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Buyer Beware: An Onscreen Homeownership Primer

First-time homebuyers should consider these nine movies cautionary tales

The obsessive pursuit of buying your first home is a quintessential American pastime. While homeownership represents security and accomplishment, it more often than not guarantees the opposite. It’s inherently fraught with drama, certainly, but also comedy and a frightening dose of horror—which is why homeownership makes for such entertaining (and terrifying) movie-going.

Here are nine movies, spanning seven decades, that play up the anxieties (sometimes to disastrous effect) that accompany making that first real estate purchase—or simply moving into a new house, or renovating a dilapidated one. Consider them cautionary tales: watch and learn, and don’t make the same mistakes.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) - dir. H.C. Potter

Advertising executive Jim Blandings (Cary Grant), his wife Muriel (Myrna Loy), and their two daughters are itching to leave their cramped New York City apartment for the country—in this case, to an old farmhouse in Connecticut that they plan to fix up. But the 200-year-old home turns out to be structurally unsound, so the couple set about to design their dream house from the ground up.

They don’t want a "conventional" home, but rather something "just a little bit different:" ensuite bathrooms in every (large) bedroom, plenty of closets, a basement play room, a sewing-cum-utility room—the list goes on and on. Soon, the bills and problems begin to mount, threatening to undo their dream, and the family.

The takeaway: You can never build the perfect house, so don’t ruin everything good in your life by trying to.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) - dir. Roman Polanski

Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), a struggling actor, and his waifish wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into the palatial Bramford, an old Gothic Revival apartment building in Manhattan (played by the Dakota), despite rumors of its macabre history. Just as soon as they do, strange things begin to unfold: the meddling neighbors (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) turn out to be more than a little bit eccentric, a young woman throws herself off the building, odd noises emerge in the night, and Rosemary dreams of being raped by a demon.

Paranoia sets in when Rosemary becomes pregnant and her health begins to deteriorate. Bit by bit, she uncovers a diabolical plot against her and her unborn baby. But no one will listen to her, not even her own husband.

The takeaway: Beware your meddling neighbors, for they may be satanists with evil designs on your child.

The Amityville Horror (1979) - dir. Stuart Rosenberg

They all begin this way, don’t they? Young couple George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) and their children move into a beautiful new Dutch Colonial purchased for a song in Amityville, Long Island, despite the mass murder that occurred in the home many years before. Soon, the horrors emerge: an infestation of flies, the appearance of a pig with glowing, red eyes, inexplicably smashed windows, black goo gushing from the toilets.

The house can’t get clearer about wanting them out—until it actually does, howling "Get out!" Nevertheless, it takes the Lutzes all of 28 days to do so, but not before they venture down into the basement (which you should never do, as we all know). When they finally heed the house’s warnings, they run like hell.

The takeaway: Don’t move into a house with a murderous history (and always trust the priest).

Poltergeist (1982) - dir. Tobe Hooper

Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) and their three children move into a spacious new home in the California suburbs, where otherworldly forces begin to terrorize the family—from the television set. After the youngest child Carol Anne announces one night that "They’re here!"—they being the "TV people," as Carol Anne calls them—the paranormal activity increases to a fever pitch. Soon, she is sucked through a portal in a closet.

The parapsychologists are stumped and call upon a professional exorcist, who informs the family that the poltergeists—and Carol Anne—are existing in another dimension. After finally locating Carol Anne, they believe the house is now clean. But a powerful demonic force has other plans and lashes out at them once more. By this time, the entire neighborhood, which, as it's later discovered, was built on top of a cemetery, gives way to rotting corpses and coffins that have erupted from the ground.

The takeaway: Television is bad for you, and so are the suburbs.

The Money Pit (1986) - dir. Richard Benjamin

When Walter Fielding (Tom Hanks) and his girlfriend Anna Crowley (Shelley Long) get kicked out of the Manhattan apartment they've been subletting from Anna’s ex-husband, they stumble upon what they think is the deal of a century and purchase a white clapboard mansion on Long Island.

But as soon as they move in, everything begins to fall apart: the front door frame comes off its hinges, a clawfoot bathtub falls through the floor, the main staircase collapses, parts of the kitchen explode—you get the picture. And so they are left with no choice but to renovate what’s left of the house, but shady contractors make an even bigger mess, turning the house into, well, you know.

The takeaway: Beware a deal that may be too good to be true, for your house may end up turning into a literal money pit.

Moving (1988) - dir. Alan Metter

The movie’s tagline reads "One family’s experience with the ‘M’ word," which stands for none other than everybody’s favorite activity—moving. When Arlo Pear (Richard Pryor) loses his job as an engineer, he is forced to sell his house in the New Jersey suburbs and move the family (including less-than-enthused teenager played by a fresh-faced Stacey Dash) to Boise, Idaho, where he is to start a new job.

The movers turn out to be the absolute worst, and once the family arrives at the new home, they discover that the cabinetry, kitchen, staircase, and swimming pool all have been stripped away by the previous owners (who had joked about doing so during the open house). Arlo, reeling with anger, resolves to take matters into his own hands.

The takeaway: Moving sucks.

Duplex (2003) - dir. Danny DeVito

Perfect New York couple Alex Rose (Ben Stiller) and Nancy Kendricks (Drew Barrymore)—he’s a novelist, and she a magazine editor, natch—live out every New Yorker’s dream and buy their very own Brooklyn brownstone. The two-story duplex comes with stunning original details, including three fireplaces and stained glass windows—and a longtime elderly tenant (Eileen Essel) in the rent-controlled apartment upstairs.

She turns out to be more than just a minor nuisance: her late-night television watching and unreasonable requests grate at them until it becomes increasingly clear that she will not go down without a fight. After all attempts to get her to move out fail, including a botched hitman job, the couple, now broke and desperate, decide to evict themselves and move to—where else—the Bronx.

The takeaway: Owning a piece of brownstone Brooklyn isn’t all it’s chalked up to be.

Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) - dir. Audrey Wells

San Francisco writer Frances Maye (Diane Lane) escapes to Tuscany when her seemingly perfect life comes crashing down after discovering that her husband has been cheating on her with a younger woman. Once there, she happens upon Bramasole, a charming fixer-upper villa that she, despite thinking it a terrible idea, decides she must have.

Unsurprisingly, restoring the old house (and her spirits) proves more challenging than she initially bargained for. Still, Frances slowly begins to build a new life in her adopted country, surrounding herself with a new family of Italian neighbors and the Polish workers whom she hired to help with the house. Turns out, buying an estate in a foreign country for a life you don’t have (yet) is not such a terrible idea after all.

The takeaway: Buying an Italian estate can fix your problems.

The Conjuring (2013) - dir. James Wan

By now you know the drill—old house harbors unseemly secrets, unwitting family moves in, and all hell breaks loose—but this movie is actually terrifying. As soon as Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters move into a large, dilapidated farmhouse in Rhode Island, strange things start to happen: the family dog is found dead in the yard, unseen forces yank and drag the girls across the floor, mysterious laughter and clapping emerge during the silent night.

Realizing that they're dealing with some pretty sinister spirits, they call upon paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to exorcise the place. But they quickly uncover a presence so dark that even they are powerless to stop it.

The takeaway: A house that looks big and scary is most likely haunted. Also, stay out of the basement!

Read more about first-time homebuying