 a month, I was paying a week's worth of groceries every month for repetitive news, reality shows, sports and commercials. Instead of watching other people spend money on houses, I'll save up for my own. And while I'll miss Jonathan and Drew Scott, I won't miss being reminded of how shabby my own kitchen and bathroom are, just because it doesn't have a designer backsplash or a double vanity. When my mother was a new bride in post-revolutionary China, she shared a kitchen with four other families who lived in her building. There was no bathroom in the house, and she did her laundry in cold water, by hand. She is content today to live in a townhouse where she only washes her dishes by hand and her utilities are less than $100 a month. I am okay not listening to commercials and TV characters all night. I can read the news in the paper and watch DVDs for entertainment. I'll write a letter to a friend or read a novel. I'll appreciate the abundance of simplicity.
Clara Changxin Fang is a writer, artist, and sustainability manager at Towson University near Baltimore, Md. Her writings about sustainability and her poetry can be found on her blog, residenceonearth.net.
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