The last time I hate-watched House Hunters, I found myself seething as a woman rejected one perfectly good home after another because it lacked her most-prized feature: a window that would show off her Christmas tree to the neighbors. “No one wants to see your Christmas tree,” I yelled at the television, even as I wondered what it might feel like to consider such a feature a necessity. Like many other House Hunters haters, I live in New York, in an apartment building with stairwells so steep and narrow I’m not sure a Christmas tree could even make it to my third-floor apartment (let alone fit through the door upon arrival).
I love reading about real estate, so for a long time I wondered if I’d ever be able to watch a home-shopping show and not resent everyone on it, and also myself for judging them and for feeling incredibly jealous. As if by magic, My Lottery Dream Home, the fifth season of which premieres September 21, came into my life.
Episodes of My Lottery Dream Home hew to the same “so you want to buy a house” structure as other shows in the genre, but here, the buyers haven’t come into their money through inheritance or their salaries. Instead, they’ve won a lottery, whether it’s a scratch-off ticket or a Powerball jackpot. Host David Bromstad shows each of these newly minted millionaires three houses, and they must make a decision at the end of the episode.
Bromstad is full of charm and enthusiasm, and the lottery winners are the most winsome people I have ever watched on a non-scripted TV show. They are grateful to trade rented apartments for owned townhomes and tiny ranchers for Colonials with enough bedrooms for the kids. As I write this, I am watching a self-proclaimed “glamma” (that means “glamorous grandma”), widowed a few years ago, consider what it might mean to turn the $700,000 she won on a gloomy Northern California morning into a house with a swimming pool for her grandchildren.
Reader: She did, and I cried.
“I always say to my winners: you won $5 million and you’re spending $300,000—loosen the purse strings a little,” laughs My Lottery Dream Home host David Bromstad. A designer by trade—he won the first season of HGTV Design Star and got his own show on the network, Color Star—Bromstad told me that My Lottery Dream Home is his favorite among the shows he’s been on.
His affection and admiration for the contestants is clear. It’s Bromstad’s job to bring that sense of joy not just to the show but to the participants themselves. When they express trepidation about an old kitchen or a yard without a swimming pool, he excitedly reminds them that they’re lottery winners now—people who can afford to have whatever they want. I tell Bromstad that his show is the only homebuying show I earnestly enjoy, and he’s not surprised. “My winners are normal people who are still normal—they’re super responsible, and they love their families,” he tells me. He frames the lucky shoppers as people who have the same hopes, dreams, and goals as the rest of us—“winning the lottery just means they get there a little faster.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by network executives. “Ultimately we are all happy for the people we watch on the show because they are hardworking, kind, and appreciative,” Loren Ruch, senior vice president of programming partnerships and special projects at HGTV and DIY Network, writes in an email. Ruch is on to something: the show had nearly 15 million viewers last season and was recently picked up through a seventh season. It’s fun to imagine ourselves as lottery winners, and easy to imagine ourselves—and people we love—as specific lottery winners who appear on the show: a New England couple searching for a Maine cottage where they can write novels, a Florida mom tickled at the idea of a two-car garage where she can refinish furniture, a Minnesota firefighter whose eyes light up at the mention of a good school district.
The show spotlights lottery winners from all walks of life. Some are clearly already financially comfortable and looking for vacation homes that can accommodate extended families. Others win extraordinarily large sums: The very first episode features a California couple who won the truly mind-boggling sum of $180 million; the home they buy, priced at around $6 million, boasts a movie theatre and a working buffalo ranch on the grounds.
For others, like Season 4’s Laura, the lottery brings a radical change in circumstances. A single mother who lived with her teenage son in a one-bedroom sublet on Cape Cod before winning $4 million in the Massachusetts lottery, Laura uses a portion of her winnings to buy a home with a small yard and space for her son to invite his friends over. Standing in one of the potential homes with Bromstad, Laura tears up: She worked two or three jobs at a time, she explains, and now she has the chance to give her child the things he deserves and be around to watch him enjoy their new life.
It should go without saying that Laura shouldn’t have had to win a lottery in order to afford more than one bedroom for her and her son, but I’m hard-pressed to think of any other realistic way she could have done so in 2018. “Money is freedom,” Bromstad tells her in one home she now has the power to buy, and he’s not one bit wrong. The lottery brings Laura security, and watching her consider the future in a way that seems genuinely marvelous to her makes me forget, momentarily, that I’m angry she didn’t have those things all along. The show makes me so happy for her that there’s no room for anything else.
All the participants make it clear that their dreams are coming true and that they couldn’t be happier, and it’s the idea of home ownership itself as a dream that relaxes a certain tightness in my chest. On other homebuying shows, the idea that someone will find the house for them and that they’ve already established the ability to pay for it is a given. Here, the lucky winners recognize themselves as lucky, and it imbues the whole show (and its viewers, or at least this viewer) with a spirit of generosity. They find nice things to say about each home they tour, and while they like certain homes more than others, and express worry about too-small kitchens or backyards that will need a lot of maintenance, what comes off as entitled on other homebuying shows is another chance to root for the lucky winners. My Lottery Dream Home makes me want everyone on it to have the master suite of their dreams, but perhaps most importantly, it makes me believe everyone on it would wish the same for me.
“Hope is apt to supply the place of probability and the imagination to be struck with glittering though precarious prospects,” wrote Alexander Hamilton of the ideal lottery in 1793. While lotteries in one form or another have existed since antiquity, they were a particular favorite enterprise of the Founding Fathers: Hamilton proposed a scheme remarkably like the modern American lottery system, in which few people win big and many people win small. In the 1760s, George Washington tried (and failed) to fund a public works project by lottery, while in 1826, a cash-poor Thomas Jefferson asked the state of Virginia to permit him to hold a lottery where he would supply prizes from his personal collection of real estate. Alas, he died before My Lottery Dream Home: Monticello could move forward.
In an era when owning property was often a prerequisite for voting, it’s hard to overstate what winning the means to purchase one’s own piece of land might have meant, though, of course, winning the lottery in early America required being a white man in addition to being lucky.
Now, anyone can win the lottery and change their lives forever, and buying a home is the most obvious way to cement that change. While the people on My Lottery Dream Home always spend well below their winnings (and in some cases are surprisingly conservative with cash, considering their new net worths), they are almost always trading up, either from a small house to a big one, one house to two houses, or a view of the highway to a view of the ocean. It makes winning the lottery seem like a fun act of class transgression—spend a dollar and you might wind up like Season 2’s Marcie, who moves herself and her two adult daughters from a one-bedroom apartment into a historic house with a bathroom for each woman.
Everyone who buys a house these days has won some kind of lottery. Sometimes, it’s a job that makes mortgage payments manageable, or a job that pays, as some do, entirely too much money. There’s also, of course, the lottery of genetics: having a grandmother who can front a down payment, or parents who purchase apartments for their adult children as “investments,” in this context a nebulous word that might mean “actual financial investment in a city with a stable market” or “investment in a place that might convince my offspring to settle down in one place for a while.” On an individual level, it’s hard for me to get worked up about the unfairness of most of these scenarios. I, too, have benefited from the support of family in one way or another, and as long as capitalism traps us all in its web, it feels futile to begrudge people all but the most cartoonish of salaries.
What does stick in my craw is the idea that the actual lottery is all that’s left, which, in a paradoxical way, is why My Lottery Dream Home is such a balm for the soul. Like most shows on HGTV, if I think about it too much, the idea starts to curdle, but then, just when I think I’m at the point of having to turn off the TV, a retiree gets the lake view he’s always dreamed of and it’s like I’ve won a prize, too: the ability to revel in someone else’s good fortune, uncomplicated by the grim realities of who usually gets to own a home and why.
I don’t play the lottery much myself, but my mother does. Sometimes she’ll send me listings for brownstone apartments for sale in the West Village, or 1930s bungalows for sale in Los Angeles, or Georgian townhouses for sale near the English seaside.
“If I win the lottery, do you want me to buy this for you?” she asks.
The answer, always, is yes.
Angela Serratore is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, Smithsonian, and more, and her most recent piece for Curbed focused on an endangered house museum.
Editor: Sara Polsky