Plenty of people have been blamed for the nation’s mortgage meltdown and housing market slump: Irresponsible lenders, incompetent regulators, unethical brokers, spineless appraisers, greedy investors, foolish homebuyers and even headline-hungry reporters have all been said to have participated in some way in the factors that triggered the crisis.

But so far, the real culprit has remained on the sidelines, where it has been often mentioned but never directly accused in so many words. The plain truth, as I see it: the big-screen TV is to blame.

Here is one account of what went wrong: Early adopters who flock to new technologies like birds to scattered breadcrumbs began to buy these super-sized television sets some years ago. Then their family members, friends and neighbors came over and watched a documentary-style nature program or major sporting event on the big-screen TV in high definition. And then those people went out and bought their own big-screen TVs.

Eventually these big-screen TVs trickled down from the early adopters to the masses of people who really couldn’t afford to spend $5,000 or more on a TV with a surround-sound system, a DVD player, coaxial interconnect cables, multifunction remote controls and a long list of other must-have accessories, not to mention the furniture that’s required to house all of these components.

So these masses asked themselves: How can we get the cash to buy all this stuff? And the obvious answer was: We can use the equity in our house, which is worth a whole lot more than it was when we bought it. We can refinance our mortgage and take out a pile of cash or we can get a second loan or home equity line of credit (HELOC) and we can use that money to buy our very own big-screen TV.

So, now that we all understand what happened and we realize just how dangerous and destructive these big-screen TVs are, can we just set aside our differences of opinion and endless discussions about who’s to blame for the mortgage crisis? Can we just stipulate for the record that the big-screen TV is guilty as charged and leave it at that?

The argument is admittedly ridiculous and facetious. But there is a larger point, and that is: How did this inanimate object become such a potent symbol of the excesses that contributed to a massive number of foreclosures? Just as Santa Claus is a symbol of Christmas, a maple leaf represents Canada and a green package suggests a product is supposedly safe for the environment, so too the big-screen TV now has its place as a symbol of the excesses that caused the mortgage meltdown.

As an example of how powerful this symbol has become, here’s a comment by Vicki Lloyd, a Realtor with The Real Estate Professionals in Orange County, Calif., on one of my prior columns: "The HELOC/ATM effect has played a big part in our current foreclosure mess," Lloyd writes. "It makes me sad to see that someone paid a reasonable price for their home in 1993, then took out (hundreds of) thousands via HELOC to buy other properties, big-screen TVs, cars or vacations, and now they are losing that home to foreclosure."

Notice how nicely the big-screen TV sneaks onto that list of major purchases that pushed so many homeowners to their doom?

The big-screen TV is a potent symbol, in part, because it’s so big that it’s simply impossible to ignore. What’s more, nearly every U.S. household has at least one TV and many households have more than one. The prior owner of my 1,200-square-foot house in Los Angeles had three TVs, one of which was — you guessed it — a big-screen model.

But now I have to admit that despite the risks, I still want one. See you at the store?

Marcie Geffner is a veteran real estate reporter and former managing editor of Inman News. Her news stories, feature articles and columns about home buying, home selling, homeownership and mortgage financing have been published by a long list of real estate websites and newspapers. "House Keys," a weekly column about homeownership, is syndicated in print and on the Web by Inman News. Readers are cordially invited to "friend" the author on Facebook.


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