HGTV is making our homes boring and us sad, one study says

A pair of professors found that home renovation media leads homeowners to decorate for the masses, not for their own happiness

A large HGTV camera points at a woman who is covering a vibrant living room with beige paint.
(Masha Krasnova-Shabaeva for The Washington Post)

If you’ve ever watched a home makeover show on HGTV, you know the key “before” sequence. It’s when the camera critically pans over the house and the host points out everything that needs to be fixed. The decor? Cluttered. The paint? Cringe. The overall takeaway is that the home is an utter embarrassment and needs a total overhaul before anyone of taste would consider putting a doormat out front.

But what happens when people consider how their own homes might fare under this kind of scrutiny? It can lead to an overwhelming sameness in aesthetics, according to Annetta Grant, an assistant professor of markets, innovation and design at Bucknell University, who researched how home renovation media such as HGTV and magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens influenced homeowners.

Grant calls the idea that anyone could be scrutinizing or judging your decorating choices the “market-reflected gaze” in a research paper with Jay M. Handelman, an associate professor of marketing at Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Their findings came in large part from interviews with 17 homeowners doing renovations.

“They’re seeing everything that’s wrong with their home and imagining when people come into their home [that] they’re also criticizing and scrutinizing and judging their home,” says Grant. “It really makes people feel quite uneasy about the decisions that they make in their home, and so they’re always kind of fearful about getting it wrong.” (HGTV did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Washington Post.)

Wrong, in this case, has become defined as a decision that will make your home less appealing to buyers, even if you have no plans to put it on the market.

Homeowners are “torn between two ideas of what the home should be,” says Grant. The common wisdom is that buying a home ideally has two main benefits: You can build wealth and modify your space to your unique tastes. Grant’s framework shows these two benefits in conflict with one another.

The gaze is creating a “shift towards standardization,” she says. And it’s not just happening in rooms of the house where people expect guests to come, she found. That gaze extends to bedrooms and primary bathrooms, too.

Among the 17 people who participated in the research, most expressed the desire to be “that smart homeowner who has invested in my home and now, on paper, my home is worth so much more,” Grant says. So in order to be savvy, they might skip out on bolder choices in renovation and decor.

Instead, neutrals reign supreme, and the goal is to create a place that is inoffensive and could appeal to many. One interviewee for the study, Gabrielle, told the researchers about feedback she received on her renovated bathroom: “I think people really are complimentary on the bathroom because it’s a bit more like a hotel room kind of cleanliness, looking very streamlined, and everything coordinates.”

You can’t blame homeowners for trying to protect what is probably their largest asset. And they’re constantly bombarded with data that attributes a dollar amount to relatively minor decisions. Zillow, for example, does an analysis of paint colors. Its latest analysis said that a white kitchen, long de rigueur, could now hurt a house’s home price to the tune of $612, whereas a charcoal-gray kitchen allegedly increases the cost by an average of $2,512. (To get these very specific numbers, Zillow showed study participants homes and asked how much they’d offer for each. Then, the company’s behavioral scientists used statistical modeling to figure out how the relationship between list and offer price changed depending on the room color.)

In a news release about the paint analysis, Zillow quoted Mehnaz Khan, a color psychology specialist and interior designer in Albany, N.Y.: “Buyers have been exposed to dark gray spaces through home improvement TV shows and their social media feeds, but they’re likely drawn to charcoal on a psychological level.”

Khan specializes in determining how colors and the built environment impact people’s moods and well-being. Yet when she and her husband built their first house, she tells The Washington Post, they fell into the same trap of prioritizing other people’s opinions over their own.

“I’m always attracted to these unconventional things or unusual things,” she says, but her real estate agent “would constantly remind me, ‘Resale, resale, resale, resale.’ It was so stuck in my head. … We then moved into the house. I was so scared to do anything. I never painted anything. I lived in those white walls and I was always thinking about the next homeowner. Everything was for the next homeowner.” She says she wishes she had decided to personalize the home and make it feel more like hers.

Ruth DeSantis, a climate scientist in Calgary, Alberta, found Grant’s research on Facebook and says it immediately resonated. She describes the HGTV aesthetic as “trying to get to this perfection, even though that’s totally impossible and unrealistic and I don’t like it anyway.”

The research struck a chord with her because “I have friends who will come to my house and say they like my kitchen except the white appliances,” she says. But the research inspired her to keep her white ones “because I like them,” rather than switch to a stainless-steel version she finds less appealing and more difficult to clean. “People are ripping out perfectly good kitchens and replacing them because they have the wrong color for the season,” says DeSantis. “I think that message needs to change because the environmental impact is so huge.”

“I get asked the question a lot, ‘Is this trendy?’ and I always advise [clients] not to go down that route,” says interior decorator Bona Gjoni, who works in Washington. “It is a trend and it will go out of style. If you go for gold finishes everywhere, five years down the road it’s not trendy anymore. Then you’re going to have to reinvest.”

That’s exactly what Grant found: “Even if a homeowner renovates their home to the latest standards, because those standards are constantly changing, they’ll look around at the end of the renovation and start thinking about their next renovation,” she says.

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