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A Million Dollars Ain't What it Used to Be, Even Now

I love million-dollar home day on CNBC, not just because I get to go traipsing around the country, snooping through semi-rich people's homes, but also because I get to see that I'm not the only one getting nothing for something. Okay, that's not fair. Yes, there are hinterlands out there where a million dollars will buy you something truly large and truly beautiful; the question is: do you truly want to live there?

In covering this beat, I've toured million dollar homes in Memphis, TN, Macon, GA, Georgetown, DC, Charlottesville, VA, San Francisco, CA, Jackson Hole, WY, Miami Beach, FL, Rockville, MD just to name a few, and while some are certainly nicer than others, I am continually surprised by what you get, or more, what you don't get.

I realize that the median price of a home in the United States is $217,000, so most people wouldn't be as picky as I am, but if I'm going to write a check for a million dollars, or write a check for a ridiculous mortgage every month, then I feel like I should be getting something.

Space and location seem to be the selling points of the bulk of the million dollars homes. The Rockville home I toured had plenty of space, and if there was no such thing as rush hour traffic, you could actually get to downtown DC in about 25 minutes. But to be honest, this home was in a relatively new development (8 yrs old), and yet it was already falling apart around the edges. I look at stuff like siding, trim, interior moldings, floors, fixtures, and none of this stuff was high end or high quality.

In Charlottesville, it was all about the location. The house sat on a small mountain surrounded by bigger mountains. It felt completely secluded, and yet it was pretty close to downtown Charlottesville, easily commutable. Still, the house, in my opinion, wasn't much. Yes, space, but no high-end kitchen, no finished basement, nothing that made me say WOW except for the view from the windows. Look, people pay for views, I know -- witness the multi-million dollar shoeboxes that line Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, but there has to be something between the windows, right?

I guess I just feel like in all the talk of a mega real estate downturn, that we should all be getting a little more bang for our buck. I didn't see it. All real estate is local, and I'm sure there are some good deals out there to be made, but affordability in this country -- despite a meltdown in subprimes and all the bad publicity housing is taking this year -- affordability is still ridiculous.

I think the trouble is that a million dollars isn't really a million dollars anymore, what with all the easy mortgage products. Most people who own houses worth one million dollars don't actually have one million dollars, and builders and realtors know that. That very fact has trickled through the walls and pipes and finishings of our nation's homes, downgrading their real value -- forget market value; I'm talking about what you get, what you sit down and live in, day in and day out. No wonder the bosses at CNBC think we should change the theme day to "Multi-million Dollar Home Day." A million nowadays really isn't worth watching.

Questions? Comments? RealtyCheck@cnbc.com

  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.

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