This is the unedited version of my column which appears in the Courier Mail, Wednesday, 30 November 2011.
There’s a new obsession threatening to takeover our airwaves: Property Porn – and we can’t get enough.
Switch on free-to-air or Pay TV and you’ll find countless shows about real estate (not forgetting websites, sections in print media and apps). It doesn’t even matter if the program is set overseas, we’re eager to consume content centered on people’s efforts to build, secure, fix, invest in or offload their homes. From Escape to the Country, to reruns of Hot Property; from Relocation, Relocation Australia to Selling Houses Australia and the British originals; from Grand Designs to Property Ladder, The Block and Restoration Home, we love to watch all things domicile.
Featuring good-looking, articulate and friendly hosts, images of either perfect buildings or those on the brink of collapse, the tortured, expressions of prospective buyers, anxious vendors and ignorant renovators who don’t know a budget from a budgie, as well as the many faces of agents, these shows rely on our complicated and highly emotional relationships to the concept of “home” to work.
Close-ups of purchasers and owners’ tears, frowns and scenes that capture explosive tempers and despair are property-porn’s money shots. Building up to a climax and desiring only a happy finish for the featured couples, the shows seduce us into becoming voyeurs of something that’s usually a private affair.
Revealing the houses in stages, a structural strip tease, the cameras’ focus: the bigger the state of disrepair or impossible beauty of the place, the better.
We’re given glimpses of paint that doesn’t quite match, chipped tiles, leaking taps, a roof on the verge of collapse, rotting timbers, mould-stained walls, unhinged doors, and to top it all off, wild bushes for gardens.
Alternately, we’re invited to gaze upon homes of such sparkling perfection they’re beyond our wildest dreams. We’re invited to project ourselves in and out of those four walls and let our imaginations run wild.
Post-lapsarian in imagery, they promise a satisfaction of Edenic proportions.
I tell you, these shows are addictive. And there’s a good reason for that.
In Australia particularly, we’ve been fed the notion that home is where the heart and everything else lives. Owning a quarter of an acre is to what everyone should aspire – only that’s becoming increasingly difficult as the average housing block shrinks. Regardless, this is simply a metaphor for being able to call a piece of Australia, some bricks, mortar, weatherboard, glass, steel, concrete and solar panels your own.
It’s an idea that buys into our sense of self and national identity as well. Buying a home (or equivalent) is not only a financial investment, it’s an emotional and even patriotic one that has a great deal of psychological baggage attached.
Real estate agents become more like matchmakers than brokers. Not only do they introduce people to the “right” place with which they’ll form a significant relationship, they also function (in some cases) like cosmetic surgeons, suggesting extreme makeovers to guarantee the house find someone with whom to share a future.
Property porn relies on all this be effective, to suck us in and take us on a “journey” with the person, couple, or family who are buying. It reduces the complex decision-making and stress to a superficial narrative with a “they-all-lived-happily-ever-after” ending.
In watching others’ risk purchasing, selling or renovating, and surrendering to their passions for a piece of real estate action, like pornography, we experience the highs and lows vicariously but without the attendant risks.
This has never been more evident than throughout the current property downturn. These shows are rating very well as, from the safety of our homes (rented or otherwise) we can watch others take the risky plunge.
That’s because, while property is hot in TV land, in real life, it’s a different story, one where the finale is not so certain.
According to Australian Property Monitors senior economist, Dr Andrew Wilson, the latest data showed Brisbane was becoming established as the cheapest capital city.
While median house prices have dropped (especially in Paddington where prices fell 31.9 per cent), sales are up by 13 per cent in Brisbane and 11 per cent on the Gold Coast. Last quarter, Gladstone saw a growth of 50 per cent.
We keep hearing “it’s a buyer’s market” and, apparently, some people are “buying” this. But more are not. When you have agents talking up what’s clearly going down and vendors refusing to meet the market, while purchasers keep their wallets shut, nothing moves…not unless, like Goldilocks, we meet in the middle.
Until that occurs, we have property porn. At least there, our lust for real estate can be temporarily and safely sated.