A Home At The End of The World
The appeal of looking at ugly houses while everything burns.
“I'm working off my ass, every single day
For the minimum wage and I don't get paid
I don't have a house, I can't pay the rent
I'm sleeping on the floor, in a car, in a tent”
– Amyl and the Sniffers, “Gacked on Anger,” 2019
Not too long ago, a Zillow listing made the internet rounds offering a house that was, quite literally, on fire. “Bring your Smores to the Campfire and Build your Dream Home!,” the agent wrote. Flames aside, the Zillow listing actually mirrored a lot of those that are on the site today: little more than a gauzy evocation of the dream home you can build once you snap up the property for land value and tear the damn thing down. The asking price for this piece of scorched earth in St. Petersburg, Florida? $99,000, dwelling not included.
That viral post illustrates what has become to so many an absurdist real estate market. The fact that some of today’s young people think they're more likely to date an A-List celebrity than ever own a home has bred a sense of nihilism to bubble under the seemingly infinite scroll of MLS listings available to browse 24 hours a day. It makes sense then, that some would rather look at real estate horror shows via social media.
In early August, Twitter user @lgbtop announced “literally all i care about is weird real estate pictures nothing else matters to me fundamentally as a human like this does.” More than 8,000 people cosigned via “like” with the post, which featured the type of wild and wonderful interiors that have become digital catnip: a DIY cow-painted kitchen, an all-teal suite with wall-to-wall carpeting extending from the edge of a platform bed to the lip of a sunken soaking tub.
That post was retweeted by Cursed Architecture, a feed that offers up such aesthetic oddities as brickwork that defies geometry and stairs that would make M.C. Escher dizzy to its 93k followers. At times such bad building decisions feel like the opposite of “oddly satisfying” internet, as if the irksome mistakes of the “you had one job” meme spent a few semesters in design school. When it comes to aggressively off-putting design, it seems there’s something for everybody, whether its the slightly more niche Toilets with Threatening Auras (169k followers) — a masterpiece of spiritual anthropomorphism that showcases poorly planned bathrooms with seriously bad vibes — or feeds Instagram’s Decor Hardcore (252k followers), which offers retro takes on design so out of fashion, they loop back into in again.
As a form, ugly house internet peaks with McMansion Hell, the blog by critic Kate Wagner that has taught countless people on the internet about urbanism and fundamental architectural concepts of proportion and balance through annotated photos of bland architecture that roast its most irrational design elements. The Pringle can–shaped towers, mismatched rooflines and windows to nowhere she calls out are functionless details meant to simulate the grandeur of actual craftsmanship, these vestigial details strike a particularly American balance: expensive yet cheap at the same time.
But why are people looking at creepily carpeted bathrooms and low-key basement sex dungeons instead of fantasy images of dream houses and Pinterest fodder? Sure, there’s the voyeuristic thrill and the ego-boosting sense of Schadenfreude, but then there’s a spectre more haunting than any cursed bathroom on Twitter, and it’s the fact that no one has any money and everything costs a million dollars today. The only homeownership solution for those who can get it is crippling debt fueled by the American brand of “Endless! Possibility!” Future returns are promised, guaranteed, and just a few more loans away. (It’s the same logic behind the $1.5 trillion student debt crisis, a topic dissected to illuminating ends by Malcolm Harris in Kids These Days, the 2017 book that was the first real incisive look into the factors Millennials were turned into perfect working machines: ambitious, skilled, and desperate.)
Maybe it’s because today, many who don’t yet own a home have written off the possibility of ever buying one. For many Americans who grew up middle class in the suburbs—primarily white ones—it’s an abrupt reversal in a generational march toward ever-larger houses in increasingly farther-flung exurbs, one that’s reversed mid-20th-century white flight with an urban influx of white people with the money to price out entire established communities. The move from mortgages to a lifetime of renting is departure from a course so well-established, it’s the premise of the The Game of Life, the Milton Bradley board game that dates back to 1860.
So that’s where we are today. Sitting in (rented) apartments we can barely afford, as all sorts of monthly interest charges build up around us, looking at our phones. But as the world quite literally burns around us, many people have traded looking at photographs of homes we fruitlessly hope we might one day save up for to looking at pictures of houses with popcorn ceilings, wall-to-wall carpet and outdated finishes that make us think things like: I wouldn’t live there, even if somebody paid me. And that’s great, because it’s damn difficult to get someone to pay you for anything today.