Contemporary with Fabulous Views

That's the headline for the featured article on the featured house in this week's Sunday real estate section of my newspaper:

The location is ideal. The home sits on a lovely sloping corner lot, boasting lush landscaping and truly stunning views of the verdant landscape and the idyllic pond for which Broad Run and Broad Run Ridge are known.

The home defines curb appeal. Its architectural style embraces the natural beauty of the lush, wooded lot. Two walkways, one brick and one flagstone, meander to the front door, framed by side windows and topped by a handsome arched transom window.

Once inside, you'll be impressed by the classic design and the expansive living space. Gleaming pine hardwood floors lend a rich decorating statement and true feeling of warmth. …

Yada yada yada. Bottom line: $425,000.

What are the 99 percent of the newspaper's readers who can't afford a $425,000 home supposed to make of articles like this? This is the cover of the real estate section — a place where normal people might turn to buy and sell a home. It doesn't seem either wise or kind to these people to dedicate the cover of this section each week to showcasing homes deliberately chosen to make the actual homes of actual people look shabby by comparison.

What's the strategy to this? If people are shopping for a Taurus or a Camry, does it make sense to have them test-drive the Escalade first? Yet every week the cover of the Sunday real estate section showcases another extravagant home, beyond the means and the aspirations of the vast majority of the paper's readership (at $425,000 this is actually one of the cheaper homes recently featured).

It is, of course, in somebody's interest to highlight these luxury homes on the section's cover. But it's not clear to me why that somebody's interests should trump those of nearly everybody else.

(P.S.: Hardwood pine?)

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  • meg

    Pine floors would be marred very quickly — they probably aren’t.
    Most corner lots also “feature” a view of two streets, not lushly rolling, verdant scrub.
    This is probably one of those large, antiseptic, overpriced boxes. What a thrill.

  • David Glynn

    Those of us that have built houses in the past just giggle at the construction techniques and materials used in most of these stick-lumber elephants.
    I’ve often seen the argument that the price is determined by the location, and that you are paying for the neighborhood. I am always underwhelmed at the judgement of the neighbors, and question the desirability of raising children among such flippant exhibitions of wayward purchasing power.
    But builders love customers that are willing to pay $425K for $80K of materials, $70K of labor, and $60K of land “value”.

  • Patrick (G)

    Essentially, it’s all about pushing the 99% away from what they can afford and closer to what-they-can-almost-afford-with-extra-debt because everybody else seems to be doing it… A phenomenom more commonly called “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses”.

  • Chris

    This is a prime example of what my brother accurately calls “house porn.”
    Oh yeah baby tell me all about the hardwood floors…OOOOO they’re pine, kinky.

  • David Adams

    I do think people like to dream of nicer places to live, and reading about a fancy house you would like can be fun even if you can’t afford it. Featuring a single house of any price on the front page of the real estate section is useless to all but at most one reader.
    Even if you love to hate the poorly built bland garage attachments that pass for houses these days, it can still entertaining to read about them. And getting you to read it is the only point.

  • Scott Cattanach

    Why do people (like me) subscribe to Architectural Digest? I can’t afford Cher’s house, even tho I like to look at the extensive remodelling (of the house, I mean :-) ).

  • derek g

    In southern California that’s only $50K over the median.

  • eyelessgame

    In California $425K houses are the median — but in California, the houses in the RE section of the newspaper are $2M houses instead of $500K. Just scale it up and it’s the same problem.
    The purpose is house porn. The underlying purpose, as many have said in this and your earlier blog, is that it serves a consumer culture to have everyone idealizing themselves as almost upper class, and feeling slightly guilty that they’re not there yet. In the absence of actual social mobility, you get illusionary social mobility.

  • Itea

    – The ad copy is annoying, but exactly what are we decrying? You’ll see similar copy for a $150,000 house – it’s not like adjectives such as “lovely”, “lush”, “stunning” and “verdant” are reserved for houses priced above some minimum standard.
    – There is no such thing as house porn. That’s a cutesy term that throws off appropriately negative connotations, but pornography is pornography and it’s considerably different from marketing and advertising. Yes, some people are fascinated and perhaps even stimulated by fantasies of being rich and owning an expensive house, but that’s not pornography.
    – In many ways, newspapers are not efficient methods of communicating information. They give all the information to everyone, as opposed to tailoring each paper for the specific subscriber. Because of this, there are many sections that are irrelevant to the vast majority of the readers, but are included because they have a high level of interest to a small subset of readers. E.g., my girlfriend hasn’t read an article in the sports section in years.
    – Spotlighting expensive houses (assuming $425,000 is high end for the area – as others have pointed out, there are communities where this would be a sub-median price) isn’t a conspiratorial act done to keep the underclass down in the dumps; it’s a reaction to the fascination with wealth that occupies so many people in this and other countries. That is, those articles are there because people read them. I don’t think you should be asking why the newspaper gives the article such face time; I think you should ask why people read these articles, or watch the ubiquitous shows about the wealthy and their lifestyles that dominate the travel channel or MTV.
    – It’s a small quibble, and I might be wrong, but I’d be surprised if $425,000 was out of reach for 99% of your community (though later you write “vast majority”, which is probably applicable). It’s not like it’s a $425,000 candy bar – houses are financed, and rates are (as we hear so often on the radio ads) historically low.
    I’m not trying to defend your newspaper’s practice. It would be admirable if they put $90,000 homes on the front page, at least some of the time. But I don’t fault the publisher; he/she/it is just giving the people what they want.

  • Arne Adolfsen

    I’m really wondering why $425K for what is purported to be a super-fantastic mansion is such a big deal. A woman I know bought, ten years ago, an 850 sq/ft one bedroom, one bath house on no lot whatsoever (there’s no front yard, no side yard, and just a big tree in the back yard; the back yard measures about 8′ deep and the width of the property), without a garage, for $275K in West Hollywood, CA. It’s now probably worth at least half a million and it’s just a working class hovel from the 1930s without a single period detail to justify the price.
    What gives with the astonishment at the magic number ***4***2***5***?

  • Mike Kozlowski

    I’ll never buy a Ferrari, but I’m a lot more likely to pick up an issue of Car and Driver with a Ferrari review than with a Chevy Cavalier review. Cool things can be inherently cool even if you have no intention of ever owning them.

  • Patrick (G)

    What might be relatively cheap in West Hollywood is fantastically expensive in much of the rest of the country.
    And we’re not talking about the equivalent of Car & Driver magazine, we’re talking the Housing/Newspaper equivalent of ‘Used Car Buyer’. For it to display the equivalent of Ferraris week-in,week-out is wildly inappropriate, no matter how cool the houses might be.
    Let’s do some comparative math:
    U.S. median Household income is something like $46,000.
    In order to put 10% down for this house, a median household would have to fork over a year’s worth of after-tax(!) income.
    If they saved at a reasonable savings rate (say 10%), it would take them nearly 10 years to accumulate a reasonable downpayment for this house.
    The monthly payments on a $382k mortgage, would probably be roughly around $3000 a month, at todays rates and with a 30year term. So even at twice the median household income, this house is barely affordable by that real estate rule of thumb that puts the upperbound of affordability at mortgage+property_taxes no more than 50% of after-tax income.
    In short, this featured house is a bad deal for the overwhelming majority of those who might turn to the housing section to look for a home.

  • Itea

    Patrick, what do you think _is_ appropriate? Should plasma TVs be advertised on television? Hummers? Grey Poupon?
    Yes, most people can’t afford that house. But home ownership is probably a wise decision for people who can afford it, and I think promoting home ownership isn’t the worst thing a newspaper can do.
    There is a difference between frustration at wealth inequity in the world, and having didactic views about what kind of content newspapers should have. Repeating what I said earlier, it’s society’s fascination with wealth that puts those articles there, not the other way around.
    I personally can’t afford that house, and I don’t read those articles. But it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as something like Joe Millionaire or The Simple Life.
    – Itea

  • Fred

    I think you’re right, Itea, about the chicken-or-egg nature of our cultural fascination with “lifestyles of the rich and famous.”
    But perhaps it’s also a matter of chicken-AND-egg. The downward-spiraling cycle of “just giving the people what they want” has to stop somewhere.

  • Patrick (G)

    Actually, a lot of people who ‘can afford it’, buy too much house,
    making the wisdom of home ownership somewhat subjective.
    If the articles were aimed at maintaining/broadening readership, rather than pushing readers towards buyng from advertisers; I’d suggest a mix of articles aimed at both those a bit below and a bit above the median household income.
    I don’t watch TV anymore because I found that it robbed me of willpower and consequently of unacceptably large chunks of my free time, and was likely inducing me to buy things I wouldn’t, on my own.
    But the same principle applies to Television as well. Actually, I think it was Television that was used as example to discuss the phenomenom in the book ‘Luxury Fever’ by Robert Frank.

  • carla

    To me, the amazing and depressing thing is just how often people go for this stuff. My brother (a mechanic at a dealership) told me that a couple came into his dealership (he saw the paperwork, with the names removed). Between the husband and wife, they made nearly $1 million a year. Nevertheless, they were so leveraged (houses, boat, car, etc.), they were actually turned down on their first loan request (for a jeep cherokee, I think he said). They eventually got the vehicle loan, but not at a good interest rate. But what does one DO with all of that stuff and all of that space?

  • Ab_Normal

    I just Googled, and the best numbers I can find for household income in our metropolitan area is $32,273 median, $43,604 average.
    The real estate section, in the Sunday paper, regularly features the most expensive houses on the market ($300,000 – $500,000). They also run an automotive section on Saturday, which reviews luxury vehicles almost exclusively. I don’t understand it, unless it’s to give the readers some vicarious pleasure from reading about things they’re never going to afford…

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