New season rubs the glitter off Million Dollar Listings

Bravo's hit show Million Dollar Listing is back for a third season tonight, and more than three-quarters of a million viewers are setting the Tivo's and curling up with the latest issue of House Beautiful.

The show is focused on the sturm und drang surrounding three hot young real estate agents' manic efforts to list and sell homes in the high-end L.A. real estate market during what may well be the greatest housing crash in U.S. history. There's plenty of real estate pornography, and everyone is well-coiffed, drives a sexy car, and drinks plenty of Bling H20.

But how representative of millionaires is Million Dollar Listing, really? Not very representative at all. The show portrays the lifestyles of the big-spending glitterati who, as it turns out, actually comprise a tiny fraction of rich people in America. Consider this data point from Dr. Thomas J. Stanley's fabulous new book Stop Acting Rich.
  • "About 90% of millionaires lives in homes valued at under $1 million." Meanwhile only about 27% of homes valued at more than $1 million are owned by millionaires.

Just think about that for a second: When you see someone on Million Dollar Listing contemplating buying a million dollar house, there's a 73% chance that that individual doesn't have a million dollar net worth. If he lives in a million dollar house, it's most likely a reflection of his level of debt -- which, last time I checked, is the opposite of wealth.

The new season of Million Dollar Listing differs from previous seasons in that it follows the high-end market in LA during one of its roughest periods in history. For the over-leveraged aspirational types who were sitting on 7-figure paper gains, chances are that all the equity is gone and all that's left is the debt.

Previews of the new season feature hysterical home owners running out of money to make mortgage payments on houses that have seen their market value halved. "F*ck you, Madison!" one homeowner shouts at star Realtor Madison Hildebrand after he tells him his house is worth "under four million."

While earlier seasons of Million Dollar Listing were criticized in some quarters for being too sweet and lacking in substance, this new season seems poised to provide a glimpse into the downside of a high-end lifestyle fueled by debt. It's my hope that it will provide a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive aspirational consumption and the hazards of keeping up with the broke but high-livin' Joneses.

Maybe Bravo needs a spin-off show: "Millionaire Houses," which would showcase the living quarters of the average millionaire in America: $280k homes in middle-class neighborhoods filled with $15 bottles of wine and all the tap water you can drink.
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