Just your average Manhattan accomodation for a waitress and a sous-chef.
"Now about his apartment. It's at the top of a classic brownstone, with balconies and tall windows, and in Manhattan would cost thousands of dollars a month, but he's flat broke, see, and just to prove it, there's a place where the plaster has fallen off the wall and you can see the bare slats underneath. He has art hanging all over his apartment, except in front of those slats. All Alex has to do is sublet, and his financial worries are over."
Your cast of good-looking single hangarounds live in a fancy apartment in the middle of the town. None of them seems to work, or if they do, they're usually actors, columnists or whatever leaves them with a lot of leisure time to have drama in their clean, well-furnished apartments. How can they afford it? They have Friends Rent Control (named after Friends, where the cast Handwaved their situation by saying they had rent control). For those of you not up on your real estate law, rent control means that a landlord can only raise a tenant's rent by a certain percentage each year. It's entirely possible for the neighborhood to gentrify over the decades, and such a tenant might only pay a few hundred a month where new ones would pay thousands. This trope implies that the renters in the examples below all somehow benefit from this, even if they're young and the place would have always been expensive during their tenure. Illegal subletting may be involved.
Besides appealing to audience fantasy, this is usually done because large sets are easier to film in. If Monica or Chandler's apartment on Friends had been realistic for their income and New York City's high cost of living, it'd be a single room with maybe a kitchenette and a bathroom. Doing a scene with all six main characters would have been a total nightmare for the cast and crew. Also, especially in sitcoms, indoor sets usually have one completely blank "wall" where the crew and studio audience are, requiring the rest of the set to take up a lot more space than is needed to fit in all the requisite furniture and appliances.
To emphasize, this isn't just about having a large or open plan home for the characters. It is about the correlation between several factors:
The size of a home relative to budget varies round the world, as well. On average, Americans have the largest homes in the world at every income level, so to viewers elsewhere (especially the British, who have the western world's smallest average homes) the homes on American TV almost always look too big for the characters' supposed income, even when they're actually realistic.
See also Living in a Furniture Store, Standardized Sitcom Housing, and Pretty Freeloaders. The folks living in such an apartment may or may not have an Improbable Food Budget. Usually not an issue for Big Fancy House-dwellers, as they tend to be fantastically wealthy to start with. Related to Informed Poverty, where characters who are supposed to be suffering financially seem to live very well.
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Anime and Manga
Arguably omnipresent in this category given that Japan has higher housing costs than almost anywhere else. Just about every anime has an unspoken district in Tokyo where decently sized apartments or full-fledged houses can be bought cheaply. A few acknowledge it with even a line about it being an old family home or something, once... maybe.
In the first anime, Sailor Moon's household, in the particularly expensive Tokyo district of Juubangai, is kept afloat by a news photographer (although later it seems he's been promoted to editor, and in the manga and live-action television series he's instead highly respected and well-known photojournalist).
Another baffling example is the case of Makoto Kino/Jupiter, who is orphaned and does not have a job but owns and maintains her own apartment. Fanon tends to say that her parents left her a very large inheritance. The same is also true of Mamoru Chiba/Tuxedo Mask, however in the anime he is seen working at various jobs and it is explicitly stated that his parents left him a very large trust fund
In Tantei Gakuen Q, it's not clear if Kyu's mom actually has a job, but she can afford a house in Tokyo.
In Pokémon, one has to wonder how Delia Ketchum affords her house, considering that she doesn't seem to work and she has no husband. While it's not alluded to in the show, additional material reveals that she runs the only restaurant in town. This still doesn't explain why she seems to be home all day despite her live-in help, Mr. Mime, doing all the household chores.
Ah! My Goddess played with this in case of Keiichi, who lives with all three goddesses in a ridiculously large mansion that no college student could realistically afford. In reality, however, it's a rundown and abandoned shrine that was refurbished by Belldandy's magic.
The three sisters in Minami-ke are all students, with the oldest being in High School, and they live by themselves in a fairly big four-room apartment, despite having no apparent income. It's implied once that their father isn't around, either living elsewhere or dead, and the mother isn't referred to at all.
Played with in various continuities of Tenchi Muyo!. A frequent cause of disbelief is the size of Tenchi's house, that's apparently too large for the incomes of a single architect (Tenchi's father Nobuyuki) and a retired Shinto priest (his grandfather Katsuhito) to maintain, let alone acquire a land for, especially with the frequent Broke Episodes in TV Series, bringing the accusations of Masakis being the Land Poor. On the other hand, at least in the OVA continuity it's justified by the fact that it sits in the countryside on the grounds of a family shrine, of which Katsuhito is the priest, and that their original house in the city was much smaller.
Furthermore, at least in the OVA continuity the Jurai Empire has serious covert influence on Earth, and Katsuhito has basically infinite funds, if he ever chose to use them.
Possibly averted in My Lovely Ghost Kana, because the apartment building where Daikichi lives is described as "nearly abandoned" and he may actually be squatting. Neither is it entirely clear what he actually does for a living.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica seems to enjoy toying with this. It helps that the characters who live alone don't require things like food or heat to survive. Mami, Homura and Kyoko are 15-year old girls who live alone in a fairly large Japanese city with no income, yet they can each afford their own homes. Homura owns a large apartment in a European-styled building with modern furniture and holographic displays, though odds are she steals things to afford it (or stole the apartment itself), given that's how she gets her weapons. Kyoko is shown in nice rooms, but she's homeless, and the nice rooms are hotel rooms she gets into. Mami's apartment is an aversion at first; it is rather large, yet barren and spartan, with cheap furnishings that reasonably fit with her means. However, this realism was a byproduct of the animation budget running out. The Blu-Ray version fills her house with all sorts of things that she could never afford, planting it firmly into this trope.
The main character's no exception. Madoka's dad is a househusband, she has a baby brother and her mom is a realistically alcoholic business woman. Even if she makes a ton, it can't be enough to afford the Kanames' large, custom-built, ultramodern house in the Mitakihara suburbs. Which amusingly is the case, as Word of God stated that Madoka's family got the house build by a friend who works in the construction industry.
Digimon Tamers is notable for avoiding this trope most of the time, but Jenrya/Henry's house is a little harder to justify; he has a bunch of siblings and his father's job (never explicitly explained) doesn't seem like it would be able to afford the enormous apartment he lives in.
The Tendo Dojo in Ranma ½ is a traditional Japanese compound with four bedrooms, two guestrooms, a large tearoom, and a large freestanding dojo, all surrounded by a an expansive walled garden including The Thing That Goes Doink. It's all a bit much for a self-employed martial artist supporting three daughters and three freeloaders. While it's reasonable to assume that a traditional dojo would have rooms to house students, Mr. Tendo doesn't appear to have any students, other than Akane (daughter) and Ranma (freeloader).
Played with in Love Hina, where none of the girls appear to be employed and, aside from Naru and Hinata, none of whom have any source of family income. And somehow they all make rent, something that is referenced once or twice throughout the series.
The Hyoudou residence in High School Dx D starts out reasonable, being a two-storey family home with both parents implied to work. It then starts to push it when Asia and then Rias moving in reveal it has at least two spare bedrooms. After the rest of Issei's Battle Harem moves in and Rias has the house renovated into a six-storey, three-basement estate, the only explanation for Issei's parents not having to pay outrageous property tax (not to mention violating zoning laws) is Rias' magic.
Averted with the club members who don't live with Issei, however. Kiba and Gaspar are mentioned to live in an apartment complex nearby on Rias' dime, and she could easily afford that.
Donald Duck lives in a free-standing two-floor house, despite not being able to hold a job for very long, or living on his uncle's slave labor wages. Handwaved by claiming Scrooge rents him the house, but that just raises more questions.
The heroes of Lakeview Terrace buy a large, beautiful house with an in-ground pool in a wealthy district of Los Angeles, an area with very high housing costs. They refer to this as a "starter home."
Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary's Baby is a struggling actor, and his wife Rosemary is a stay-at-home housewife, and yet they are able to afford a spacious prewar apartment in a stately building on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Even in the 1960s, expensive and sought-after real estate.
Sleeping With The Enemy: Laura is able to rent, fix up, and maintain a HUGE, beautiful home, despite only having a part-time job at a library before fleeing her abusive husband and initially not working at all when she does get away. And when she does finally start working, she's still in a job that doesn't pay much. Even for Iowa in the early 90's that's quite a stretch. As well as that she's able to afford plenty of luxuries like brand name products.
Charlie from So I Married an Axe Murderer maintains a very nice, roomy apartment in San Francisco despite seemingly having no other job apart from working as a beat poet, something that's hard to get paid for at all, let alone paid enough to make rent in San Fran. His love interest Harriet and her sister live in a positively huge loft, but since Harriet's the only worker we ever see in there, it's possible she owns the butcher shop where she works.
The two main characters in the fourth Final Destination film, an unmarried couple in college, live together in a very nice house with no mention of them having jobs or parents helping them out.
The family in Soul Surfer live in a very nice house, with no mention of what either parent's job is. And if the mother is homeschooling the children, she might very well not be working at all.
Nobody's sure how the two male leads of Bio-Dome are able to afford their nice house, despite being a) terminally lazy, b) terminally stupid, and c) the #1 cause of damage to any structure unfortunate enough to contain them.
Seth Rogen's character in Knocked Up owns a decent-sized house with a pool and lives there with his pot-smoking friends. He doesn't have a job, but claims he won a lawsuit some years ago and has been living on that money, which is now running out. It still doesn't explain how someone without steady income would get a loan to buy a house (although it's possible his lawsuit settlement was sufficient for him to pay cash). His next idea for an income in a website that shows which actresses can be seen naked in movies (down to minute and second). Katherine Heigl's character works for E! and lives in her sister's guesthouse. By the end, though, Seth Rogen's character decides to grow up. He gets a job in IT and an apartment.
Dana, leading lady of the Ghostbusters movies, lives alone with baby Oscar in a spacious corner apartment in Manhattan overlooking Central Park. This would literally be one of the most expensive apartments in the US. As a cellist for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, she would make around 80 grand a year in the 1980's; the filmmakers could have easily given her a nice apartment in her price range, instead of putting her in a penthouse worth millions in the real world. On the other hand, being designed and constructed by a doomsday cult for the purposes of their Eldritch Abomination summoning cannot be good for the value of a building, especially since the summoning worked.
As Buzzfeed points out, Jovie's apartment in Elf seen toward the end of the film is apparently quite nice and fairly spacious, although she (presumably) lives alone in Chinatown which is about $2000-4000 a month in New York. She works in a department store and states earlier in the film that her hot water was shut off.
The Dude in The Big Lebowski is an unemployed slacker who somehow manages to pay his rent and stay on friendly terms with his landlord. He was originally intended to be the heir of the creator of the Rubik's Cube, but this idea was deleted from later drafts of the film, making his source of income a mystery.
In one of the Sweet Valley University books, the twins' college friend Isabella is forced to take in a new roommate after a car accident means that she can no longer afford to keep up the rent. Although Isabella has wealthy parents, she claims that she doesn't take money from them. She also does not have a part-time job alongside her studies, which leaves the reader wondering how Isabella has thus far paid for the spacious and beautifully-decorated apartment described in the book.
The Dresden Files has the Carpenter family, which consists of seven children, their stay-at-home mother, and a father who works part-time as the fist of God and part-time as the owner/foreman of a small construction company. (It's explicitly stated in one of the short stories that Michael Carpenter refuses to cut corners and doesn't build large, lucrative homes.) They live in a large house in Chicago that is always in perfect repair, since Michael apparently has enough spare time between fighting evil and building middle-class houses to keep his own home and yard in fantastic shape, including upgraded doors, a panic room, new extensions as needed for a growing family, and a treehouse that's probably at least studio-apartment size. (It's possible that divine grace (or the Church) drops baskets full of money on a Knight of the Cross, though that doesn't explain why teenage runaway Molly Carpenter could afford a place to stay, along with several hundreds of dollars worth of tattoos and piercings, without access to her parent's money.)
Karrin Murphy lives in a rather nice house in the city, well above what she should be able to afford on a cop's salary. This is justified by explaining that the house was Murphy's grandmother's, and it was left to her in the will.
Friends, the Trope Namer. Handwaved by Monica claiming that her place actually belongs to her grandmother: Monica is illegally subletting it. The superintendent is actually aware that Monica is breaking the law, and one episode centered on Joey trying to persuade him not to blow the whistle after his patience runs out. That being said, there was a chunk of time where Monica was unemployed, meaning the entire apartment's rent fell to the wages of a waitress. A particularly terrible, and therefore probably poorly-tipped, waitress. (Though in fairness, Monica borrows money from Ross and makes several references to her savings being quickly depleted, so clearly she was still paying some rent).
Chandler and Joey's apartment directly across the hall is an aversion, as Chandler has what is implied to be a high-paying white collar job which would allow him to support both himself and the frequently unemployed Joey, and yet their apartment is roughly a quarter the size of Monica's and is sparsely furnished. By the end of the series, most of the characters ended up with jobs that would have allowed them to afford the apartments outright.
This was Lampshaded by Chandler in the Grand Finale, by telling his newborn children of the apartment: "because of rent control, it was a friggin' steal."
Played straight with Phoebe though, whose apartment was larger and nicer than Joey and Chandler's. Justified in early seasons as she was sharing it with her grandmother but is later living alone on a massuse's salary.
Rent control aside, as the years wore on, there were a few hints thrown in that the building wasn't the nicest in the world. There were the thin floors that let Mr. Heckles constantly hear their footsteps and the crummy wiring that made a switch in Chandler and Joey's apartment turn on Monica's TV.
In Becker, Linda the brain dead bimbo nurse of Dr. Becker lives in a spacious apartment that Becker is completely envious of. Though this is because her parents, who are extremely rich, pay for it. Becker himself has told her that he has the desire to murder her and live there, played for laughs.
Married... with Children. Al Bundy made minimum wage and was the only working member of the family, yet they lived in a decent-sized house in what appears to be in a fairly nice neighborhood in Chicago. It's also clean and tastefully decorated, making it a stretch for us to believe that the place is a dump. This being said, their neighbors tended to be obscenely rich.
One episode lampshaded the trope. Carrie remarks to her screenwriter boyfriend-of-the-season that his TV script about a bunch of young actors living in a Manhattan penthouse is hardly realistic.
Another directly addresses this, apparently it was rent control. When Aidan buys her building and gives her the option of either buying the apartment or leaving, she starts to look at more believably-priced buildings (including one which apparently reeks because it's right above an Indian restaurant.) Apparently, the building was rent-controlled, she got the apartment, and the rents just kind of exploded around her.
Her apartment is stated to have sold for over 9.6 million.
Richie and Eddie from Bottom definitely are not Living in a Furniture Store: their residence is a gradually decaying first-floor walkup flat over a corner shop. And yet, although we occasionally meet the landlord, making the rent never seems to be an issue, despite the fact that our protagonists haven't held a steady job since 1979. They attempt to Handwave this away in an early episode by mentioning an aunt of Richie's who is the actual owner of the flat; said aunt, however, is never spoken of again.
The West Wing has perhaps the strangest variation on this. The show's sets include vast, opulently furnished rooms such as the Lobby, the Roosevelt Room, and the Mural Room. The real-life West Wing either doesn't have these at all, or has much smaller, shabbier versions, as you'd expect given that it's essentially a government office building. Part of what causes this dissonance is the desire to create a sense of constant activity within the White House, resulting in the TV version being more active than the real thing (as well as having many more pretty glass doors and windows to exhibit this activity).
Mostly averted on Community, however the Troy/Abed/Annie apartment in Season Three plays the trope relatively straight. Although Annie is a penny-pincher and both Troy and Abed are probably getting support from their parents, their means of paying for the apartment is never explicitly stated. However, being in Colorado and not New York, this is not too much of a stretch.
Seemingly played straight, then Justified and Averted in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Dennis and Mac live in a nice two-bedroom apartment with a leather couch, despite making less than they would on unemployment. Dee lives alone in a very nice apartment despite making even less than the bar owners. Dennis and Dee come from a wealthy family, however, and a season 5 episode explicitly mentions that Frank pays Dee's rent (and presumably at least helping with Dennis'). Meanwhile, Charlie lives in abject squalor, averting the trope entirely.
They really draw attention to it in Peter's case: he gets a job as a nurse, throws a huge party in his new apartment, and everyone acts like it's tiny. Sure, his family's rich and they live in a mansion, but it's still a huge apartment by New York standards.
D.L. and Niki's house also qualifies. Their entire plot is kicked off by the fact that they can't afford the rent. But they live in a two-story house in the suburbs which is a little too big for three people, has a pool in the backyard and reflective surfaces on pretty much everything, and a PS3 inside. If only they'd moved into an apartment or sold something, they wouldn't have had to borrow money from the mob.
The Bennetts "go underground" by living in a massive house in a very wealthy neighborhood in Southern California. Noah's cover job is an entry-level position at a copy shop. Presumably he has a great deal of money from working with Primatech and Claire's biological family is absurdly wealthy but using it to live beyond his obvious means kind of defeats the purpose of going into hiding.
The apartment where Ted, Marshall, and Lily live has an abnormally large main room but is otherwise not that big. Both the kitchen and the bedrooms are fairly small (Ted's drafting table is in the main room cause it won't fit anywhere else) and it's implied the building itself isn't that great. Ted has always been employed as an architect and Marshall lives off his student loans. Averted when Lily moves out and ends up living in a one room apartment so small that its Murphy bed can't even come down all the way.
Lampshaded by Ted in season four: "I thought having a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side was half the reason she agreed to marry me."
Justified when Marshall and Lily move into their own place—It's nice, but not overly spacious, and it's stated to be outside their price range despite both of them working full-time (he as a lawyer!). It makes even more sense when we find out that the only reason it was even close to their price range was that it stinks due to its proximity to a sewage plant, and the floors are not level.
Robin's original apartment in the first few seasons is also pretty spacious considering she worked for a low-end news job at the worst station in New York and had five dogs. It is possible Robin had help with her rent from her apparently wealthy father, or she may still have had money saved from her stint as a Canadian pop star.
It is revealed in season 9 that Robin has a lot of money from her family
Lampshaded after Marshall and Lily spend some time in a spacious suburban home, and when they return to their apartment, it suddenly appears cramped and tiny in comparison. (This sets up a trope subversion for the rest of the show: We can now assume that all of the apartments are small, and only look big to people used to New York apartments.)
Subverted in Scrubs. At first, Elliot lives in a quality apartment despite her low salary. It is later revealed that her rich father pays for all her expenses, and when she refuses to let him make decisions on her life, he cuts her off, forcing her to bunk with her friends or live in a U-Haul truck for an extended period. We do see the effects of this trope, however, when Carla thinks of JD and Turk's normal-sized apartment as "tiny."
Inverted in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, where the twins and their mother occupy a dwelling that looks more like an incredibly-cramped one bedroom apartment than a suite in a five-star hotel.
In Reaper, the guys move into a massive three bedroom apartment which cost them only $1,200 a month in rent. Despite Sock trying to Handwave it away by saying that he "got a great deal" and it "used to be a meth lab," it's obviously way over the minimum-wage group's income bracket. Especially considering the established gay couple living next door, who have obviously been there for ages, and the wonderful state of repair it is in. This is later justified when it is revealed that the Devil, Satan, Father of Lies, He Who Is Legion, the Beast Whose Number Is 666, happened to sign their lease as part of an Evil Plan to put down a demonic rebellion.
Explained in Flight of the Conchords: the landlord realises they've been paying rent in New Zealand dollars, not American dollars, and evicts them. The flat is dingy and also quite small: bathroom, living room and twin bedroom.
iCarly: The living room and dining room are somewhat realistic, but how many condos do you know that have a second and third floor and an elevator? It's also decked out with the latest technology. The Grand Finale confirmed that the elevator opened up to more floors than just the three the Shays used, which might explain why they can afford the apartment - Anyone can enter their apartment at anytime, without their permission.
Speaking specifically of rent control, during the first season of Angel, Cordelia finds herself a sweet, roomy apartment that she can afford on a receptionist's salary. It's haunted. One of the ghosts tries to kill her, but the other is nice and is thus not exorcised. Phantom Dennis is referenced occasionally in future seasons.
It was also never explained how Angel could afford to live and keep an office in the building that he used for Season 1. The hotel used for Season 2 onwards however received two Handwaves on the subject: first a wealthy client who owed Angel Investigations a favour handled all of the paperwork on the matter, then Lilah (in order to piss off a co-worker) fabricated even more paperwork.
It was shown in a season 1 episode where Angel went to consult the oracles who demanded something pretty for the privilege of talking to them, he tossed them a rare/priceless vase and gave the year it was made in as well. It can be assumed that being a vampire and being around for a couple centuries he has probably amassed quite the collection of antiques (a la Highlander)which, when needed, could give him the cash he needs for places.
The Humphreys on Gossip Girl keep griping about how they are poor (at least in comparison to the rest of the cast) and how times are rough, which makes sense given that Rufus is the sole breadmaker and he owns a low key art gallery. Their loft, however, suggests that they are considerably more wealthy than Rufus' job would make them, and that they are far from as poor as they keep saying that they are.
Television Without Pity also pointed out the ludicrous treatment of dorm rooms in the later seasons; Blair's dorm room at NYU is approximately the size of at least two actual dorm rooms, so unless she also bought the room next to hers and knocked down the adjoining wall, there's no explanation for how absurdly spacious her room is.
In Seinfeld, Jerry and Elaine have steady jobs, and Jerry's apartment is based heavily on his actual former apartment in the Upper West Side. George's living arrangements depend on his employment status, sometimes resulting in him having to live with his parents. As far as Kramer is concerned, no one has any idea how he can afford his apartment with no obvious source of income, but this was kind of a Running Gag throughout the series. It was shown in an episode of Mad About You that Kramer sublets from Paul and that Paul doesn't want to let go of the apartment; as such he may be subletting at under market value as Kramer is a "good" tenant.
In an early episode, it's mentioned that the rent of the apartment above Jerry's is only $400 (possibly actually rent controlled, considering the former resident was an elderly lady).
On Charmed, three twenty-something women (only two of whom have jobs) own a large three-story Victorian manor with a yard in San Francisco, a very dense urban area with some of the most expensive real estate in the country. The issue is supposedly handwaved that it has been in the family for generations and has been inherited, but the Halliwells would likely not be able to even afford the property tax on a home that would likely sell for at least $5 million, assuming it's not in wealthy or desirable part of town. Also bear in mind the place belonged to their Grandmother first and Prue and Piper only moved back in just a few months before they became witches. When Penny died she likely had some form of inheritance and before that Prue was a museum curator, then a prominent job at an auction house. In season 2 she also becomes a photographer for a magazine and she seems to have no trouble finding work. Piper was previously a bank teller, then the head chef in a posh restaurant before setting up her own club that always seems to have a decent amount of people in there. When Paige moved into the house she was a social worker though quit her job and never worked full-time after that. Phoebe seemed to go in and out of various jobs in the early seasons before becoming a very successful advice columnist (successful enough to be given talk show appearances, billboards and plenty of interviews). This is acknowledged as she does not gain a car until season 5 where she's been at her job for a good few months. While their house is always under threat from demons, some episodes do show them using magic to repair damages.
In Drake & Josh, the family lives in a beautiful dwelling. But the father is only a weather man on the local news. And he does a lousy job of predicting the weather. As for the mother, we never even see her working.
Although not an apartment, Buffy and Willow's dorm room is rather large for a dorm housing incoming freshmen. It was even dubbed the "Largest Dorm Ever" by Television Without Pity.
Xander averted this in season four, living in his parents' basement and being charged rent while he went through a number of scut jobs. Then in season five he moves into an absurdly spacious apartment, with the Handwave that he had earlier been given a permanent job with a decent level of responsibility. Justified by season seven when he's in charge of a major project and frequently in suits to talk to clients.
In seasons 1-3 Joyce has a gallery and yet Buffy is always shown wearing the latest fashions in every episode without working on her own. While one could argue that Buffy's father might send money their way it's still a huge stretch that Joyce's gallery pays for their nice house (and the constant repairs to it), all their luxuries and Buffy's designer wardrobe.
In one episode, Xander comments that Joyce had at some point taken to buying cheap furniture (the coffee table was made of balsa wood) and having workable yet inexpensive repair work done around the main window due to the constant damage to the house.
Sunnydale is stated to have insanely low property values. This fact serves two purposes: it explains how a single mom, and later, a group of twentysomethings who are either college students or working in fast food can afford such a nice home, and it explains why people even live in a town that is ravaged by demons on a near-weekly basis.
The Young Ones: Four unemployed college students are renting a house in London. Averted partly by the implication that Mike is blackmailing their landlord into discounting their rent, partly by the fact that said house is falling to pieces (their first house is condemned and demolished at the end of the first episode), and almost entirely by the fact that all UK higher education students at the time got a generous means-tested grant to cover their living expenses, Housing Benefit to top up any shortfall, unemployment benefit during vacations and paid no tuition fees. Part of the joke was the needless squalor in which they lived, given how relatively well-off students could be.
Gilmore Girls is a borderline example. Lorelai and Rory live in a lavishly furnished two-story house in rural Connecticut, far larger than is practical for a single mother and her teenage daughter. She lives there on the salary of a bed-and-breakfast manager, a job she earned working up from being a maid after being a teenage mother at sixteen. It's a plot point that Lorelai saved up for years to afford the house, which isn't in the best condition. For the bulk of Rory's childhood, they lived rent-free in a converted shack behind the inn.
Bunheads veers wildly back and forth on this trope: one of the arcs of the first season was dedicated to the financial intricacies of the main characters' home ownership situation, which, however, never made much sense and never seemed to actually imperil their ownership of a house that they explicitly could not afford. Played utterly straight when Sasha, a sixteen-year-old girl without a paying job, whose parents have both moved to different cities, leaving her to live on her own, rents and furnishes a gigantic apartment in impeccable taste. Although her resourcefulness in dealing with the logistics of all this at 16 is highlighted, there's not so much as a Hand Wave towards who is paying for all this.
It would probably be easier to list the German TV shows where this isn't the case. Apparently, even struggling freelancers and single mothers can afford six-room-apartments in renovated old buildings. Changed only in recent years in that nowadays, they often live in ex-factory lofts instead (which tend to be even bigger). Yes, in former East Germany rents are lower, but not that low.
On The Secret Life of the American Teenager, everyone's houses and apartments are very nice and wonderfully decorated, despite everyone having various jobs that should create economic differences between them. Ricky's apartment gets a pass because it used to belong to Leo's wealthy parents. A few headscratchers in particular are Adrian and her mom having an upscale apartment in season one , even though they were supposed to be kinda poor. Daniel and his friends also manage to have lavish apartments, despite being college students.
The King of Queens. Doug is a package delivery man and Carrie is a legal secretary, yet they can afford a detached, two-story house in Queens while supporting Carrie's elderly father and paying for a car, big-screen television, daily dog walker and other luxuries. Granted, Doug's job is unionized, big-firm legal secretaries do pretty well, and Queens is not Manhattan. Still, it is New York City with the related real estate prices, taxes and insurance rates.
Long-running Australian soap Home and Away has many examples, mostly teen characters set up in their own living spaces but with no job or income to support them.
Degrassi: The house that Ellie, Marco, Paige, and Alex (replaced with Griffin later on) shared looked a little more spacious than what four college students could realistically afford.
Similarly, in later seasons, Fiona's condo. At first her finances are being covered by her wealthy parents but after her mother is investigated for tax fraud, Fiona is forced to take on a roommate and yet the both of them are able to pay for a very large condo in a very trendy neighbourhood in Toronto with their combined salaries from minimum wage mall jobs (and Fiona's is only part-time, as she was still enrolled in school).
Subverted in El Chavo del ocho. Don Ramon and La Chilindrina live in a one-bedroom apartment in a low-rent neighborhood. However, given that Don Ramon does not work often, he should still not be able to afford it. Senor Barriga forgives his rent often.
On That Girl, Ann Marie is a struggling actress, auditioning for bit parts and taking various one-off temp jobs on the side, and yet she can afford a spacious, groovily decorated bachelorette pad inhe middle of Manhattan.
In Castle, averted and played straight. Castle, being a famous bestselling author of over 20 novels as well as being well-known in New York's elite and upper-class circles, can easily afford his spacious penthouse. On the other hand, Beckett's apartment would break the wallet of a police detective, and this was before it got blown up. Her new place as of Season 4 is even more extravagant. But then, the show notes that she does come from a wealthy family...
August: We could move to New York and rent a loft in the Village with a view of the river. It'll probably cost about... three hundred bucks a month. But, you know, that's okay — we'll find jobs in book stores.
Perfect Strangers: A photographer, a mailroom clerk/cartoonist, and two flight attendants couldn't possibly have afforded a big Victorian house in Chicago's Old Town neighbourhood.
The newer Bionic Woman is a struggling bartender raising her teenage sister by herself. She also lives in a San Francisco apartment that would strain the resources of anyone making less then seven figures, much less five.
The Vampire Diaries. Matt Donovan seems to be able to keep himself afloat despite his only source of income being a part time job at the Mystic Grill. One could also wonder how Alaric Saltzman is able to live in such a swanky apartment on a teacher's salary. Or how Elena and Jeremy manage to live comfortably despite all of their caretakers being dead
Played with on New Girl. The three guys live in an extremely spacious apartment even though Nick works as a bartender and has almost no money and Winston is unemployed. Schmidt, however, makes a lot of money at his job and is implied to cover the bulk of rent, while Jess likely covers some Rent as well and the apartment has quite a few defects and a landlord who isn't entirely sane. It also bears mentioning that it is in Los Angeles, not NYC, where property is more affordable.
Initially averted in CHiPs when Ponch lived at a mobile home in a trailer park. Later played straight when he moved into a fancy apartment by the marina. It makes you wonder if he was on the take.
Full House: Some found it unrealistic that Danny could have afforded what was obviously a very nice, very big town house in a presumably equally very nice section of San Francisco on a TV morning show host's salary, as well as support three young children. There's never any mention of Joey or Jesse paying him rent (not that they could have, given how sporadic their employment was for the first few seasons of the show). Then again, given that Danny was a widower, maybe his late wife's life insurance helped some.
Near the end of the first season of Person of Interest, Reese moves into a huge apartment overlooking a park that probably has a monthly rent greater than the monthly mortgage payment of most suburban houses, which he never could have afforded back when he was an Army NCO or a CIA agent (The pay scale for his current job - vigilante working on behalf of reclusive billionaire - never being mentioned). Fortunately, the apartment was provided by his boss, who could easily afford to pay the rent for him (Assuming Finch doesn't own the building outright).
Home Improvement: The Taylors' house is borderline unrealistic in its size, especially given the fact that Tim is the only one bringing in a paycheck for 90% of the show. Jill works on and off for the first two seasons in low-key office jobs but then spends the remainder of the series in college. Tim is quoted many times as working on a "low-rated cable show" (which he only seems to work at for a few hours a day), yet he can afford a two-story house with two (sometimes three) bathrooms, three bedrooms you could host a football team in almost comfortably, an enormous living room and kitchen, an oversized basement, and a not-too-shabby attic. About the only part of their home that isn't unrealistically huge is the back yard.
The house is fairly realistic when viewed from outside; just the living room is clearly bigger than the entire house. It's also established that Tim was so successful as a salesman that the show is a working retirement for all practical purposes (they made the next-best salesman CEO). Furthermore, the show is specifically set in Royal Oak Michigan which had reasonably low house prices in the 80's when the house was presumably purchased.
Also, the show is basically a commercial for the tool company, so in some respects Tim is still working as their salesman.
The show takes place just outside of Detroit. This is a city that in 2013 started giving away FREE HOUSES just to get people to move into the city limits. Nothing is unrealistic for a buyer's market like that.
In Grey's Anatomy, medical intern Meredith lives in her mother's house (while her mother is in a nursing home and later dies), so she doesn't have to pay. George and Izzie, and eventually Alex, are invited to stay with her. Christina is the only intern with her own apartment, but later lives with her boyfriend who is an attending, and then with Callie who is a resident then becomes an attending. Callie was supported by her wealthy family and temporarily lived in a hotel room with George. When Izzie and Alex marry, Derek gives them his trailer. The later seasons have April, Jackson, Alex, and Lexi living at Meredith's house while Meredith moves in with Derek. It's never stated how many rooms she has, but one person was in the attic or basement. Meredith recently sold her mother's house to Alex, who is renting a room to Christina.
Meredith would still have to pay property taxes on the house.
Derek's salary is mentioned at one point to be $2 million a year. Justified in that he's a top neurosurgeon. Why does he live in a trailer? Because he wants to, and he hasn't yet figured out what to do with the large piece of land he bought. Back in New York, him and Addison had a very nice brownstone. They also had a house in the Hamptons. With his salary, and with Addison being a well-known surgeon in her own right, them being able to afford all that is justified. After the divorce, Derek simply gives Addison both East Coast places.
In Spaced, trying to avert this sets up the entire series - Tim and Daisy have to pose as a couple in order to afford a flat. It's still a very nice flat for £90 a week, but then again the landlord is pretty desperate for company.
Played straight in Wizards of Waverly Place. Nobody in New York, especially not owners of a sandwich shop that seems to be perpetually half-empty, can have a house, complete with basement, parking lot, and balcony in TriBeCa. Though there could be explanation in that Jerry (the dad) seems to STILL have some very big pull in the magical world. This would help with the situation.
Justified with Sherlock and John's flat on Baker Street, as Sherlock has helped the landlady Mrs. Hudson (by ensuring her runaway husband would be executed in the US), so she gives him a discount (unspecified, of course). On the other hand, Sherlock makes no money off his police work and frequently refuses compensation from private clients (John usually steps in and takes the money). John was only shown working once by getting a job as a local doctor... only to fall asleep in the office due to long nights investigating. He does receive pension after being discharged from the army but claims in the pilot that it's not nearly enough to afford a place in London. Also, in the pilot, Mycroft offers to pay John to spy on Sherlock (John didn't know who Mycroft was at the time). When Sherlock finds out, he berates John for refusing and later explains that Mycroft's concern was that of a brother, not an enemy.
Justified with Sherlock's brownstone in New York in Elementary, as his father is the one who owns the place and lets his son use it, provided Sherlock stays clean and goes through the 12-step program. Joan is hired to live with him and keep him clean, being paid enough to keep her apartment. Later, after finding out that the guy she was subletting to filmed a porn video there, she gives up the place and moves her stuff to the brownstone. As in Sherlock, Holmes consults the NYPD for free, although he does work with private clients during downtime. After Holmes Sr. stops paying Joan for her services, Sherlock offers to pay her out of his own pocket if she stays on as his apprentice. Previously, Joan was an accomplished surgeon and, presumably, could afford a nice place. We later find out that the Holmes family is Fiction 500 wealthy and thus Sherlock's living accommodations are actually quite spartan by their standards.
Subverted in Malcolm in the Middle - when Reese storms/is kicked out of the house, he manages to rent a really nice apartment on an (admittedly well-paying) part-time job. However, it turns out he's paying the rent and all the expenses by credit card, and has racked up several thousand dollars debt in a matter of weeks.
Justified in The 10th Kingdom: Virginia, a waitress, and her father Tony are able live in an apartment right next to Central Park because Tony is the janitor there and the apartment is part of his pay.
While it (sort of) makes sense for most of the cast of The Big Bang Theory to have nice apartments, as Leonard, Sheldon, Raj, Bernadette and Amy are all scientists with fairly large research grants (and Howard lives with his mother), Penny's nice apartment filled with clothes, accessories, shoes and booze seems like an awful lot for a waitress's budget. Maybe she just never buys food. In one of the early episodes, Leonard mentions covering Penny's rent for her.
In My Name Is Earl, it is unknown how Earl and Joy paid rent on their trailer which they de-facto inherited from Earl's old roommate Frank, who went to prison, considering that Earl was often between jobs (he did ocassionally work various odd-jobs, but due to his problems with authority, they never lasted long), and Joy never worked at that time. (She is occasionally shown to run a nail salon out of her trailer later in the series, but it appears that she started that business after her marriage to Earl ended.) They stole a lot of things, but those were almost always either things like formula for the kids, or luxury items that they used but did not resell. It's subverted later, when Earl mentions that he and Joy would camp out in an abandoned RV when the bill collectors got to be too much. (It was their de-facto "vacation home.") Even though their standard of living is low, by all logic it should be lower.
Not that Joy's standard of living is that much better after she divorces Earl for her longtime lover Darnell. As a bartender or the manager of the Crab Shack, Darnell makes a base salary even below minimum wage, and this being Camden, the tip jar is often empty.
Earl is also technically homeless, since he lives in a room at a motel. (Which is lampshaded when he goes to apply for a credit card.) Why he doesn't use even some of his lottery winnings to get a cheap apartment is unknown. He does get himself an apartment, but it seems he used the money he earned from his first "real" job at Wadt Appliances. Although most of that money goes towards his Karma cause, he is shown to use it to buy things for himself, such as a car alarm.
On Glee, some viewers have wondered how Marley's mom can afford a two-story house when their poverty is often a plot point. However, the house could be a rental, and renting in semi-rural Ohio would cost a fraction of New York's prices.
The Bushwick loft that the New York group live in starting in season 4. At first it's just Rachel and Kurt, then Santana joins them but doesn't seem to pay rent. The loft is quite spacious, though the apparently low price could be justified by the fact that it's very far from Manhattan and the neighbourhood is rough. Still, for a while the only one with a job is Kurt who had an internship at Vogue.com until the three of them got part time jobs at a diner. It's possible that their parents are helping them out though since they are college students. Now though Rachel and Santana have moved out so it's just Blaine and Kurt living there, and Blaine doesn't have a job (yet) so we don't know how that loft is getting paid for.
Will and Grace usually justified this, one way or another. Most of the characters are established to either make enough to afford decent housing or are mooching off those who can. The second season shows that Grace can apparently make enough to afford a large apartment by herself, but not enough to actually furnish or clean it.
Averted with the Poorly Disguised Pilot episode of The Facts of Life, "Big Apple Blues." Five young people share a loft in New York City, and when one leaves they worry about how to come up with an extra $200 (each? It's not clear). In 1988 a loft for $1000 was a little far-fetched, but not out of the realm of reality. It's probably a little bigger than a realistic NYC apartment might be, but that's forgivable.
In the pilot of Once Upon a Time, Emma is shown living in a spacious high-rise in downtown Boston that would be pricey for a bounty hunter, even one with a steady flow of assignments (which is hardly guaranteed).
On Graceland the main characters live in a spacious beach home that they could never afford. This is perfectly justified since they are federal undercover agents and the house is a safe house owned by the federal government. However, it also means that they cannot really bring any not-in-the-loop friends to the house since their cover identities could not afford the rent on a place like that and people would start asking questions. Mike can get away with this since his cover is that of a pilot on temporary assignment in LA whose expenses are covered by his airline. On the other hand Johnny is supposed to be a personal trainer and Charlie usually pretends to be a homeless junkie so they could never explain how they can afford to live there.
Averted on Caroline In The City. Caroline does live in a palatial apartment in Manhattan, but, as a nationally syndicated cartoonist, it's probably not outside her price range. Richard, by contrast, lives in a squalid studio apartment that became available when the previous tenants were murdered.
In The Odd Couple, it's not clear why Oscar Madison expects to maintain a family-sized apartment in New York for himself and his friends, since the start of play finds him running painfully short on alimony payments.
Spiritual SequelHeavy Rain has the same problem with the apartments that are owned by Ethan (who's supposed to be a divorce dad falling on hard times) and Madison (a reporter who doesn't even seem to be working for one particular newspaper)—they're both absurdly spacious, though at least Ethan's apartment is bare.
Ethan lives in a house even after he's divorced. Except in his happier endings, when he's living on the aforementioned Lucas Kane's apartment.
All of the safehouses used by Mike in Alpha Protocol are fairly expansive penthouses, save for the one in Taipei, which is a tiny, crappy apartment - until Mike uses the shower, which takes him downstairs into an Elaborate Underground Base that looks more like an intelligence command center than a safehouse, complete with a secret tunnel leading aboveground for his motorcycle. This is explained as part of the Alpha Protocol program, where agents establish safehouses using their own money and established bank accounts (and most of the resources used are not actually known by the agency to avoid tracing it back to Alpha Protocol - yay compartmentalizing!) Mike tends to lampshade this, pointing out in Moscow how he appreciates where government spending is going while chilling in his massive, chic and ultramodern penthouse.
Subverted in City Under The Hill. Seamus works full-time for the Border Police, and yet still only affords a small sized flat above a grocery store.
Occurs (but is Lampshaded at least once) in Questionable Content — Martin, Dora, and Faye live in an enormous and gorgeous apartment, despite the fact that Marten works at a library for a small college, Dora owns a coffee shop she continuously has trouble keeping afloat, and Faye works for Dora as a barista at the coffee shop.
-Marten: No, because then she'd fire you and I'd have to pay the rent on this place all on my own.
Housing in Western Massachusetts is rather less expensive than in urban East Coast areas like Boston or New York, even if it still comes across as expensive compared to the South, Midwest or Western part of the country. Three people working, even at low-wage jobs, and budgeting carefully or scoring lots of their stuff for free off what college kids throw away (easy to do in Amherst or Northampton) can and have afforded pretty decent apartments there before.
Later strips explain that the coffee shop isn't nearly as bad off as it seems; Dora purposefully under staffs the shop (and picks up the slack herself) so she can take home more of the store's profit for spending money.
Subverted in Rhapsodies. Kate, Paul and Brian live in an apartment across the street from a popular park, owned by Brian's parents. However, the three units surrounding Brian's apartment are almost unrentable so his parents are virtually giving them away at slum rates.
Justified in S.S.D.D as Richard is actually the landlord and willing to give his friends a lot of leeway when it comes to rent (Norman helps him shake up the tenants in his other properties, Kingston often pays in dope, and Anne sleeps with him). Neither is he above threatening to chuck Kingston or even Norman out if they really try his patience.
Lampshaded in Metacarpolis when Emiko admits that she can't afford her apartment solely on her income as a cleaning service maid. It's just one of many hints that she is more than she appears.
The lead trio are a call center worker who spends most of his spare cash on geeky collectibles, a comics shop assistant (hired without negotiation as "counter candy"), and a waitress. The apartment they share looks pretty nice, though, even if the landlady is a serious hard case.
Waitress Sonya can afford an apartment of her own, in a building with its own swimming pool.
Possibly slightly justified in that the series takes place in Montreal, which is a better city for rents than some.
Deconstructed by The Nostalgia Critic (with a guest appearance from '90s Kid), in his Bio-Dome review, which he points out was one of numerous movies from the '90s featuring stupid young people with no steady jobs but had decent places to live.
'90s Kid: Oh, that's probably my land lord with another eviction note [Crashing sound] And a battering ram. [Dramatic Gun Cock] And a sawed-off shotgun...
The Simpsons live in a very large, four or five bedroom house despite Homer being the only breadwinner (and being somewhat, ahem, unreliable when it comes to spending money), though it was once explained by Grandpa Simpson selling his house to help Homer and Marge buy theirs. Some episodes draw attention to it though.
Lampshaded in "Homer's Enemy":
Frank Grimes: [in awe] Good Heavens! This is a palace! H-How can, how in the world can you afford to live in a house like this, Simpson?
Homer: I dunno. Don't ask me how the economy works.
Further lampshaded in "Kill Gil: Volumes 1 and 2", where Homer says, "I make six [thousand dollars] a year"; and in "Father Knows Worst," where he says, "[One thousand dollars is] how much my house is worth!"
Of course, a safety inspector at a Real Life nuclear power plant working for someone other than Montgomery Burns would be earning serious money. Plus, Springfield is considered in-universe to be a crappy place to live, which could drive down prices.
The creators have also been known to state that they've deliberately kept the precise layout of the Simpsons' home vague and inconsistent, so it's hard to tell how big it really is.
Parodied in Futurama. Leela is watching "Real World: The Sun" (which apparently consists of footage of people screaming as they immolate), and is disgusted by how expensive the set would be.
"Do you know how much an apartment that big would cost on the sun?"
In Family Guy, Peter is the only one employed in the family, as a below management level employee at a toy factory(at least until the later seasons, where he worked briefly as a fisherman, and then got a decent paying job at the Pawtucket Brewery) yet they live in a nice house. In addition he manages to spend all kinds of money on stuff, which was lampshaded in Peter's use of the "Peter-Copter" and the "Hindenpeter" which damage Joe's house and property, prompting Joe to wail incredulously, "How can you afford these things?!!" The episode "Emission Impossible" explained how: Lois and Peter won a lawsuit against a condom company after Lois' pregnancy with Chris due to a broken condom. That lawsuit allowed the Griffins to buy their lovable, size-changing house on Spooner Street. Lois is also not above the occasional Five-Finger Discount or accepting money from her obscenely rich father.
It is also revealed how in The Cleveland Show when Junior offhandedly mentions all of the random jobs Peter had to get to pay for the incident that killed his mother. So he pretty much stated that all of the Manatee Gags shown in the series is how he pays off for all the damages his stupid actions cause.
Darkwing Duck lived in a two story home despite not even having any sort of job outside of his crime fighting. This was finally explained in the 2010 comics, where it's revealed that SHUSH paid him for his services.
Likewise, the eponymous character on Jimmy Two-Shoes lives on his own without a job. One episode centered around him having to take a job to pay for some frivolous purchases, but he never has problems basic living.
Parodied in The Critic. Doris owns a huge, spartan apartment in New York City - and only pays $150 thanks to rent control. She tells Jay - without turning around - to put the candlestick down, knowing he wanted to club her to take over her rent controlled apartment.
Truth in Television: There are some apartments in Manhattan with ridiculously low rents, even as low as $150, thanks to rent control. A good chunk of them are in upper Manhattan, though, and often date back to the 1940's.
It's also inverted in Alice's introductory episode. She's a divorced mother with a child to support on meager earnings, her apartment is run down and in a bad neighborhood with mentally-unstable neighbors and she's in the process of being evicted.
Dexter's Laboratory: The Justice Friends (Major Glory, Val Hallen and Krunk) live at an apartment they rent. It's revealed in one episode that Val Hallen got the largest room (well, less "room" and more "pocket dimension containing the full glory and splendor of VALHALLA ITSELF") and pays a bigger share of the rent than the others because of this (which isn't a problem for him as he is not only a superhero and "Norse god of rock," but also the world's most famous rock star). It's never stated how much each Justice Friend pays (although Major Glory probably has a cushy government contract).
Played with by Mission Hill early on, then averted. Andy is working at a water mattress store at (presumably) just above minimum wage, Posey is just...there, and no one knew what Jim did for a living until Kevin came along, yet they live in a very spacious apartment (with a second floor!) in a decent building with neighbours they like, in a part of town that doesn't seem run down or depressed. Then Jim is revealed to be a highly paid corporate executive with tons of clout for basically being a computer whiz. This isn't revealed until Andy loses his job and a tooth, and Jim lets him use his health insurance to have it fixed, because Andy never asked - even though he's Jim's best and oldest friend.
Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends: Mac's apartment is fairly spacious, despite the fact that he lives with his single mother who's supporting him and his brother. His father is presumed dead (as opposed to divorced or separated), so she probably doesn't get child support or alimony. It's also revealed that the enormous, titular Foster's Home gets donations (in reference to a house that feeds and provides room & board for hundreds of imaginary friends). Although when Mac fibs about there being no hot water, his mom passes it off as one of the problems with their home. She doesn't object to him turning on the AC though shortly afterward.
Sym-Bionic Titan: The alien trio move into a large house outside downtown Sherman (similar to Chicago). How do they afford it? Why Octus is able to createnote sounds nicer than "counterfeit" money to pay for it as opposed to applying for a home loan. ("Fine. Everyone pays for houses in cash.")
Played with on The Looney Tunes Show. Bugs and Daffy live in a very nice house in a neighborhood where almost everyone (excluding Yosemite Sam) appear to be rather pleasant, if a bit eccentric. While Daffy is stated to have no job and very poor credit, Bugs, however, is revealed to have invented the carrot peeler and most, if not all of his money stems from the royalties.
When Bugs Bunny can no longer afford the mortgage on his nice house in the episode "Peel of Fortune," he is forced to move back into his old rabbit hole from the classc Looney Tunes cartoons. He finds the experience unpleasant, after years of suburban lifestyle.