In a domino effect starting with rock-bottom prices for housing 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 flippers and any investor looking for a low-cost 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 Mull, a staff writer at The Atlantic, joined Marketplace’s Reema Khrais to talk about the impact HGTV and inexpensive house flipping have had on America’s housing market and residential aesthetics.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Reema Khrais: So I’m not gonna lie, I feel a little called out by your article. I’ve got those gray floors, I’ve got a subway-tiled backsplash. I’ve got the most generic-looking apartment, which I guess is kind of the point of your article, right?
Amanda Mull: Right, right. You know, I have consumed so many hours and hours and hours of HGTV over the years. And just over time, like the gray floor has started to like I think eat away at like a 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 finally developed a theory of it.
Khrais: OK, so let’s talk about the theory. Why do so many homes look the same? Why do they look like this?
Mull: Well, the reasons that these sort of design tropes occur over and over and over again in homes is really sort of a function of how housing in America is financialized, especially in the past five years. More and more homes have been bought up either by people who are looking to flip them — which is buy them, fix them up, usually sort of cosmetically, and then get them out and sold again within a year — or people who are looking for more traditional types of investment properties — landlords, institutional investors, things like that. And the best way to increase housing value is to sort of take care of these cosmetic things that renters or buyers are sort of looking at as indicators of housing quality. And you can do that pretty inexpensively through some of these design tropes. The gray flooring is usually vinyl plank, which costs about $1 per square foot, which is a fraction of what like real hardwood costs, you know. Mosaic tile in the shower stalls is very easy to install, it comes in sheets. And yeah, America’s housing stock is aging. So a lot of these sort of like quick-fix surface things are a sort of communication between sellers or leasing companies and buyers that, like, what you’re getting is updated and fancy.
Khrais: Interesting. And do you have a sense of how far back this goes? And does it have anything to do with HGTV?
Mull: Yeah, well, the gray floors themselves seem to go about 10 years, particularly after the Great Recession, when there was so much distressed housing and foreclosures. And short sales are great for house flippers because they really give you, like, a rock-bottom price. So during that period, after the Great Recession in the early 2010s, you saw a lot of HGTV shows about house flipping, about investment properties. And you’ve got an enormously popular cable network — it’s the most popular cable network after the three big cable news channels and it has been durably for several years. So you’ve basically got this how-to manual playing 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 updates and the labor and, like, you know, if it sells at that price, how much profit you’re going to make. And those numbers and these types of entertainment is just really, really attractive to people.
Khrais: I know. I watch those things and I’m like, “Can I, should I flip a home?”
Mull: They’re massively entertaining. You know, they really have a great formula going. Even though I am obviously critical of this dynamic and what it does to housing in America and people’s homes, but like, it’s fun to watch people do that.
Khrais: Yeah. Can you share a little bit more in terms of numbers? You had some really surprising numbers in that article that get at what we’re talking about.
Mull: What was most surprising to me is that in the first quarter of this year, what we saw nationwide is that almost 10% of home sales were flips. And then another quarter of home sales were bought by investors. Yes, a full quarter: landlords, Airbnb tycoon-wannabes. So what you get from that is about a third of all homes sold in the United States in the first three months of this year were sold to people who have no intention of living in them.
Khrais: Wow. And so have we seen any real pushback to this aesthetic or any sign that things might start going in a different direction?
Mull: Well, I do think that anecdotally, you see some people who are just sick of the gray floors in particular. Because, at first, gray seems like a great neutral. It seems like, “OK, I can move into this place, not worry about it. My furniture will go with this, my décor, whatever. It’ll be fine.” And then you get in there and it doesn’t really work like that. Because all of these gray floors are just really cool-toned. And a lot of things that make a space feel like warm and inviting and lived in and homey are warm-toned.
Khrais: So, basically my home is bland not because of my doing.
Mull: No, your home is bland because of the housing market.
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