House Hunters, Los Angeles

Taking the real estate search from HGTV to IRL

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I have always found common ground around topics like the weather, the traffic, and the shows on HGTV. Everyone I know watches something on that channel, although half the people insist that it’s a “guilty pleasure,” as if that disclaimer is somehow necessary. Of course, strangers watch too; they must — HGTV is the rare cable network to see an increase in ratings in the age of the cord-cutter.

Like all women over 50, my mother-in-law is addicted to HGTV. Cheryl records every episode of House Hunters on her DVR. To her, the show is neither a guilty pleasure nor appointment television. She drinks down the content of property deals like warm milk before bed.

“It’s not that I want to own these houses,” she explains during a marathon one Christmas, “I just want to see which one they pick.”

There are always three choices. Three is an important number. In real estate it’s all about location, location, location. In real estate television, it’s always about the sensible choice, the compromise, and the budget-buster.

From my in-law’s living room in Clearwater, Florida, we watch a couple search for a home in Los Angeles.

“Maybe this could be you guys,” Cheryl says.

My wife and I live in Los Angeles. Unlike Christina, I am a third generation Angeleno; my parents as well as my maternal grandfather were born and raised here. With more than a century of family history to draw on, I’ve heard some whoppers about Los Angeles land deals. In the 1940s, my paternal grandfather sold a large plot of land near the CBS studio on Radford because, he told my father, “nobody will ever live in the Valley.” As it happened, my parents bought their first home a few miles from the land grandpa had sold three decades earlier. For the next four decades, my mother lamented the fact that they hadn’t bought more land. Long before HGTV, mom was hooked on a local show that broadcasted real estate listings in the area. The show’s narration was cheesy and the cinematography only slightly better than home video, but as mom often said, “Look at that place!”

“Michael was born here,” Christina tells friends. Her tone is awestruck, enthusiastic. Locals aren’t exactly Big Foot; we exist. But we’re rare enough to be noteworthy, enough of a curiosity to cause others to cock their heads and remark, “You never meet people who were born in LA. Was it weird growing up here?”

Housing prices encourage the churn. In a year that saw two close friends and my mother leave Los Angeles, a transplant I know from Maryland put it best: “They’re doing the California Cash Out.” Each one sold their property and bought a home in another state for cash. None of them appeared on House Hunters.

Of course, House Hunter isn’t realistic. Discuss the show with a stranger and one of you will invariably say, “It’s scripted, right.” It won’t be a question, more like a statement, like we’re both in on the joke, but like we’re also confirming, just in case, because we don’t want to look stupid.

On Reddit, a user called BearClawTaz complains about the casting.

If all the episodes are going to be bald-ass fake, they could select home buyers that at least look like they could afford $1MM budget. I am so sick of episodes with a recently married couple that look to be every bit of 21 or 22 that can afford a $1MM house. WTF? Really? What do these people do for a living? Porn Stars? Drug cartel? Did HGTV contact every billionaire/millionaire in the country and interview their kids for the next episode?

BearClawTaz speaks the truth. On drives through our city’s residential neighborhoods, Christina cries out, “What do these people do for a living?” She does this often enough that I know the day will come, perhaps when we are old and grey, that she will convince me to knock on a stranger’s door and ask how they can afford such a house in Los Angeles. If BearClawTaz’s hypothesis is correct, I can only hope that the owners are porn stars and not Cartel bosses.

“I’ll tell you how you get into the Los Angeles real estate market,” a prospective landlord tells me one day when we are fed up with our mismanaged apartment building and out looking for the California fallback dream, a rental house to call our own. “Save up as much money as you can and wait for a disaster like an earthquake, or riot.”

The memories of those awful events haunt me. The Northridge quake, the only sizable quake in my lifetime, broke my community in the physical sense, and it broke my heart because we lost my uncle Burt. In Los Angeles, you grow up learning that there’s no such thing as terra firma, that the slightest tectonic shift can crumble any foundation, and that the land is always moving beneath your feet.

The riots broke our city in a different way. There are acts of God, but the acts of man are equally dangerous, equally terrifying. A wound that is self-inflicted can heal, but the trauma will linger for those of us who remember the smell of smoke and the madness of those days. Still, I can recall stories of people buying property after those calamities. Real estate speculation is more than a civic pastime in Los Angeles; land deals are in our blood, and if it takes another Angeleno’s blood to make the price attractive, so be it.

Christina and I are looking for a modest home. Whatever that means. We want something that’s comparable in size to our apartment. Christina says she doesn’t want to live in a neighborhood with bars on the windows. The median home price in Los Angeles is $576,100.

“You’re fucked, dude,” my mom’s old neighbor laughs. He’s one of those guys who always wears a tracksuit and chuckles when its time to level with you. “Enjoy Pacoima.”

Tracksuit thinks Pacoima is an insult, which is one reason why we aren’t friends. But if you drive around Pacoima, you’ll see bars on the windows, which is why we’d rather not borrow a half-million dollars to live there.

“Tell you what you do,” Tracksuit says. “You’ve got to get mercenary. Two words: Porter Ranch.”

Recently, there was a natural gas leak in Porter Ranch. It took months to stop the leak. There were stories in the news about Porter Ranch residents getting sick. There are still questions about who will pay to clean the homes in the affected area, and whether cleaning will make the area safe. Porter Ranch is far from Christina’s office and our friends. But it’s nice! Before the leak the area was out of our price range. Now …

“You pick your number and see who wants out,” Tracksuit advises. “So what if you can’t breathe the air?”

At a friend’s housewarming party, a friend of that friend tells me the one thing he misses since cutting cable is Love It Or List It. Christina and I don’t watch that HGTV show often because renting means you’re neither loving nor listing. On Love It Or List It, the hosts are a designer and a realtor who each try to convince the homeowners that happiness can either be found in a remodel or a new home.

“Only a fool renovates,” Friend Of Friend insists. “You never know what you’re going to find once you start knocking down walls.”

He tells me a “horror” story about his place in Silver Lake and an unpermitted garage that he hoped to turn into an office / Airbnb.

Friend Of Friend moved to Los Angeles after the housing crisis. He’s adamant that you “can’t go wrong with real estate.” When I tell him I’m a local, he smiles and says, “You understand what I’m talking about. You’re crazy if you don’t get in on this market.”

I could tell him the opposite: you’d have to be crazy to buy land in Los Angeles, given the history of booms and busts in my lifetime. But we don’t know each other well enough to discuss mental health and its role in local real estate speculation. I decide to keep the conversation light by falling back on HGTV. I share my friend Mark’s theory about House Hunters International.

“Do you ever think the people on House Hunters International are running away from something?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like maybe they’re tax dodgers, or deadbeat dads, or scofflaws,” I say, proud that I worked such an old-timey word into the conversation, because antiquated speech is one surefire way to bond with someone you just met. “I just wish we got a little more background on these people. I mean, what are they hiding?”

“If they’re hiding something, why would they go on television?”

Mark’s theory is crap, but in my heart I want to believe it. Who says, screw it, we’re moving to Belize, even though we don’t have any friends there? People with a secret, that’s who. Or maybe they’re people who have been priced out of the Los Angeles real estate market. Maybe one day Christina and I will say, “Fuck it, we’re moving to Belize.”

“And when we tell our friends, we can say Belize-dat. Get it?”

Christina gets it. She always does. But she remains practical, so Belize remains a fantasy. Here in Los Angeles, we try to focus on what is attainable.

“I could never live in a Tiny House,” Christina says one night.

We are watching Tiny House Hunters. This is a show about regular-size people living in really small homes. On the upside, these homes are affordable. On the downside, the homes are so small that every breakfast you make will be breakfast in bed.

“Have you noticed that a lot of these homes don’t come with land?” I ask.

We are deep into a marathon, and so I am comfortable making such generalizations. Occasionally, the buyer gets a little plot of land, but usually they end up having to put their tiny home on a friend’s property. This arrangement is feasible in some of the most expensive neighborhoods in Los Angeles, but it isn’t feasible for us because none of our friends live in those neighborhoods.

“I think the banana stand from Arrested Development was bigger,” Christina says. “There’s always money in the banana stand.”

House Hunters first aired in 1999. We started watching the mother ship in 2010 and quickly found the international edition. Because of syndication and an inability on my part to properly manage the settings on our DVR, we’ve seen every episode of each franchise at least seventeen times. (The total would be higher if we hadn’t we cut cable this year.) But the more I watch House Hunters, the more I think we make shitty house hunters, at least in Los Angeles. We don’t have the kind of money BearClawTaz insists we need, and we certainly aren’t mercenary enough to compete with a guy like Tracksuit. The more I watch, the more I think we need to have a serious conversation about fallback cities. We could be To Leave And Buy Outside of LA, or Dig Our New Denver Digs.

The more I watch House Hunters, the more I think we make shitty house hunters, at least in Los Angeles.

At a friend’s birthday party, Christina chats with a couple we just met. Mutual Friends also rent, and they are obsessed with Tiny House Hunters.

“I saw one place that doesn’t even have a kitchen and it was eighty grand,” says Mutual Husband. “What the actual fuck?”

“We’re screwed,” Mutual Wife says. “Two good careers and you can’t buy a house, something’s wrong here.”

Someone mentions something they read on the Internet about Los Angeles being the least affordable city in America. The story is probably in reference to the rental market; but that’s what’s so crazy — the rent is too damn high, and so are the down payments. You get squeezed on both ends. A mortgage looks doable when you look at your rent, but with rents this high it takes years to put together a down payment because rising home prices keep moving the goal line. In House Hunter terms: the sensible choice will become the budget-buster by the time you’re ready to buy.

“Michael keeps talking about thinking east,” Christina says. “He grew up here.”

“Like where they set the second season of True Detective?”

“That was supposed to be Vernon, which is south,” I say. “And only about a hundred people live there, which is sort of the back story of that season, and another totally messed up local story.”

We’re all searching for a home somewhere in the sprawl, but it’s difficult to fathom many of the communities scattered around the 502 square miles that make up the city of Los Angeles, let alone the 4,751 square miles of our county. Los Angeles is big, but if you’re looking to buy a home, it can feel very small.

Our friends who moved to St. Louis bought a home that Christina says looks like the house in the Steve Martin remake of Father of The Bride. Out of kindness, The St. Louis Kids won’t say what they paid, but we know they bought it for cash with the proceeds from the sale of a small house in Reseda, not far from where The Karate Kid was set. As for the real Father of The Bride house, it’s in Alhambra, about eight miles east of downtown LA, and according to the LA Times, it can be yours for $2 million!

“Our friends who lived in Culver City bought two houses in Colorado,” Christina says. “They live in one and rent the other.”

“Damn,” Mutual Husband says. “That’s the way to do it.”

We all nod in agreement. The Rocky Mountain Moguls got out of Los Angeles while the getting was good.

“Then there’s Michael’s mom,” Christina says. “She moved to Vegas and her property taxes are practically nothing.”

“Shit,” Mutual Wife says. “I didn’t know property taxes in California were that bad.”

“Oh yeah,” I say. “Tons of people I grew up with moved to Nevada or Arizona.”

Mutual Friends study me like an endangered animal in his natural habit. Angeleno Locorum.

“Wow. No wonder nobody is from here.”

Michael Estrin is a writer in Los Angeles. His essays have appeared in Tablet and Narratively. He blogs at Situation Normal (dot) Me.

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