You’ve seen the gray flooring. You know its lifeless hue even if you haven’t been house hunting recently. The stuff is in old-house-rehab shows on HGTV, in the house next door that’s now on the market for the second time in nine months, in the ads for at least one but probably several new condo buildings in a rapidly gentrifying part of your city. It’s as omnipresent online as it is in real life, making frequent appearances in the newly purchased houses of 20-something TikTok-hustle influencers and in the homes that play background to Millennials trying to make their pets Instagram famous.
These floors—almost always made of what’s called luxury vinyl plank flooring in trade terms, or laminate or fake wood in real terms—can vary in shade anywhere from vape cloud to wet gravel. The companies that market them tend to use terms like sterling and chiffon lace and winding brook. Gray laminate seems to have begun the journey to popularity about a decade ago; when I last apartment hunted, in 2017 in Brooklyn, it was already common in listings that bragged of newly renovated units. Now gray flooring is so ubiquitous that all kinds of people—interior designers, real-estate agents, random Redditors—have begun to plead for mercy.
If you, like me, have frittered away a frankly embarrassing proportion of your one wild and precious life watching women with perfect blowouts and annoying husbands gut-reno houses on HGTV, or idly scrolling through Zillow listings you have no intention or ability to buy, then you know that the gray floors rarely travel alone. With them, you’ll likely also find one or more of a handful of other design flourishes that tend to get stuffed into the same dwellings: a subway-tiled backsplash; upper kitchen cabinets replaced with minimalist open shelving; a shower stall covered in tiny, multicolored sheets of glass mosaic tile; a barn door gliding along a faux-rustic decorative track instead of turning on hinges. These bundled aesthetic commonalities aren’t just coincidences, and they can’t be entirely described as trends—at least not in the sense of bottom-up collective favor that the word tends to evoke. In part, they’re what happens when house flippers and landlords run roughshod over the housing market.
Americans are hooked on house flipping. Flippers—sometimes a small company, sometimes just one enterprising guy who’s rented some tools and watched some instructional YouTubes—buy cheap houses, gussy them up, and resell them at a premium to new owners who are looking for the holy grail of housing: move-in ready. America’s housing stock is old and getting older, and many buyers understandably gravitate to homes where someone else seems to have found and solved the bulk of the old-house problems already. If a flip goes well, it’s a neat little bit of market arbitrage that can net these short-term owners tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of profit.
Landlording is, well, landlording—fixing up a newly acquired property isn’t a requirement of the activity, but it’s a pathway to raise rents, which is almost always a desirable prospect for owners. Flipping and landlording are both seductive economic propositions—so much so that shows about successful, self-made flippers and investment-property renovators have become their own genre on HGTV, which is consistently ranked the most popular non-news cable channel. Those shows, in turn, introduce the idea to even more potential flippers and landlords. Last year, more than 5 percent of all houses sold in the United States were flips. The same has been true since 2017. Meanwhile, a quarter of all single-family-home sales went to landlords, aspiring Airbnb tycoons, and other types of investors in 2021. All told, nearly a third of American house sales last year went to people who had no intention of living in them. These trends show no signs of reversal: In the first quarter of 2022, as housing prices soared across the country and many hopeful owner-occupiers struggled to get their offers accepted, the flip rate was nearly 10 percent.
No matter whether a house’s new owners intend to flip their new property or rent it out, maximizing the return on their investment means spending as little money as possible to fix it up in ways that will drive up its eventual price. This is when the gray laminate rears its ugly head. In the U.S., where precious little new housing has been built in the past decade, that’s achieved by making an old house look as new as possible. Newness, in this way, has become a shorthand for all kinds of things that buyers and renters typically want in a home but don’t always have the expertise to spot: quality, cleanliness, safety. Does the roof leak? What do we know about the wiring? Will the landlord fix the air-conditioning quickly if it breaks? Don’t worry, they just renovated; everything is brand new.
Newness isn’t inherently a virtue, in interior design or elsewhere, but it has nonetheless become one of the most prized characteristics in American consumer life. In recent decades, as housing has become steadily more expensive in the U.S., most consumer goods have had the opposite price trajectory—relative to wages, clothing and kids’ toys and new TVs have never been cheaper or more abundantly available, frequently to the point of perceived, if not actual, disposability. What goes inside homes, too, has gotten less expensive and more easily swapped out. Furniture and decor businesses now commonly release seasonal collections of new products, as though you should be changing your couch with the weather, and the fast-fashion behemoths Zara and H&M both have popular home-decor divisions. You don’t have to love or even agree with any of these phenomena for them to begin to affect how you think about the world around you. Stew in the juices of American consumerism for long enough, and the apartment with brand-new floors and counters might just start to seem like the obviously correct choice.
But not simply any new floors and counters will create the desired effect. The feeling of newness is largely relative, and the only real key to creating it is banishing the things that people expect to see in a dwelling built decades ago—“landlord beige” walls, all-white appliances, dingy carpet, laminate counters, wood so warm-toned it’s practically orange. Gray floors and all of their comorbid design phenomena are cool and crisp and modern by comparison, even if they’re also crushingly boring and totally character-free and really limit a space’s potential capacity to feel warm and alive and like a home.
In real-estate listings, these changes are frequently called updates, which is notably not the same thing as an upgrade. If you look closely, you can see where you’re getting fooled: Is open shelving really a chic, minimalist alternative to bulky upper cabinets, or is it just much less expensive than replacing the old, outdated uppers that the demo guys ripped out? Tiny mosaic glass tiles look delicate, but they come in sheets that make quick work of a bathroom and can help disguise a multitude of installation sins. Laminate flooring is much cheaper than hardwood, and considerably less repairable and adaptable; unlike real wood, luxury vinyl can’t be refinished in another color when trends change. Switching out a regular door for a barn door costs as little as $200, as long as you don’t mind sacrificing privacy and quite a bit of space where you won’t be able to hang anything on the walls. If you live in a rental, landlords don’t want you doing that anyway. If you live in a flip, once the paperwork is signed, that’s your problem to discover.
In theory, the things that make up the interior of your home should be either beautiful or useful; if you’re lucky, they’ll be both. And surely some people do lose their mind for gray laminate or subway tile or barn doors, and not just because there’s no accounting for taste. Once a particular design element becomes a shorthand for newness and freshness and successful domesticity, people come around to it precisely because they want their home to reflect those qualities. But that’s a different phenomenon than appreciation for the thing itself—for how nice it is to look at, or how much more functional it makes a space. In the hands of flippers and landlords, these choices are generally made not by people who want to fill the world with the best, safest, most comfortable homes possible but by those looking for a return on the bets they’ve made on the place where you’ll start your family or play with your future grandkids. They’ve chosen these things just as much for what they aren’t as for what they are—inoffensive, inexpensive, innocuous. These houses aren’t necessarily designed to be lived in. They’re designed to go into contract.