It’s too late for me, but maybe not for you. I’d already bought the new creamy quartzite stone slabs for my kitchen counters and installers were scheduled for next week, when I saw the article “Do You Really Want a New Kitchen Counter?” in a recent issue of The Atlantic.
Yes, I do, obviously! But I read the article with one eye twitching. The story suggested that many of us are victims of home-renovation brainwashing. What if what I want is not really what I want, but what marketers and media have convinced me I want?
I went looking for the Advil. Then I called one of the researchers cited, Bucknell University marketing professor Annetta Grant, who studies consumer behavior and specifically what makes homeowners do what they do to their homes. She became interested in the question more than 20 years ago. She had been backpacking through Central and South America where, she noticed, families lived in homes that were handed down. Homes stayed in the family; they were not assets to liquidate.
“Homes there take on a very different meaning,” she said. “They’re heavily personalized pieces of family heritage.”
Then she moved to Calgary, Alberta, in the mid-2000s during the big oil boom. “People were using the money to remodel,” she said. “I saw people ripping out kitchens that were 5 to 10 years old to put in new ones.”
The contrast inspired her to study what drives people to pull out fully functional home amenities and replace them with something newer.
Meanwhile, she said, “I was noticing the strong influence of TV home shows and home magazines increasingly featuring what a home ‘should be.’”
Knowing that she was going to make me question everything I have ever done, I dove in anyway. Here’s the gist of our conversation:
Q. How did you go about studying this?
A. My research team and I conducted in-depth interviews with 17 homeowners over a series of years. We talked to them pre-renovation, during renovation and years after. I was with them when they talked to their contractors, made decisions and had disagreements. A topic that often surfaced was what changes would be good for market value, even if they didn’t plan to sell anytime soon. We also watched a lot of HGTV, read home magazines and looked at home improvement posts on social media, such as Pinterest and Instagram.
Q. What role did you find media played?
A. The script for many of these TV shows is the same. A show host takes potential buyers through houses, and points out all the problems. You hear both parties make comments like, “What were they thinking when they put in that backsplash?”
It’s one thing when the TV show host is critical, but when the buyers, regular people, become critical, that sends the message, “If I don’t get it right at home, that would be such an embarrassment that I shouldn’t even have people over.”
Q. How has our concept of home changed?
A. Post war homes reflected the taste and personality of their homeowners. You saw that on display in yellow, pink and green appliances and tile. Home was a place you bought and lived in your whole life.
Today, people believe in an ideal based on images they see of how their homes are supposed to look. It’s causing people to look around and not be happy with their homes. As homeowners try to align their homes with market standards, we commonly see gray walls and floors, white countertops, open concept kitchens, spa-like bathrooms, and institutional appliances. People have turned their homes into less a place of personalization and more into an asset whose success depends on how well it meets the ideal of what others want ― not what the owner wants.
Q. What’s so bad about wanting to meet market standards?
A. Our need for a sense of home is primitive, and involves having a place that reflects who we are. The more we align with how media say our home should look, the greater our unease and the feeling that our homes are not quite right.
Q. What do you hope consumers learn?
A. I want them to be aware of how media are creating expectations and to reflect on why they want to make certain changes in their homes. Is it what they want and like, or what the media or market wants them to want? Don’t live in a house you’ve designed for somebody else.
P.S. I still want new counters.
Marni Jameson is the author of six home and lifestyle books. Reach her at www.marnijameson.com.