How Dare You Invest in Your Home!

Like many Americans, I delight in home improvement. There’s something intoxicating about a good before-and-after photo that shows you just how possible renovating your own living space can be. While I myself haven’t had the opportunity to renovate anything in my one-bedroom condo, I know exactly where I would start first.

In fact, home improvement is a bona fide hobby for millions of people. Fortunately, unlike some hobbies, home improvement can actually be an investment in the greatest asset most Americans will ever own.

That’s why I was confused when I listened to this segment on a 99% Invisible podcast about McMansion Hell:

All of this snarky criticism is entertaining, but there is also a larger point to be made about the design of the McMansion. According to Wagner, they are indicative of a larger shift in thinking: a house is no longer a place that we live in (potentially for the rest of our lives) but rather an asset that we are decidedly not supposed to live in forever.

Accordingly, people started designing their houses not just for themselves but with a future sale in mind. Wagner lays the blame for this mindset at the feet of HGTV and similar channels.

I thought the criticism of McMansions was purely aesthetic. This style of oversized suburban homes may be boring, architecturally incoherent, and just plain tacky—but the real problem is that they are viewed as an “asset”.

The program continues:

The excesses of the McMansion were reinforced over and over again on home improvement and house-flipping television shows. These programs convinced people there were always ways to make an abode better and (crucially) more valuable when it goes on the market.

“Home improvement channels would paint a house beige and then you would see this ticker in the corner that says ‘oh we just added $800 to the value of this house’,” laments Wagner. “They would come up with these crazy way just to quantify these sort of improvements.”

While McMansions may be stylistically diverse, many also share similar elements, like granite counters or a certain color of paint or shade of wood. And these superficial changes are not actually as valuable in the long run as structural improvements or energy efficiency upgrades.

99% Invisible has a tendency to let examinations of obscure ideas, technologies, and places descend into screeds against Deкadanт Aмеяiкan Кaрiтalisм. (For example, their examination of an early attempt at cybernetics turns into a mostly unrelated criticism of American foreign policy in South America as you listen on.)

But this criticism of home improvement doesn’t make any sense. What’s the alternative to thinking about your house with “a future sale in mind”? Pretending that your house has no inherent value beyond its place as your home? Never selling your house once you buy it? These approaches have obvious drawbacks. If you can’t or won’t sell your home, you could miss out on better job opportunities elsewhere in the country. And if you don’t renovate before you sell, someone else probably will—reaping the return on investment themselves.

There is no conflict between viewing your house as “a place that we live in (potentially for the rest of our lives)” and viewing it as an asset. Even so, the idea that “something is lost” when people engage with markets is so pernicious that people can’t even remodel their kitchen without having to feel bad about their own materialism and greed.

Ultimately, nothing is wrong with getting ideas from HGTV, even if Joanna Gaines has an unhealthy obsession with shiplap.