Sunday, December 18, 2011

Classic TV: House Hunters International

Escapist TV has now reached the point where “house porn” is one of the newest forms of stealth soft-core erotica.

The original House Hunters on Home & Garden TV focuses on prospective buyers in the United States looking to upgrade or downsize into new homes. A global spin-off the series emerged in 2009, when HGTV decided that it was a good idea to show the challenge of buying or renting a home outside America. Given the terrible economic state and the startlingly high number of foreclosures in the U.S. within the last few years, it seems perverse to watch people get into debt while trying to find the perfect home. But the fact is that in our new economy, talent is moving globally and these people must all live somewhere. We move for love, for money, for a change of pace in life. This show might seem fantastical today, but it really shows that the dream of picking up and starting a new life isn’t out of reach.

House Hunters International (which I’m calling “HHI” since that’s a long title) follows, in each 30-minute episode, people who are moving entire countries, usually to take new jobs and / or be close to family, or for love or retirement. The prospective buyers or renters could be from anywhere. The show has followed a Canadian national moving home to her birthplace of Tel Aviv, a former Olympic skier from Edmonton who bought a rental mansion in Punta Cana, circus performers from Cirque du Soleil buying a country home in France, Brits buying vacation homes in Andalucia, two brothers returning to Singapore from Australia and Manhattan to start a business, and an Irishman who moves to Bulgaria to be with the woman he loves while she’s finishing university. HHI has gone to Turin, Nairobi, Sydney, Vanuatu, Hong Kong, Mumbai and Marrakesh. The show even follows, to my great surprise, a student from my university days who worked in the office across the hall from me in the student union building buying an apartment to make his stay in Tokyo permanent!

Dream home? Looking in St. Maartens
Some of the buyers are rather entitled and complain that they aren’t getting enough “bang” for their buck. Some are looking purely to acquire properties in areas that they always know to be “tourist-friendly” but who somehow seem to conveniently overlook kidnapping epidemics where they plan to settle as foreign nationals. Some pack up the whole family and simply think they can buy a residence in the centre of the city for a family of ten without paying a lot of money for it. This makes for unintentional comedy.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about HHI is not just entertainment value, but the living works of art they plan to move into. The homes are absolutely amazing in some episodes, given the size of the budget for purchase or rental. We are treated to palatial villas in Mexico right on the beach, six-bedroom three-level Cliffside homes with infinity pools in Kuala Lumpur, state-of-the-art condos in Zurich with private elevators, and brand-new lofts in the centre of Berlin that has more room for less money than you’d pay in New York, London or Vancouver. You can also find quaint homes such as tiny 300-square-foot pied-a-terres in Montmartre, seaside apartments in Slovenia that all overlook the Riviera, and historic but spacious attic spaces in Buenos Aires. Each home has the potential to be a work of art, and HHI shows the before-and-after once the buyer or renter moves in.

Move-in ready: planned community in Abu Dabi
It’s also a bit of wish fulfillment. I had mentioned how it was a dream to move for love, for a change of pace in life, or for a promising international career. It’s also surprisingly demure in tone for a reality series, with little sensationalism and no one throws up or has a hissy fit, not even during the home shopping phase. HHI is accompanied by a soothing voiceover that calmly makes the home-hunting process a relaxed experience. That sense of security and safety makes the show excellent comfort viewing, and for those of us who are cautious about moving out of the country to start anew, it’s also a revealing glimpse into local conveyancing practices. Who knew that Bulgaria doesn’t allow foreign nationals to own property, unless you do it through a locally-incorporated business you own or start up? In most of South America, the method of payment is cash-and-carry, meaning that you’ll have to get to the country with cash in hand, in a safe, and arrange to deliver the deposit in a money belt attached to your torso. You’ll also occasionally catch a glimpse into just how expensive cities such as London or Paris really are, and what you might expect to get at certain price points. (In case you’re wondering, they break down the price per square foot.)

It might be a stretch to consider HHI as “classic” television, but in fifty years’ time, this will be a time capsule showing how the global community moved in this time and place. Perhaps by that point we’ll have abandoned Earth and have moved to the Moon, perhaps we’ll all have gone underwater, perhaps international movement will become commonplace and it would be strange for someone to not have a career that takes them out of the country at least once in their lives. For now and for those of us who aren’t moving anytime soon (or plan on it), HHI is the kind of somewhat realistic escapist entertainment that doesn’t involve celebrity weddings, puking on the beach, or the initials “g”, “t” and “l” in that order.