Home Tours: Tacky?

Dear Helena,
I recently attended a party where the first thing the hosts did was offer a tour of their palatial pad. My husband and I live in a modest apartment. We thought it was tacky. Was it?
—House Proud

Dear House Proud,
Unless the host's wine cellar is haunted, his default assumption should be that his guests do not want a tour of it. All your dinner guests need to know about your floor plan is where the bathroom is. Even when the occasion is a housewarming, you should wait to be asked before showing guests around. Maxi Lilley, an interior decorator in Oakland, California, is proud of the way she and her husband renovated their Craftsman bungalow, but she doesn't automatically offer guests a tour. As she points out, "If you say, 'Would you like a tour?,' there's no polite way to decline."

The fact is that while some guests are fascinated to learn every detail of how you selected the backsplash behind your kitchen counters, many are not. Geoff Gibson, an architect in San Francisco, has a professional interest in the subject, but even he confesses to home-tour overload: "I guess in general I feel like they can be really pretentious and tedious. Like looking through 100 pictures of someone's kid or cat."

Todd Lappin, a technology product manager, painstakingly decorated his San Francisco home in accordance with his quirky vintage-industrial aesthetic: A large chunk of a Boeing 707 serves as wall art in the living room, and the kitchen is designed to evoke a "Cold War naval laboratory." But even Lappin waits for a sign from guests before offering a tour. "You can tell by the way people are looking at the house if they are curious." A good rule of thumb is to wait for your guests to ask a question, like, "What kind of view do you get from upstairs?" If all they say is, "Nice place!," then go straight to drinks.

When you're showing guests around, there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. Showing off your money is always in bad taste, but that's particularly true nowadays, when the 99 percent is seriously disgruntled. Emphasize features that are of general interest, or features that you are particularly proud of because they are your own handiwork, like the Scandinavian Airlines food cart that Lappin repurposed as a bar cart.

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt, a writer who divides her time between Sausalito, California, and New York City, says: "If someone bought their own house [and fixed it up] ... I respect that." But a house tour is annoying, she says, if "they have this McMansion because they are spoiled trust-fund people, and they don't appreciate it, and you think they don't deserve to live there."

To avoid parsing whether or not you are middle-class or DIY enough to show off your home without offending people, just use this guideline: If you're better off than the person who came in, proceed with caution. If your friend cooks on an ancient, gunk-encrusted stove that his landlord refuses to replace, it's bad form to remark, "This Viking stove is one of the reasons we fell in love with the house." And if your friend lost his home in the mortgage meltdown and now lives in a communal house with a bunch of freegans, he may not want to see your second guest bedroom. Don't make your guests want to start an Occupy movement.

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