Do You Really Want a New Kitchen Counter?

Everywhere you look, there are reasons to be unhappy with your house.

An illustration of a bright kitchen with floral border and wooden cabinets
Getty; The Atlantic

In the new Netflix horror series The Watcher, which follows a family as a stalker turns their new suburban dream home into a nightmare, the first boogeyman the viewer meets is the home’s Carrara-marble countertops. The house is, by all indicators, an impeccable domestic fantasy at the time of purchase, and its new owners had to empty their savings and investment accounts to fend off rival bidders and afford the final price. But the family finds the house’s gleaming white Italian counters so offensive—so five years ago—that they take out an additional loan in order to remove them immediately.

The series edges into absurdity—in a bit of inspired casting, Jennifer Coolidge plays an aggressively divorced, Mercedes-driving New Jersey real-estate agent—but the family’s immediate desire to renovate an already lovely home is played completely straight. And for good reason: Real people do this all the time now. They do it on instructional HGTV shows, on social media, in publications such as Domino and Dwell and Architectural Digest. On real-estate TV, brokers and buyers wince and gag over dark cabinets and high-shine brass light fixtures and white appliances, all relics of trends past. Houses with idiosyncrasies or personality—or even just somewhat dated but easily changed design flourishes, such as a red accent wall—are mocked relentlessly, only to be turned into pristine, camera-ready monuments to sterility. Often, the transformations involve explicit calculations about how much has theoretically been added to a home’s potential market value.

Some of the dwellings featured do genuinely need some repairs and improvements in order to be livable, comfortable homes, but the messages about aesthetic trends and social acceptability that come with all this renovating go far deeper than that. Reno media is incredibly popular—HGTV is regularly a top-five cable channel—and its growing popularity has coincided with a huge increase in actual renovations. In the 1990s, American homeowners spent an average of more than $90 billion annually on remodeling their homes. By 2020, it was more than $400 billion. For homeowners, pressure to keep up with the Joneses has reached a logical extreme. Everywhere you look, there are new reasons to be unhappy with your house, and new trends you can follow to fix it.

A home plays two essential roles for many people: It’s the place you live your day-to-day life, and it’s the single most important asset you’ll ever have. Housing has served these dual purposes for much of the country’s history, but over the past 50 years in particular, as rising home values have far outpaced wage growth, Americans have begun to stake their financial future even more heavily on their home. If you’re one of the nearly two-thirds of adults in this country who own a home, it’s pretty likely that its potential sale price is a major factor in your long-term financial stability, even if you don’t plan to sell anytime soon.

In theory, renovation is a way to safeguard this stability. America doesn’t build enough new homes to keep up with housing demands, and the homes constructed during the building booms of decades past need to be maintained, even if their owners have no desire to make any aesthetic changes at all. Old houses spring leaks. Mice get in and chew up wiring. Vinyl flooring and laminate countertops chip and peel. So people get to work, learning about tiling options for kitchen backsplashes and figuring out which walls are load-bearing and sifting through an endless sea of contractors to keep their house up to date, hopefully appealing to someday-future buyers in the process.

In this context, the creation and growth of businesses such as HGTV, Dwell, and Home Depot during the 1990s and 2000s makes perfect sense: By then, many of the homes built during the postwar suburban expansion of the 1950s and ’60s had been sold off to new owners, and they needed a little work. While you’re opening up walls and ripping up floors, why not make some other improvements? Over time, popular shows such as Fixer Upper and Property Brothers have pushed this ethos to an extreme, doing the math on-screen to show viewers how much money some strategic renovations can theoretically make them in the long run. Anyone who dips even a toe into the home-renovation market will quickly encounter assurances that, say, an open kitchen or spa-like bathroom won’t just pay for itself but may very well turn a profit on your investment by maximizing your property value. If your home is the financial bedrock on which your life is built, then not making these changes is just leaving money on the table. If you don’t do it, a house flipper will, and they’ll make all the profit. Don’t you want to be able to retire?

If you buy at the right price, make the right crowd-pleasing changes, keep your budget low, and get a little lucky, some renovations really will pay for themselves and beyond—this is the entire principle on which flipping functions. But thanks in large part to the ubiquity of shelter media, this way of thinking about our homes now animates many people’s behavior regardless of whether or not they have a desire to quickly sell their home. Julia Miller, an interior designer who owns Yond Interiors in Minneapolis, told me that her middle-income clients almost always choose to renovate because they have saved up money to address real, functional problems in their home, and making aesthetic changes at the same time is a two-birds-with-one-stone situation. While the contractors are there and the house is a barely livable mess and the money has been saved up for what is usually a once-in-a-lifetime project for these clients, they want to make the most of it. The process, however, can be painful. These clients tend to consume a ton of home-design media and become overwhelmed by trying to make all of the perfect decisions, Miller said, eventually losing sight of whether they even like the of-the-moment updates they’re requesting. “They see too much, and then they also don’t trust themselves,” she told me. “A lot of them come to us feeling paralyzed.”

Miller’s wealthier clients have it easier. They’re more likely to renovate just because they want their home to be fully aligned with their personal preferences, she said, and the money required to make that happen isn’t a major concern for them—and neither is fully recouping that investment at resale. But with less wealthy clients, Miller told me that a significant part of her job is encouraging them to step away from HGTV, Instagram, and Pinterest in order to figure out what it is they might actually enjoy once they have to live in the home they’re creating.

New research has begun to suggest that the connection that Miller has noticed between these clients and shelter media isn’t just anecdotal. Annetta Grant, a professor at Bucknell University who studies the home-renovation market, recently co-authored an ethnography on how home-reno media has changed people’s relationship to their home. She and her fellow researcher, Jay Handelman, conducted extensive interviews with 17 people in the process of renovating their home, attended a consumer-renovation expo, interviewed renovation-service providers, and consumed dozens of hours and hundreds of pages of home-reno media. The primary finding was that home-renovation media seems to make people feel uneasy in their own home. In academic terms, the phenomenon is known as dysplacement, or a sense that our long-held understanding of what our home means to us is out of sync with what changing market forces have decided a home should be. In layman’s terms, it’s the unsettling feeling that the home you’ve made for yourself is no longer a good one, and that other people think less of you for it.

People are highly sensitive to feeling out-of-sorts in their home, Grant told me. This is one of the reasons that moving and unpacking are so stressful, and that accumulating unnecessary clutter feels so bothersome. Americans have long understood successful home ownership and homemaking as indicative of personal success and character. Beginning in the postwar era, “that was largely achieved by customizing your home to the personality that you wanted to portray,” Grant said. Even in the tract-home developments of mid-century suburbs, the insides of houses tended to be idiosyncratic, with liberal use of color and texture and pattern—on the walls, the floors, the furniture. Some of those choices were the result of trends, of course, but there was plenty of variety within those parameters, and people tended to pick things they liked and stick with them. Can you imagine your grandmother worrying that her decades-old chintz curtains or Harvest Gold appliances were outdated?

Now, however, “personalization is being ripped out of people’s homes” in favor of market-pleasing standardization, Grant said. In her interviews with homeowners doing renovations, Grant said that people expressed embarrassment at having friends over to their outdated home, so much so that they’d avoid hosting their book club or planning parties—precisely the kinds of happy occasions that your home is supposed to be for. Others worried that if they spent money on creating the home they actually wanted—if they sacrificed a bedroom or bathroom to change a layout, for example, or didn’t knock down enough walls to create an open plan—they’d be penalized by buyers down the line. This is a type of worry common enough that it was recently the subject of a New York Times real-estate advice column.

Lifestyle media that defines successful homemaking has been around for generations, but the speed with which trends and expectations now shift, combined with the huge scale of changes that are now expected from homeowners, is something fundamentally new. The goal of this media apparatus, Grant said, isn’t to provide knowledge and inspiration for people improving the country’s aging housing stock but to keep people engaged in a process of constant updating—discarding old furniture and fixtures and appliances and buying new ones in much the way many people now cycle through an endless stream of fast-fashion pieces, trying to live up to standards that they can never quite pin down, and therefore never quite satisfy. If you’re required to plan your financial future and your most private spaces around how much strangers might be willing to pay for your home one day, then your home isn’t really yours, even if you’re the one with the keys right now. You may own it, but so do lifestyle media and the housing market.