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TV vs. reality: How homes on TV stack up against the real housing market

What we'll cover

  • The outsized budgets of fictional TV homes

  • Importance of calculating your debt-to-income ratio

  • Realistic TV home inspiration

It’s no secret that the lives of TV characters often don’t match up with those of everyday people. From designer wardrobes to picture-perfect relationships to pie-in-the-sky careers, fictional characters often have a lifestyle that we can only dream of.

Their aspirational lifestyles apply to the houses they live in, too. From Carrie Bradshaw’s rent-controlled Manhattan apartment on “Sex in the City” to the iconic Charles Lewis Hinkle House that is the family's home on "Full House," it’s easy to get serious real estate envy while watching your favorite shows. Yet it’s important to remember that just like Hollywood hairstyles, the houses featured on TV shows can be hard to replicate in your own life.

Fact vs. fiction

Monica and Rachel’s Manhattan digs on “Friends” were the envy of every 20-something New Yorker in the ‘90s. Could these two young waitresses really afford their amazing West Village pad? In the real world — probably not. The show attempts to address the disparity between the characters’ assumed incomes and the rent of the impressive apartment by noting that Monica is illegally subletting her grandmother’s rent-controlled apartment.

The explanation was a good thing since, in 2018, the units at 90 Bedford Street where exterior shots were filmed went for about $3,000 a month, and a comparable unit to the interior was on the market for $2.25 million.

The characters on HBO’s “Big Little Lies” live in posh homes in the coastal California town of Monterey. Jane Chapman’s (played by Shailene Woodley) postwar bungalow in Pasadena comes with a $520,000 price tag , which seems out of step with the real-life budget of a part-time bookkeeper.

Even on reality shows, the properties featured can give viewers a false perception of affordability. On HGTV’s “House Hunters,” for example, shoppers typically have outsized budgets in relation to their incomes .

A newsletter highlighting “exceptional properties from the small screen”. It reads, “picture yourself living in one of these residences. Schedule a tour today”. The first listing depicts a large two-bedroom NYC apartment, fully furnished in New York, NY and priced at $2.25 million. The description states that it features an open floor plan with large windows overlooking West Village, with a roomy balcony and stylish paint scheme. The next listing is a Postwar bungalow in Posh Coastal Town of Pasadena, CA, priced at $520,000 and it states that it includes a year of free HBO. The last listing is a “Breaking Bad” ranch style home in Albuquerque, NM, priced at $286,900 and states that it’s walking distance to “Los Pollos Hermanos”.

How to manage expectations when house-hunting

If you’re in the market to buy a home, you might be disappointed if you can’t afford something similar to those enjoyed by your favorite TV characters. But, just because you won’t be living in a “Cribs”- worthy home, it doesn’t mean you can’t get a great house at an affordable price.

Determine your budget

First, get a clear picture of what it costs to be a homeowner. In addition to your mortgage, you’ll also likely be paying a home appraisal fee, a home inspection fee , closing costs, property taxes and homeowners' insurance as well as possible HOA fees, maintenance costs and utilities.

Use our home affordability calculator to estimate your budget. Ally Home offers both conforming loans and jumbo loans , so you can choose the mortgage that works best for your home-buying budget.

Calculate your debt-to-income ratio

When deciding how much house you can actually afford , consider your debt-to-income ratio (DTI) , which consists of all of your monthly debts (including housing costs) divided by your gross monthly income. A DTI ratio of under 43% is considered strong, but the lower, the better. Calculating your DTI is a great way to find out how much house you can afford and lenders, including Ally Home , also look at it when determining your eligibility for a mortgage.

When it comes to housing costs specifically, lenders consider your DTI ratio and like to see it account for about 28 to 35% of your monthly income. That means that your mortgage payment, insurance, property taxes, homeowners’ insurance and other associated housing costs should be about a third of your income.

Use realistic TV homes as inspiration

Once you have established your DTI and know the price range of homes you should consider, you’ll better understand that many fictional TV characters are also working with fictional budgets.

All is not lost — there is residential real estate featured on the screen that could fit your budget. Take, for instance, the cute New Mexico ranch home occupied by the White family on “Breaking Bad.” Although it’s not currently on the market, Zillow estimates the current value of the home at $286,900, making it affordable on teacher Walter White’s salary, before he started his side hustle.

Love the charming Waco, Texas-area homes featured on HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” ? They range in price from $152,000 up to $899,000.

Disclaimer: Home values are subject to change.

Homebuying — on your budget

The homes you can afford may not all be stars of the small screen. But with proper planning and budgeting, you can still play the lead in your home buying show.

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