Last month, YouTube veteran Gabbie Hanna posted a tour of her new house. Titled “EMPTY HOUSE TOUR!! (bc I BOUGHT A HOUSE!),” the a 20-minute video was a view of the lush trappings of her recently acquired $2.5 million dollar home. Constructed in the 1940s, it is a massive, bright structure with walk-in closets, marble countertops, a built-in espresso machine, and a wide backyard, complete with pergola, hot tub, and pool. Her house contained all the small-scale status symbols of the splashy homes on the original celeb tour, MTV Cribs.
But throughout the video, Hanna seems less than comfortable with her abundant new digs, interrupting herself with self-deprecating-yet-appreciative asides. She mentions the cost of the house—once again, for the people in the back, that’s $2.5 million—and points out the sound of airplanes above, a nuisance she’ll have to hear for “the rest of” her “life.” She softens details about her home-shopping experience, with statements about perseverance. “I went from this little two bedroom apartment to being like, ‘I work hard. I deserve the space,’” she says, her tone shifting to earnest. “It’s a really big deal for me, okay?” and “I work really hard and I don’t have much to show for it.”
Hanna’s YouTube personality is often self-effacing, but the video is extreme. I’ve watched it twice and each time I’ve felt the dishonesty: it’s designed to imply that I should feel proud a woman my age finally “did something for herself,” in the form of an extravagant privilege the grand majority of people will never experience. In fact, it seems increasingly unlikely that most of us will own even a modest home; that vintage American Dream has since expired. YouTubers who purchase multi-million dollar residences walk a fine line: they need to be aspirational, to lure fans and sell products, but they must do so in a relatable tone—a particularly challenging feat in a generation newly aware that homeownership is unattainable.
Home tours have been a trend on YouTube for a few years now, though mini-mansion spaces meant for whole families occupied by 20-something millionaires are cropping up with increasing regularity. It’s a reflection of the industry’s expansion, as the most popular players finally build enough cash and credit to invest in real estate. (Explaining to your mortgage loan officer that your greatest source of income is a few brand deals with SeatGeek or Curology, not so enticing.)
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Gratuitous displays of wealth always perform well on YouTube—there’s a reason so many creators are decked out in Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Viewers crave aspirational content. There are, of course, endless ways to show off wealth, but house tours exist in a conveniently happy medium between a tour of a multi-million dollar wardrobe and a run-of-the-mill storytime vlog. Mansions are one part luxury one part necessity, after all, everyone needs a place to live, and by walking their viewers through their home like an IRL guest, YouTubers can share without appearing like they’re trying to showing off. The resulting video is aspirational on multiple levels: there’s the beautiful interior design, along with the dream of financial stability, which, for an increasingly large population in debt, feels like an impossibility.
Still, house tours differ from creator to creator. All the way back in 2016, YouTube “it” couple Liza Koshy and David Dobrik posted a “OUR NEW HOUSE!!” vlog, in which they gave viewers a tour of an Air BnB they were sharing and shooting in while on vacation. To date, it has 18.6 million views. In December 2018, couple Ryland Adams and Shane Dawson gave a tour of their giant home (raking in 7.4 million views), posting followup videos like “New Furniture House Tour!” (4.8 million), “Tiny Room Makeover! *Under the Stairs*” (4.7 million) and “Shane’s Beauty Room Makeover Surprise!” (6.9 million). In January of this year, twins Niki and Gabi DeMartino posted a video with 1.2 million views titled “EMPTY HOUSE TOUR 2019! Niki and Gabi,” in which they guide their viewers through a new home they purchased to film in; they don’t even live in it. If that’s not stunting, I’m not sure what is.
The young people who watch YouTube house tours are not unlike the teens who binged MTV Cribs. Viewers tuned into Cribs to see how their favorite famous people lived, the same reason a tween would be curious about Niki and Gabi’s life in suburban Pennsylvania. However, on Cribs, the expectation was grandeur—sports cars in the driveway, an 90210 zip code. (I always visualize Mariah Carey using a VersaClimber in six-inch stilettos in her home gym.) Those featured starlets on Cribs weren’t aiming to relate to viewers; they wanted to dazzle them.
On YouTube, entertainment is found in the mundane and familiar; dazzling can be off-putting. The tour is meant to draw viewers closer to the creator’s reality, not remind them of their thin wallets. Cribs wasn’t a constant reminder that most of us will never become home owners—it was a reminder that most of us won’t become rich—a crucial, distressing distinction. YouTube house tours run the risk of reminding viewers what they should have, but never will. You could wear fake Gucci and pass it off as real at the club; you can’t mimic home ownership on the cusp of a new recession.
Still, influencers wouldn’t post these kinds of videos if they didn’t perform well and rack up views. (Or, if you are makeup guru James Charles, two—an empty house tour and a proper house tour, about a year apart.) In the same way that older audiences consistently tune into HGTV home remodeling shows that are more or less the same
—a collection of DIY hacks —younger people tune into YouTube house tours to get their reno-porn (renovation porn) fix. It’s fun to watch other people make changes to their home that you don’t have the time or money to do to your own, and that goes for a population that can’t afford a house in the first place, too. That’s what porn is, after all: a fantasy.
In the case of Hanna, it’s all but written in stone that she will keep her viewers updated with the state of her home’s remodel. And perhaps she will keep the self-derogation to herself in lieu of going full-on DIY queen. It’s much more likely that she’ll aim for some combination of both, and she’ll make a lot of money doing so. If only the rest of us were so lucky.