‘House Hunters International’ Offers ‘Scripted Reality’ Tailor Made For Vagabonds

house hunters internationalI’m addicted to “House Hunters International,” the HGTV reality show that profiles people who are moving to another country or buying a vacation home outside the U.S. Aside from the fact that the program whets my appetite to visit the places that are profiled, I love the way it plants seditious seeds in my head about places that were never previously on my radar.

If you watch enough HHI – and the show is on about 14 times per day – the idea of picking up and moving to Buenos Aires, Bruges or Kathmandu on a whim seems downright normal. As someone who has moved to and from three foreign countries and several U.S. states since college, I find it comforting to learn about people who are even crazier and more transient than I am.

The show is what the network likes to call “scripted reality.” It’s essentially based on a true story stuff where they take a real situation and jazz it up to make a more cohesive story. Travel writer Matt Gibson, whose move to Taiwan was featured on the show in 2012, wrote an amusing take on his HHI episode entitled, “House Hunters International is Fake, So What?” in which he catalogued all of the details of his story that were changed.
I watched the episode, then Googled him and saw the post. I probably should have felt cheated, but I didn’t. The fact is that I got a chance to see what $200 a month buys in Taiwan and I don’t really care about the details that were scripted – when he left Canada, who his real estate agent was, when the decision was made to rent the apartment and so on.

For those who haven’t seen the show, the outline is as follows. First, a narrator shows the couple in their native habitat and explains why they are moving, against the backdrop of some annoying but very catchy music. Then they meet with a real estate agent – who may or may not be an actual real estate agent – to outline what they want and how much they have to spend. Then they see three properties and take a walk, usually somewhere scenic, where they hold hands, weigh the merits of each place, rule out one property, make the decision and then share a kiss.

The show concludes with a tour of the new home some months later, after they’ve had time to pretty the place up. Here are some observations from someone who has spent way too much time watching this show. (They apply mostly to expatriates, not people who are buying vacation homes, as I tend to skip those episodes.)

You’re Moving Where?

Many of the expatriates featured on the show fell in love with a place while on a vacation but some move to a place solely based on Internet research. And most who are moving to a place more or less for the hell of it, rather than for a specific career move, are going from some place cold to some place warm.

Slow Down and Simplify

It’s remarkable how often couples and families say that they’re moving to country x to “slow down” and “simplify” their “hectic” lives. But is this their actual motivation or do the producers of the show ascribe this narrative in order to appeal to the legions of “busy” Americans who have time to watch six hours of TV per day but claim to be too busy to do much else?

You Need What?

There are some people who want to completely go native and find a place abroad that isn’t at all like what they have in the U.S., but others have a list of amenities they “need” that can be somewhat hilarious. I’m always amazed by people who are adventurous enough to move from say, Kansas City to Antigua, Guatemala, but insist that they need an in-ground pool, four bathrooms, stainless steel appliances and 4,000 square feet of living space, all for $100,000 or less.

But our Dog Needs His Own Swimming Pool

I’m a dog lover myself but people who seem to have no criteria for house hunting aside from what their cocker spaniel, Fritz, might prefer crack me up.

Cheapskates of the World Unite

One of the appealing aspects of HHI is how it gives viewers an idea of what it costs to live in a variety of places around the world. And when you watch an episode where Americans move to a dirt-cheap country it’s hard not to feel the temptation to leave the country. For example, I remember watching an episode where a couple found a not-too-bad looking apartment in Potosi, Bolivia, for $200 per month, and thinking, “I can’t afford NOT to move to Bolivia!” despite the fact that I had previously never given a moment’s consideration to moving to this landlocked Andean nation of 10 million.

And HHI episodes can also reveal cheap places to live in relatively expensive countries, like Italy, for example. Recently there was an episode that featured an American travel writer named Valerie who bought a $40,000 apartment in Trivigno, in Italy’s Basilicata region. The place looked like a dive, but after the couple put $25,000 into a renovation, it looked pretty darn nice.

Your Kids Aren’t the Reason You Are Moving to Belize

HHI tends to gloss over the logistical aspects of an international move, but as the father of two young children, I always wonder where families who move to off-the-beaten track countries will send their kids to school. I don’t think the U.S. has a monopoly on good schools, far from it, but on several occasions I’ve seen parents justify their moves to obscure places based upon a supposed desire to “do what’s best for their kids.”

One episode in particular stands out. A family was moving to a remote area of Belize and I remember the dad saying that they were doing it because it was somehow better for little so-and-so, their son, who, as I recall was about 10 years old. Maybe so, but I found myself shouting at the TV screen: “No! You’re moving to Belize because YOU want to live in Belize. Be honest and quit trying to claim you’re doing it for your child!”

Nothing But Happy Endings

I love the show but my biggest gripe about it, other than the fact that they leave out important details (visa status, where will your kids go to school, etc.), is that they offer nothing but happy endings. In the final shot of each episode, where the expatriates show off their new homes, they almost always rave about how great the place is and claim that their decision to move to Puerto Banana or wherever was the wisest one they’ve ever made.

The truth is that moving to a place you fall in love with on a trip doesn’t always work out. Any place seems nice while you’re on vacation and have no responsibilities or work to do. It’s always nice to hear about people who moved abroad and love it, but I think it would be even more interesting to feature people who moved somewhere and hated it, or bought a house that turned out to be a complete disaster. Let’s face it; Americans like a happy ending but schadenfreude can be just as sweet.

[Photo credit: HGTV]