The premise of the show Love It or List It is simple enough: A couple is dissatisfied with their current home, but one of them wants to move in order to transform their lives for the better, while the other one wants to stay where they are and merely improve the house's usefulness.
Enter the two stars of the show: Hilary is a designer who can reenvision your current house and help make it closer to what you need or want it to be. David is a real estate agent who believes he can search through the nearby neighborhoods to find a house that meets your parameters, ready to move into without any remodeling.
The homeowners tell David how much they're willing to spend on a new house; they also give Hilary a remodeling budget, which she cannot exceed without their consent. At the end of the show, with Hilary's remodeling completed, the homeowners compare their old-but-improved house with the best that David had to offer, and then decides either to "love" their old home and stay put, or "list" their old home and move to the new one David found.
At first, the show was filmed in the Toronto area, and prices were in Canadian dollars. The combination of urban price inflation and the relatively weak Canadian dollar made the remodeling budgets sound extravagant and the house prices unbelievably high for absurdly small homes.
Canadians apparently are prepared to live in much smaller spaces than Americans of the same degree of affluence -- though their homes are not so small as European houses.
Then the show moved to the Raleigh area, so that prices sound relatively sane -- until you take into account the fact that when we moved to North Carolina from Indiana we thought all the house prices here were insane, too. Sanity of housing prices is a relative thing.
The show has a bit of banter accenting the rivalry between Hilary and David, but in fact neither has anything to gain or lose -- it's no skin off their noses which way the family decides to go at the end of the show. What matters is that both David and Hilary are personable and only occasionally annoying, and they're both very good at their jobs.
David has the huge advantage over regular real estate agents that none of the listings are his. That is, he has no reason to give a preference to houses that he represents directly, because he isn't in the local real estate business.
Hilary, by contrast, not only has to deal with the sometimes absurdly large wish list for a small or limited space, but she also has to comply with local building codes and with pre-existing problems with the house that have to be dealt with before she can go on -- sharply and suddenly restricting her budget.
Ultimately, though, each episode is a study of a couple, exploring how they make decisions that affect both their lives, and how they view the things that are essential to their happiness.
To a degree, the decision-making process is bound to be at least a little fake. I once had a friend who owned and starred in a reality show, and even though it wasn't scripted, a non-existent conflict between him and his wife was manufactured to give drama to the show.
And when he invited me onto the show to talk about what he was like as a young teenager, he told me over and over what narrative he was using on the show. It involved his having been some kind of juvenile delinquent, thus dramatizing the changes in his life.
The problem was that if he was edging into a life of crime when I first met him during his teen years, it was completely invisible to me. The problems I saw in his life were unrelated to such things, and so I could not honestly bear witness to the narrative that he -- and the show's producers -- needed in order to advance their storyline about the star's growing-up years.
If I'm going to appear on camera as myself, and speak about real events in my real past, I'm not going to lie. Period. I explained this to him. His story might be true, I simply never saw any sign of it during the times we spent together. And I would not pretend to be a witness of things I never saw. It's not a matter of being under oath, it's a matter of personal honor.
My segment never aired. It didn't advance the narrative.
So I imagine that if, in Love It or List It, one of the spouses suddenly changed their mind, mid-show, they would be encouraged to keep this change to themselves until the reveal at the end. There's probably a stipulation to this effect in their contract.
However, what is not faked is the way the couple talks to and about each other, and the elements of what makes a house function well in their lives.
Some of these elements are so often repeated that you'd think they were among the ten commandments. "We need an open concept instead of all these closed-off rooms." Everybody wants an "open concept." This is so important that one gathers there will be no open spaces in hell, and no walls in heaven.
Admittedly, "open concept" -- the ability to see from one end of the main floor of the house to the other, with no intervening walls -- makes for beautiful camera work and photography. Every wall shortens the camera's sightlines. Open concept is what you need for a tv show.
But then I think of the house we've lived in for about twenty-five years. The living room and dining room have only an archway dividing them, which is fine because our dining room is actually filled with a baby grand piano and we call it the music room. So it's a slightly separated part of the living room. Open concept.
And we saw the door between the eat-in kitchen (our only real dining room) and the hall leading back to the office, laundry, and home theater as a horrible annoyance. We took the door off its hinges and removed the hinge plates from the wall. We did the same upstairs to the door between the attic stairway and the library. These doors would be nothing but a nuisance as we tried to move freely through our house.
But we left the doors between the entryway and that hall, and the door between the music room and the kitchen, because we wanted to be able to shut off the kitchen/eating area and the living room/music area.
A class or book club discussion could go on in the living room while other work or games or conversations could take place in the kitchen. And the television room also needed to be sealed off so another group -- usually the children of visitors -- could watch Full House reruns without bothering anybody else.
Doors and separations are what make multiple simultaneous activities possible in a house. In other words, "open concept" may photograph well, but it has nothing to do with how we live -- or want to live.
But to each his own. If these families really want open concept, then I'm disappointed for them when Hilary can't give them their dream just because of things like building codes, load-bearing walls, and a fast-depleted budget.
For me, though, many of the things people want are ridiculously trivial. There was the woman who insisted that her perfectly lovely stairway was an eyesore that offended her so much that she gave up a much-needed en-suite master bathroom upstairs in order to get the stairs remodeled. I thought -- and think -- she was insane.
And when Hilary did fix up the stairs, it consisted of replacing lathed banister posts with slabby ones, and painting the whole stairway a soul-numbing grey. The homeowner was, of course, ecstatic. I figured that the stairway would have her on anti-depressants in a month.
People living in a space too small for their lives evolved some very curious ways of dealing with it. Master bedroom didn't have enough closet space? It was always the husband whose clothes were moved into the guest bedroom or a child's bedroom or, in one extravagant case, a garage-like space in the back yard. Nobody ever moved even a portion of the wife's clothing out of the inadequate master closet.
Usually the couples treat each other's complaints or needs or requests or wishes with at least a little respect, but sometimes one spouse would hear the other one's complaint or wish and say, out loud, "Oh, that doesn't matter," or the even-more-outrageous, "You're doing just fine without it now." (This was the response to the complaint of the husband whose closet was in the back yard.)
In almost every case, the person who felt free to completely dismiss or disparage the spouse's needs and desires was the woman, showing contempt for the husband. (The one exception I remember: A family from a non-western culture.) Whatever complaints feminists may have, on Love It or List It, it is only men who can be treated with disdain by women, not the reverse.
Most couples, though, were mutually respectful, which makes the show watchable -- if it ever degenerated into a show about bickering, it would be unwatchable, for me, at least.
I've lived through the problems of remodeling. When we first moved into our house, we took the largest bedroom, the one with two closets, and took off the closet doors. We put a countertop in each closet, and lots of electrical outlets, so each could serve as a computer workstation. Then the rest of the room got tall bookcases extending into the room, converting it into a library. More than any other change, that's the one that made the house truly ours.
Remodeling is always more expensive than you think, nothing goes exactly as you want, and the real miracle of Love It or List It is that the materials they order always seem to arrive on time. In the real world, this never happens.
This past year, when we were converting the attic into guest bedrooms, we wanted to convert one overlarge closet into a top-floor bathroom, so our guests didn't have to parade down to the second floor to bathe, shower, or use the toilet.
That's when, like many of Hilary's clients, we discovered that the project simply couldn't be done without incurring ridiculous expenses. You can't just put a bathroom wherever you want. Pipes coming in and pipes coming out have to have someplace to go -- and enough room for the outbound pipes to slope downward so gravity can help carry away waste.
There was nowhere in our attic for those pipes to go. We'd have had to raise our roof, put in new and higher floors, and completely redo our heating and air conditioning system on two floors to make it work. It really would have been only slightly less expensive than tearing down our house and starting over.
And the more I think about it, the more that sounds like a good idea. The workmanship on our house was so shoddy that we are still doing remedial work to keep the house standing and functioning. There are rooms that are always too hot or too cold. There are so many things wrong under the house that even the raccoons refuse to live there (though mice, for a while, proved themselves way less fussy).
Here's the thing: We adapted our lives to fit the design of the house, so that on the one occasion that we really did decide to move into a house we would build to order, we found ourselves designing into the new house pretty much everything that we had already adapted to in the old one.
With our youngest already in high school, we found ourselves designing exactly the house we wish we had raised our kids in. So many older people do this that it's quite sad: Their custom houses become empty grandparent houses, perpetually hoping for a visit from a tribe of youngsters.
We love visits from those youngsters -- but I well remember that part of the fun when all the cousins of my generation were in Nana Lu's and Grandpa's house at the same time was the sharing of beds, camping out on the floor, and filling every nook and cranny of a tiny bungalow on Harrison Avenue in Salt Lake City. You don't have to have space for all the grandchildren to have rooms of their own.
The real killer for our new-house project, though, was location. We had found a wonderful property just off Church Street, not all that far away from Pisgah Church Road, one of the traffic arteries of our current lives. It was a gloriously wooded lot in which we could construct walking paths and make it the kind of "little wilderness" where Lady Catherine de Bourgh had her hilarious conversation with Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.
But every time we drove out to the property, the drive grew longer. We would be twice as far from church. Three times as far from grocery shopping. Half again as far from the airport.
Currently we live in a neighborhood where you can walk miles with relative safety from speeding cars; out there, unless we walked in tight little circles, any exercise would put us on narrow high-speed country roads with no shoulders.
Where we are, we can walk to the grocery store, to several good restaurants, to a little park. Out there, none of that would be possible. We would be forced to use the car for everything. And more time would be sucked out of our lives in empty, meaningless driving.
We have too many friends who already live like that, driving and driving and driving just to get to any useful destination. Already, most Americans spend more time commuting each year than they get as a paid vacation. My wife and I both work at home. Why in the world would we leave a well-located house for a nearly identical, but bigger, one in a location that would deprive us of hundreds of hours of actual life, almost as if we, too, were commuters?
So when I watch people on Love It or List It decide whether the dream house that David shows them is worth adding an extra half hour to the daily commute, or moving out to where their friends and relatives will find it much harder to visit them, I want to scream at them: Don't go! You aren't getting a bigger life in that bigger house! You're getting a smaller life shut up in a car for an extra hour a day, a life with fewer interactions with people you love and like -- in short, a markedly unhappier life.
Let me echo the snotty person in those less-equal marriages shown on Love It or List It: You're getting along OK in the space you're in. Remodel it if you can, to make better use of the space. But don't succumb to the illusion that a larger house and longer commute will bring you happiness.
I grew up in a tiny three-bedroom ranch house in Santa Clara, and another one in Mesa, Arizona. I was nearly sixteen when we moved to Orem, Utah, and just about doubled our house size because in Utah there are full basements. And that house was still too small for us.
In all those years in postage-stamp houses, you know what? There was room enough to be human and to be happy. The smaller yards meant less mowing and weeding. The lack of storage space meant that we had an incentive not to acquire and hoard so much stuff. Sharing bedrooms did not cripple us -- it taught us to make compromises and become at least a little easier to live with.
Dad was handy with tools and we watched, and later helped, as he put up stud walls, finished them, and made the houses better suit our needs. And if the closets got too full, it was time to give the excess clothes to charity.
We had room enough for childhood, a very good childhood. The problems we had -- and they were real enough -- did not arise from the smallness of our houses, the teensiness of the two bathrooms, the galley-like kitchens, the non-existent family rooms.
I'm reading the book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, by Charles Montgomery, and even though I'm only about halfway through, I've seen his data on what aspects of our homes make a difference in whether people report themselves as happy or unhappy.
What matters most? Whether children regularly eat dinner with at least one parent present at the table. This means that a two-parent commuting family is getting money or status or career or house-size -- in exchange for less happiness for themselves and their children.
When people rate the happiness of their own lives, one of the biggest predictors of unhappiness is the hours spent each day commuting. People persuade themselves they moved into a house remote from where they worked "for the children," but in fact the children in families who live in markedly smaller houses closer to the parents' jobs are much, much happier -- because they not only have a closer relationship with their parents, they're also much closer to where their friends live.
When I lived in Santa Clara, California, for seven years, from age 6 to 12, I lived in a real neighborhood. The houses were so close together that even non-athletes could have leapt from roof to roof (though they were so shoddily built that you'd risk putting your foot through the roof). Yards were small and what trees there were were pretty pathetic, even by western desert standards.
But we had a neighborhood life. We played with the kids who lived around us, we knew the neighbor families by name, and huge games of Ollie Ollie Oxen Free on summer nights could take us until it was nearly dark, and my dad came to the door and whistled us home. (You could hear his whistle from Homestead Road to Benton Street. Literally -- even three or four blocks away, we couldn't pretend we hadn't heard him.)
When I was eight years old and became proficient on my little gearless bike (just before the Schwinn Stingray popularized the absurd banana seat), I was allowed to ride, partly on sidewalks and partly on streets, over to the Lucky grocery store in Mariposa Shopping Center, down to the Santa Clara Public Library, pretty much wherever I wanted.
My friends and I went exploring in creek beds -- creeks that, when it rained in the mountains, were filled with torrents almost to the brim. The liberty of children was amazing, compared with today. There were playdates, but basically they were designed to fulfil the social intentions of my parents. My need for community was entirely met by neighborhood and school.
That childhood was not available for my children. That neighborhood did not exist.
So when participants on Love It or List It insist that they want to stay in "their neighborhood," what do they mean? The absolutely do not mean anything like what "neighborhood" meant in the early 1960s. They mean proximity to activities the adults like to do -- activities only a few minutes away by car. Only one couple talked about distance as related to their children: how far the kids would be from the subway they took to school. (Obviously, a Toronto episode, not a Raleigh one.)
Commuting distance was an issue, but it never seemed to be the decisive one, though the commute is what determines how much time working parents will have with their children.
Too often we give lower priority to the things that matter, and much higher priority to the things that don't. Commuting tears families apart, as do long hours at the office and work that gets taken home. "Good" schools that cheat children of their childhood by piling on homework are often preferred by parents, who think this has something to do with "a good education," even though the opposite is true.
We make a lot of house-related choices where we think we're choosing happiness, when in fact, we are absolutely choosing its opposite.
My first eight months in Greensboro, I worked in a job where I had to show up on time in the morning, but was expected to work late at night. Often my son was up and off to school before I got up, and then in bed asleep for hours before I got home. For eight months, I was like a divorced dad who only had time for his kids on the weekend. I was never so unhappy in my life.
I was so glad and grateful when a publisher came through with a good advance on a novel so I could quit that day job and get back home where I belonged.
Yet, ironically, it was one of the stated goals of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s to get women out of the house and into the work place, so they could have interesting and fulfilling jobs like men -- instead of getting men out of ridiculously overdemanding jobs and get them back home by dinnertime so they could have far more fulfilling lives, like those of their wives.
It's not the same recipe for everybody, but you'd be surprised -- or maybe not -- by how many people who have made bad housing choices are miserable, despite their bigger house on a bigger piece of land, because the price they keep paying for living there is simply too high.
So I watch Love It or List It, and I keep getting sad because, whatever they decide, the reasons that matter are rarely the reasons they even discuss. They go to great lengths to remove annoying traffic buildups in the too-small or too-few bathrooms -- but treat the traffic that keeps them on the road for hours a day as if it were only a minor matter.
Still ... it's a good show. Entertaining in its own right, and useful as a prod to get the viewers to examine their own lives, and what matters in their own homes.
I do love the street view feature of Google Maps. I got to see a view of my childhood home from less than a year ago. The junipers we planted are still there (I hate junipers now, specifically because I hated these), and the front lawn is all weeds.
I can imagine my parents calling us out on a Saturday morning to weed that lawn -- this was before chemicals -- with my mother chanting the slogan, "We all share the work and we all share the play," which completely left out the only thing I cared about -- whatever book I was forced to leave inside while I sweated over dandelions with infinite roots.
But it's the same tiny house, home base for my Dandelion Wine childhood years, and I could see it without leaving my office.