Blame HGTV House Fins For All That Subway Tiling And Gray Vinyl

In a domino effect starting with the lowest housing prices during the Great Recession and the proliferation of HGTV shows centered on easy do-it-yourself remodeling, house flipping exploded in popularity about 15 years ago and hasn’t slowed down since.

For home enthusiasts and any investor looking for an inexpensive way to demonstrate to buyers that a property has been updated, the key is a handful of design tropes: gray floors, mosaic bathroom tiles and barn doors, to name a few.

Amanda Mulleditor of The Atlantic, joined Marketplace’s Reema Khrais to talk about the impact that HGTV and inexpensive house flipping have had on the housing market and residential aesthetics in the United States.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Reema Khrais: So I’m not going to lie, I feel a little challenged by your article. I have these gray floors, I have a subway tile backsplash. I have the most generic apartment, which I guess is kind of the point of your article, isn’t it?

Amanda Mull: Alright Alright. You know, I’ve consumed so many hours and hours and hours of HGTV over the years. And just over time, as the gray soil started to like, I think it eats away like part of my brain. It’s been clear to me for a long time that there’s something about this, and I feel like I’ve finally developed a theory about it.

Khrais: OK, so let’s talk about the theory. Why are so many houses alike? Why do they look like this?

Reflect: Well, why these sorts of design tropes happen over and over again in homes kind of depends on how housing in America is financialized, especially over the past five years. More and more homes have been bought either by people looking to flip them – that is, buy them, repair them, usually cosmetically, then take them out and resell them within a year – or people looking for more traditional types of investment property – landlords, institutional investors, etc. And the best way to increase home value is to sort of take care of those cosmetic things that tenants or buyers kind of see as indicators of the quality of the home. And you can do that on the cheap with some of these design tropes. Gray flooring is usually vinyl plank, which costs around $1 per square foot, which is a fraction of what real hardwood costs, you know. Mosaic tiling in shower enclosures is very easy to install, it comes in sheets. And yes, the American housing stock is aging. So a lot of these kinds of quick-fix surface things are some kind of communication between sellers or leasing companies and buyers that, for example, what you get is updated and fancy.

Khrais: Interesting. And do you have any idea how far back that goes? And does it have anything to do with HGTV?

Reflect: Yeah, well, the gray floors themselves seem to last about 10 years, especially after the Great Recession when there was so much distressed housing and foreclosures. And short sales are great for house fins because they really give you, like, a rock bottom price. So during this period, after the Great Recession of the early 2010s, you saw a lot of HGTV shows about house flipping, about investment properties. And you have an extremely popular cable network – it’s the most popular cable network after the big three cable news channels and has been for several years. So you basically have this how-to manual that’s being broadcast 24 hours a day to millions of people. And at the end of the shows they break down what was paid for the house, what was paid for the upgrades and the labor and, you know, if it sells for that price, how much profit you will make. And those numbers and those types of entertainment are really, really appealing to people.

Khrais: I say. I look at these things and I’m like, “Can I, should I flip a house?”

Reflect: They are massively entertaining. You know, they really have a great formula. Even though I’m obviously critical of that dynamic and what it’s doing to housing in America and to people’s homes, but like, it’s fun to watch people do that.

Khrais: Yeah. Can you say a bit more in terms of numbers? You had some really startling numbers in that article that help understand what we’re talking about.

Reflect: What surprised me the most was that in the first quarter of this year, what we saw nationally was that almost 10% of home sales were flips. And then another quarter of home sales were bought by investors. Yes, a quarter full: landlords, budding Airbnb tycoons. So what you get from that is that about a third of all homes sold in the United States in the first three months of this year were sold to people who don’t intend to ‘to live.

Khrais: Wow. And so have we seen any real pushback from that aesthetic or a sign that things might be starting to go in a different direction?

Reflect: Well, I think anecdotally you see people who are just fed up with gray floors in particular. Because, at first glance, gray seems to be a great neutral. You’re like, ‘OK, I can move into this place, don’t worry. My furniture will go with it, my decor, whatever. You’ll be fine.” And then you walk in there and it doesn’t really work that way. Because all those gray floors have very cool tones. warm tones.

Khrais: So basically my house is bland, not because of me.

Reflect: No, your house is bland because of the housing market.

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Jack L. Goldstein