The Extreme Holiday Decorators Spending Thousands to Deck ‘Every Nook and Cranny’ of Their Homes | Kanebridge News
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The Extreme Holiday Decorators Spending Thousands to Deck ‘Every Nook and Cranny’ of Their Homes

Some tinsel and a strand of lights aren’t going to cut it. These homeowners are outfitting their properties with Christmas tree farms, life-size Nutcrackers and flying reindeer

By E.B. SOLOMONT
Wed, Dec 21, 2022 9:11amGrey Clock 8 min

Jennifer Houghton clung to the banister in her Dallas mansion. Suspended about 10 feet off the ground, she braced her foot against the wall, extended her arm and placed an oversize pink-and-white ornament atop a spinning Christmas tree festooned with candied pink poinsettias.

Below her, a life-size Nutcracker stood sentry in the double-height foyer, which Ms. Houghton, 54, had reimagined as the Land of Sweets, with pastel-coloured candy covering the railing and plush ice-cream cones hanging from the chandelier. “Freaking amazing,” she said, satisfied with the finished product. In the kitchen, a candy-cane conveyor belt was perched on the counter. The front yard had been transformed into a Christmas tree farm with more than 30 trees, ranging in height from 18 inches to 9 feet.

For extreme decorators like Ms. Houghton, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, when imaginations run wild and no amount of flowers, tinsel, ribbons or twinkling lights is too much. With hefty budgets and an eye for luxury, some design enthusiasts spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to douse their homes with holiday cheer.

“Especially now that we are back to entertaining, people are even more excited about it,” said Traci Zeller, an interior designer in Charlotte, N.C., who says she works with clients to “amp up” existing color schemes for the holidays. Christmas décor doesn’t have to be conventional, she said, but bigger is better. “If you think you’ve finished, you’re not,” she said. “Add more.”

Going overboard with Christmas lights is something of an American tradition in certain parts of the country, where places like Highland Park in Dallas, New York’s Dyker Heights and South 13th Street in Philadelphia are known for over-the-top holiday displays. Elsewhere, singular homes—like Michele and Dennis Palmeris’ house in Middletown Township, N.J.—are local landmarks.

For years, Ms. Palmeri said the couple decorated “every nook and cranny” of their roughly 20,000-square-foot house, which they also covered in lights. “This place is like Luna Park,” she said, referring to a now-shuttered amusement park that opened in the early 1900s in Coney Island in New York. “We just go crazy.” In addition to an enormous tree in the foyer, the Palmeris usually fill a fountain in the basement with fake snow. This year, Ms. Palmeri said they dialled back the décor somewhat (including the fountain) since the house is for sale, asking $11 million.

To hard-core Christmas enthusiasts, the decorating season kicks off right after Halloween—if not sooner.

Katherine Brosious, an interior designer in Augusta, Ga., puts up her Christmas tree before Halloween. “Trick or treaters will look behind me and say, ‘Ma’am, is that a Christmas tree?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Do you want candy or not?’” she said.

In Texas, Melissa and David Loder spend the summers sketching out ideas and starting to build mechanised Christmas décor for their lawn. Ms. Loder, a clinical psychologist, said the couple started decorating about 15 years ago when they moved into a roughly $1 million four-bedroom house in Deerfield, a community in Plano, where neighbours used to compete over who had the best holiday display. Over the years, the Loders have built flying reindeer, an elf schoolhouse and a huge sleigh where people come to take pictures. “Outside is for the kid in everybody,” she said.

Ms. Loder said they have spent around $100,000 on Christmas décor over the years, including about $4,500 a year on storage for their bigger items. She said the couple’s electric bill isn’t as high as many people assume. Although the first year it was “a little shocking” when the bill popped up to about $800, from $300, they quickly switched to LED lights, she said.

Now, their electric bill, which is around $200 a month, goes up about 10% in December on account of about 4,000 lights and six small motors that power the mechanical elements in their display. For example, they have a fog machine on a three-dimensional steam train that goes off every two minutes, Ms. Loder said.

In the Houghton household, holiday décor is a year-round affair that Ms. Houghton documents on Instagram and on her blog, Turtle Creek Lane.

Ms. Houghton said her Christmas display started small 37 years ago when she was an 18-year-old newlywed. The first year, she said she could only afford a single strand of colored lights but she fell in love with the warm-and-cozy feeling they emitted. “Everything I do is so big now, but I always think about that one strand of Christmas lights,” she said. “I felt so much joy.”

These days, Ms. Houghton tries to re-create the feeling with themed Christmas displays at the roughly 10,000-square-foot Highland Park home she shares with her husband, Steve Houghton, an investor and entrepreneur. Built in 2006, the house has six bedrooms, two separate guesthouses and a five-bay garage, where Ms. Houghton has taken over one bay for her decorations. (She also makes good use of a roughly 30-foot by 30-foot storage room.) The house has a market value of $11.4 million, according to the Dallas County Tax Assessor.

This year, Ms. Houghton’s décor was inspired by Christmas movies, and she has “Elf”-inspired flying reindeer in the family room and a six-foot-long candy-cane conveyor belt in the kitchen, a la “The Christmas Chronicles.” In the “Frosty the Snowman”-themed dining room, a white rug underneath the dining table is meant to look like snow. And the living room is devoted to all things “Grinch,” with a life-size Grinch, a miniature Whoville and a drooping Christmas tree that Ms. Houghton said she “paid a fortune” to have shipped to Dallas. The pièce de résistance is the yard, which has a Nativity scene and a Christmas tree farm because, Ms. Houghton said, “every Hallmark movie has a Christmas tree farm.”

Big or small, Christmas décor is a boon to holiday retailers and decorators. Roughly 75% of U.S. households—or 94 million homes—had a Christmas tree last year, according to the American Christmas Tree Association. The artificial tree market alone is a $1 billion to $2 billion industry, and Americans are expected to spend an average of $832.84 on holiday gifts, decorations and food this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Heather Mattox, an interior designer at Baker Design Group in Dallas, said the popularity of home-renovation shows has boosted interest in interior design. “People care more than they ever have about what their homes look like, and then you add the Christmas layer on top of that,” she said.

Baker Design charges between $7,500 and $50,000 for custom Christmas design services. (It also offers its trademarked “Christmas in a Box” package, which includes different choices for a tree, garlands, wreaths and other décor, starting around $2,100.)

Don Chestnut, an Atlanta-based decorator, said there is nothing he can’t do if a client is willing to pay. “A really fabulous tree could easily be $100,000,” said Mr. Chestnut, who once tied together two ladders with zip ties to install and decorate a 24-foot tree in a celebrity client’s home. He’s also decorated with custom-cut snowflakes, 36-inch ornaments and black faux leather ribbon. “When people come to me they know that’s what they’re going to get,” he said.

Katherine Salinas, 38, a former environmental consultant, gifted herself all-new Christmas décor for about $5,000 in 2018 after she and her husband bought their first house together, a brand-new, five-bedroom house in a suburb of Charlotte, N.C. “We really went all out on decorating,” said Ms. Salinas, who hired Ms. Zeller and Ashley Smith, a local event planner, to pull it off. “It was just a big Christmas present to myself,” she said.

Still, she wanted the décor to be an investment that could be reused. Ms. Salinas said she decorated with fresh greenery, including magnolia and boxwood, for the first time at Ms. Smith’s urging. Previously, she assumed doing so would be wasteful but by packing it carefully and storing it in a temperature-controlled closet, the greenery has lasted for several years. “It’s so much more sustainable than plastic and whatnot,” Ms. Salinas said.

In Dallas, Lisa Faulkner hired Baker Design this year to create a Christmas-y feeling at her Highland Park home, which she and her husband bought in 2020. (The roughly 6,300-square-foot house is worth about $6.5 million, she said.) Ms. Faulkner said the family typically spends the holidays in Vail, Colo., where you can look outside and see pine trees and snow. “You don’t have to decorate that much, nature’s done it for you,” she said. “Here, it could be 70 degrees.”

To replicate the colours of the mountain sky and snow, Ms. Faulkner paid about $30,000 for a house full of decorations, including greenery and ribbon on the stairs, decorative urns and a flocked, 9-foot tree with magnolia leaves, blue ornaments and gold ribbon. “Yes, it’s a big expense but it was worth it,” Ms. Faulkner said.

Sarah Tripp, a blogger and influencer in Las Vegas, said decadent décor sparks joy this time of year. “Everything seems more magical with Christmas lights and décor,” said Ms. Tripp, 31, who lives with her husband, Robbie Tripp, and son, in a roughly 6,000-square-foot home valued around $1.6 million. This year, Ms. Tripp has a “Barbie pink” tree covered with faux peonies, gemstones and pearls. Last year, she had a Vegas-themed tree with black flowers and rhinestone-studded playing cards. “It’s definitely over the top, but that is who I am,” said Ms. Tripp, who said the pink tree cost about $1,500 because a designer friend gave her a big discount. Over time, she said she’s probably spent $8,000 to $10,000 on Christmas décor. “I’m a huge December Sagittarius who loves to go all out.”

Mary Ellen Becker, an interior design influencer, said she inherited a love of holiday décor and hosting from her grandmother, whose portrait looks over the Christmas tree in her roughly 4,000-square-foot home in Fort Worth, Texas, which was assessed for $1.1 million, according to public records. When she and her husband were building their house in 2011, she said she insisted on double doors in the living room that could be closed, tied with ribbon and ceremoniously opened on Christmas Day. “They’re there because of one morning a year,” she said.

Jennifer Maxwell-LeBleu, a mortgage broker in Louisiana, always decorated big for Christmas but said she threw herself into the hobby in 2020 as a way to relieve stress. For the past few years, she said she and her husband, Jason LeBleu, have gone “all out,” covering every surface of their 3,400-square-foot home, which sits on about 8 acres northeast of Shreveport and is valued at around $1 million. They have 11 trees, each decorated with different colours and themes, including one for their dogs. “Not that they care, but they have stockings and ornaments with their names on it,” Ms. Maxwell-LeBleu said.

Last year, Ms. Maxwell-LeBleu parlayed her hobby into a business called Mama Noel Designs, which sells decorative Christmas items. Now, she said her husband and father-in-law are building a 4,000-square-foot workshop on the property to store the family’s trees and other holiday items related to her business.

Ms. Houghton has also turned her affinity for holiday décor into a business. She currently has more than 880,000 Instagram followers and Turtle Creek Lane drove “several million dollars’” worth of retail sales with affiliates in November, said Steven Houghton Jr., Ms. Houghton’s 32-year-old son, who quit a job in finance several years ago to work with his mom.

Mr. Houghton said it wasn’t until he left home for college that he realised his family celebrated Christmas a little bit differently than most. “We all think what we grew up with is normal,” he said. “I would go to friends’ houses in college and say, ‘Ohhh, this is what you do for the holidays.’”

Ms. Houghton said she is committed to carrying on the tradition for the next generation. Her 18-month-old granddaughter comes over a few times a week, and there is a “Frozen”-themed hallway in her honor. Ms. Houghton said the design was an afterthought that came to her when the Christmas tree vendor accidentally delivered seven half trees, designed to be placed flush against a wall. Instead of returning them, Ms. Houghton lined them up and added Anna and Elsa decals. “It’s magical for her,” she said.

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Equities are often seen as expensive after promising start to 2023

By CAITLIN MCCABE
Mon, Jan 30, 2023 7 min

A new trading year kicked off just weeks ago. Already it bears little resemblance to the carnage of 2022.

After languishing throughout last year, growth stocks have zoomed higher. Tesla Inc. and Nvidia Corp., for example, have jumped more than 30%. The outlook for bonds is brightening after a historic rout. Even bitcoin has rallied, despite ongoing effects from the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX.

The rebound has been driven by renewed optimism about the global economic outlook. Investors have embraced signs that inflation has peaked in the U.S. and abroad. Many are hoping that next week the Federal Reserve will slow its pace of interest-rate increases yet again. China’s lifting of Covid-19 restrictions pleasantly surprised many traders who have welcomed the move as a sign that more growth is ahead.

Still, risks loom large. Many investors aren’t convinced that the rebound is sustainable. Some are worried about stretched stock valuations, or whether corporate earnings will face more pain down the road. Others are fretting that markets aren’t fully pricing in the possibility of a recession, or what might happen if the Fed continues to fight inflation longer than currently anticipated.

We asked five investors to share how they are positioning for that uncertainty and where they think markets could be headed next. Here is what they said:

‘Animal spirits’ could return

Cliff Asness, founder of AQR Capital Management, acknowledges that he wasn’t expecting the run in speculative stocks and digital currencies that has swept markets to kick off 2023.

Bitcoin prices have jumped around 40%. Some of the stocks that are the most heavily bet against on Wall Street are sitting on double-digit gains. Carvana Co. has soared nearly 64%, while MicroStrategy Inc. has surged more than 80%. Cathie Wood‘s ARK Innovation ETF has gained about 29%.

If the past few years have taught Mr. Asness anything, it is to be prepared for such run-ups to last much longer than expected. His lesson from the euphoria regarding risky trades in 2020 and 2021? Don’t count out the chance that the frenzy will return again, he said.

“It could be that there are still these crazy animal spirits out there,” Mr. Asness said.

Still, he said that hasn’t changed his conviction that cheaper stocks in the market, known as value stocks, are bound to keep soaring past their peers. There might be short spurts of outperformance for more-expensive slices of the market, as seen in January. But over the long term, he is sticking to his bet that value stocks will beat growth stocks. He is expecting a volatile, but profitable, stretch for the trade.

“I love the value trade,” Mr. Asness said. “We sing about it to our clients.”

—Gunjan Banerji

Keeping dollar’s moves in focus

For Richard Benson, co-chief investment officer of Millennium Global Investments Ltd., no single trade was more important last year than the blistering rise of the U.S. dollar.

Once a relatively placid area of markets following the 2008 financial crisis, currencies have found renewed focus from Wall Street and Main Street. Last year the dollar’s unrelenting rise dented multinational companies’ profits, exacerbated inflation for countries that import American goods and repeatedly surprised some traders who believed the greenback couldn’t keep rallying so fast.

The factors that spurred the dollar’s rise are now contributing to its fall. Ebbing inflation and expectations of slower interest-rate increases from the Fed have sent the dollar down 1.7% this year, as measured by the WSJ Dollar Index.

Mr. Benson is betting more pain for the dollar is ahead and sees the greenback weakening between 3% and 5% over the next three to six months.

“When the biggest central bank in the world is on the move, look at everything through their lens and don’t get distracted,” said Mr. Benson of the London-based currency fund manager, regarding the Fed.

This year Mr. Benson expects the dollar’s fall to ripple similarly far and wide across global economies and markets.

“I don’t see many people complaining about a weaker dollar” over the next few months, he said. “If the dollar is falling, that economic setup should also mean that tech stocks should do quite well.”

Mr. Benson said he expects the dollar’s fall to brighten the outlook for some emerging- market assets, and he is betting on China’s offshore yuan as the country’s economy reopens. He sees the euro strengthening versus the dollar if the eurozone’s economy continues to fare better than expected.

—Caitlin McCabe

Stocks still appear overvalued

Even after the S&P 500 fell 15% from its record high reached in January 2022, U.S. stocks still look expensive, said Rupal Bhansali, chief investment officer of Ariel Investments, who oversees $6.7 billion in assets.

Of course, the market doesn’t appear as frothy as it did for much of 2020 and 2021, but she said she expects a steeper correction in prices ahead.

The broad stock-market gauge recently traded at 17.9 times its projected earnings over the next 12 months, according to FactSet. That is below the high of around 24 hit in late 2020, but above the historical average over the past 20 years of 15.7, FactSet data show.

“The old habit was buy the dip,” Ms. Bhansali said. “The new habit should be sell the rip.”

One reason Ms. Bhansali said the selloff might not be over yet? The market is still underestimating the Fed.

Investors repeatedly mispriced how fast the Fed would move in 2022, wrongly expecting the central bank to ease up on its rate increases. They were caught off guard by Fed Chair Jerome Powell‘s aggressive messages on interest rates. It stoked steep selloffs in the stock market, leading to the most turbulent year since the 2008 financial crisis. Now investors are making the same mistake again, Ms. Bhansali said.

Current stock valuations don’t reflect the big shift coming in central-bank policy, which she thinks will have to be more aggressive than many expect. Though broader measures of inflation have been falling, some slices, such as services inflation, have proved stickier. Ms. Bhansali is positioning for such areas as healthcare, which she thinks would be more insulated from a recession than the rest of the market, to outperform.

“The Fed is determined to win the war since they lost the battle,” Ms. Bhansali said.

—Gunjan Banerji

A better year for bonds seen

Gone are the days when tumbling bond yields left investors with few alternatives to stocks. Finally, bonds are back, according to Niall O’Sullivan of Neuberger Berman, an investment manager overseeing about $427 billion in client assets at the end of 2022.

After a turbulent year for the fixed-income market in 2022, bonds have kicked off the new year on a more promising note. The Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index—composed largely of U.S. Treasurys, highly rated corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities—climbed 3% so far this year on a total return basis through Thursday’s close. That is the index’s best start to a year since it began in 1989, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

Mr. O’Sullivan, the chief investment officer of multi asset strategies for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Neuberger Berman, said the single biggest conversation he is currently having with clients is how to increase fixed-income exposure.

“Strategically, the facts have changed. When you look at fixed income as an asset class…they’re now all providing yield, and possibly even more importantly, actual cash coupons of a meaningful size,” he said. “That is a very different world to the one we’ve been in for quite a long time.”

Mr. O’Sullivan said it is important to reconsider how much of an advantage stocks now hold over bonds, given what he believes are looming risks for the stock market. He predicts that inflation will be harder to wrangle than investors currently anticipate and that the Fed will hold its peak interest rate steady for longer than is currently expected. Even more worrying, he said, it will be harder for companies to continue passing on price increases to consumers, which means earnings could see bigger hits in the future.

“That is why we are wary on the equity side,” he said.

Among the products that Mr. O’Sullivan said he favours in the fixed-income space are higher-quality and shorter-term bonds. Still, he added, it is important for investors to find portfolio diversity outside bonds this year. For that, he said he views commodities as attractive, specifically metals such as copper, which could continue to benefit from China’s reopening.

—Caitlin McCabe

 

Find the fear, and find the value

Ramona Persaud, a portfolio manager at Fidelity Investments, said she can still identify bargains in a pricey market by looking in less-sanguine places. Find the fear, and find the value, she said.

“When fear really rises, you can buy some very well-run businesses,” she said.

Take Taiwan’s semiconductor companies. Concern over global trade and tensions with China have weighed on the shares of chip makers based on the island. But those fears have led many investors to overlook the competitive advantages those companies hold over rivals, she said.

“That is a good setup,” said Ms. Persaud, who considers herself a conservative value investor and manages more than $20 billion across several U.S. and Canadian funds.

The S&P 500 is trading above fair value, she said, which means “there just isn’t widespread opportunity,” and investors might be underestimating some of the risks that lie in waiting.

“That tells me the market is optimistic,” said Ms. Persaud. “That would be OK if the risks were not exogenous.”

Those challenges, whether rising interest rates and Fed policy or Russia’s war in Ukraine and concern over energy-security concerns in Europe, are complicated, and in many cases, interrelated.

It isn’t all bad news, she said. China ended its zero-Covid restrictions. A milder winter in Europe has blunted the effects of the war in Ukraine on energy prices and helped the continent sidestep recession, and inflation is slowing.

“These are reasons the market is so happy,” she said.

—Justin Baer

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