One study says that HGTV makes our homes boring and makes us sad

One study says that HGTV makes our homes boring and makes us sad

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

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

If you’ve ever watched a home renovation show on HGTV, you know the main “before” sequence. This happens when the camera pans critically over the house and the host points out everything that needs to be fixed. Decoration? untidy. Paint? Shrinks. The overall takeaway is that the house is a total embarrassment and needs a complete overhaul before anyone with taste will even think about putting a mop in front of it.

But what happens when people think about how their homes stand under this kind of scrutiny? This can lead to too similar aesthetics, according to Anita Grant, an assistant professor of markets, innovation and design at Bucknell University who has researched how home renovation outlets like HGTV and magazines like Better Homes and Gardens influence homeowners.

Grant calls the idea that anyone can scrutinize or judge your decorative choices “market mirroring” in a paper with Jay M. Handelman, associate professor of marketing at Smith Business School at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Their findings came in large part from interviews with 17 homeowners doing renovations.

“They see everything that’s wrong with their home and they imagine that when people come to their home (that) they’re going to criticize, scrutinize, and judge their home,” Grant says. “It makes people feel uncomfortable with the decisions they make in their homes, so they are always afraid of making mistakes.” (HGTV did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Washington Post.)

A mistake in this case was defined as a decision that would make your home less attractive to buyers, even if you had no plans to put it on the market.

Homeowners are “torn between two ideas of what a home should look like,” Grant says. Common wisdom is that buying a home has two main benefits, ideally: You can build wealth, and you can modify your space to suit your unique tastes. Grant’s framework shows these two benefits in conflict with each other.

The outlook creates a “shift toward standardization,” she says. I found that it doesn’t just happen in the rooms of the house where people expect guests to come. This look extends to primary bedrooms and bathrooms as well.

Of the 17 people who participated in the research, most expressed a desire to become “the smart homeowner who invested in my house, and now, on paper, my house is worth so much more,” Grant says. So, to be smart, they may skip the bolder choices while renovating and decorating.

Instead, neutrals prevail, and the goal is to create a place that is inoffensive and can appeal to many. “I think people really compliment the bathroom because it’s kind of like the cleanliness of a hotel room, it looks very streamlined, and everything is coordinated,” study participant Gabrielle told researchers about the feedback she received about her renovated bathroom.

You can’t blame homeowners for trying to protect what is probably their largest asset. They are constantly bombarded with data that attributes a dollar amount to relatively simple decisions. Zillow, for example, analyzes paint colors. Its latest analysis stated that a white kitchen, long a must-have, could now hurt a home’s price by up to $612, while a charcoal gray kitchen increases the cost by an average of $2,512. (To get these very specific numbers, Zillow showed study participants homes and asked them how much they would bid for each. Next, behavioral scientists at the company used statistical modeling to see how the relationship between listing and listing price changed depending on the color of the room.)

In a press release about the paint analysis, Zillow quoted Mehnaz Khan, a color psychologist and interior designer in Albany, New York, as saying, “Buyers have been exposed to dark gray spaces through home improvement TV shows and their social media channels, but they’re more likely to… They are attracted to coal on a psychological level.

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

“I’m always drawn to these funky things or unusual things,” she says, but her real estate agent “kept reminding me: ‘Resale, resale, resale, resale.’ It just stuck in my head. …And then we moved.” To the house. I was too afraid to do anything. I never painted anything. I lived in those white walls, always thinking about the next homeowner. It was all for the next homeowner. She says she wishes she had decided to make Personalize the home and make it feel like her home.

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

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

“I get asked a lot, ‘Is this trendy?’ “I always advise[clients]not to go that route,” says interior designer Puna Juni, who works in Washington. “It’s a trend, and it’s going to go out of fashion. If you’re looking for gold finishes everywhere, in five years, it’s not going to be trendy anymore. And 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 will look around at the end of the renovation and start thinking about the next renovation,” she says.

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