The "Reality" of Home Improvement Reality Shows
Who doesn't love watching a good home improvement show on TV? Based on the proliferation of flipping shows on HGTV, DIY Network, A&E, CNBC, Netflix, etc., there is no shortage of viewership for home renovation programming. As one who loves everything real estate, I used to watch Bob Villa on This Old House back in the 1980s. My love of home improvement came largely from my dad, who was always working on some kind of project around the house, or building his own homes. But it was definitely fueled by Bob Villa and all of the similar programming that followed. After buying my first home in the early 90s it seemed that there was always some home improvement project occupying my spare time which continued with every subsequent house. Eventually, Peggy and I decided to make it a business and started buying and renovating homes around the Treasure Valley.
The popularity of renovation and flipping shows has exploded over the past ten years. After the Flip This House series during the 2000s, A&E then developed Flipping Vegas, a drama-infused portrayal of a married couple in Vegas making a killing on the deflated real estate market there. Things really blew up when HGTV jumped into the fray with Flip or Flop, making Tarek and Christina household names. Flip or Flop eventually became one of the highest rated television programs on cable. Then along came Chip and Joanna Gaines and their mega-hit, Fixer Upper. The Gaines' put Waco, Texas on the map, created a business empire, and created a "country home style" that has dominated home design for the past few years.
Now it seems that there is always a flipping show on one channel or another. I know my DVR is packed with them. The Flip or Flop franchise now has at least a half - dozen different iterations, mostly in the South. Add to that, Good Bones, Home Town, Bargain Mansions, Hidden Potential, Flipping Virgins, My First Flip, Renovate to Rent, Desert Flippers, Masters of Flip, Vanilla Ice Project, Zombie House Flipping, Property Brothers, The Deed, etc, etc. Yikes!
So what's the problem? Clearly the demand is there, so programmers are supplying it, right? The problem in my view is that it is a subset of the biggest blight in the history of American television -- Reality TV. I recognize that the population loves to watch how others live (insert Kardashians, the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty fame, etc.), or compete (The Voice, The Bachelor, Amazing Race, etc.), or anything else that lets us escape and feel better or worse about ourselves. Okay, I am as guilty as most -- among my favorite shows are Shark Tank, The Profit, and The Deed. However, I think it is time to change the name of the genre -- it's time to remove the word "reality".
The "reality" is that most of these programs are anything but real. They are scripted, edited, and created just as most all programming on television. They are about as real as the WWE. Real estate programming is no exception. I used to watch an HGTV program called House Hunters, where a couple shop for a home in a new town with a real estate agent. The premise is that they see three houses, then have to pick one to buy. Spoiler Alert! It is all fake. After hearing that a friend of a friend was on the program, and that the entire program was filmed after they had purchased their home, I did a little research. Turns out that after an Entertainment Weekly expose on the program, a spokesman from HGTV admitted the show was completely staged. So what about the flipping shows? They can't be fake can they? Of course they are. The script is almost always the same: (1) home is purchased at an auction or otherwise acquired at some ridiculously low price, (2) our flippers pretend to go through the house for the first time, being grossed out by how disgusting it is, (3) they demo the house by themselves, (4) they do much or most of the renovation themselves (insert staged drama), (5) they stage the house (insert promotional piece pretending to buy materials from ebay, Wayfair, etc.), and (6) they hold an open house where the home sells for above asking price, netting them a ridiculous profit. Just that simple. It is honestly no wonder why so many people jump into flipping houses, only to lose their shorts or find out it is much more difficult than it looks.
The truth is that most of the homes are already owned by the flippers before filming begins. Then they hire contractors to do the work, while stepping in to film segments of them pretending to demo, tile, paint, etc. One example: our Flip or Flop team from Atlanta claims to flip over 100 homes per year. Do the math; that is a home every three days. If you think that they are doing even a fraction of the work, you probably think Game of Thrones is a documentary.
Last year HGTV debuted "Boise Boys" a flipping show here in the Treasure Valley. I was excited to see flipping highlighted in Boise, and particularly looked forward to potentially learning from someone with more experience in our same market. Instead, we get more "made for HGTV programming". The premise is "best friends" Clint (contractor) and Luke (designer), dubbed the odd couple of flipping and/or the Bert and Ernie of renovation, team up to flip houses in Boise. The true story has Clint as a Fort Worth native, with a background as an attorney there, who competed on another reality show, The Apprentice, in 2011 finishing as runner-up. Apparently, Clint started shopping for another "reality opportunity" following his Apprentice appearance, and eventually pitching a flipping show to HGTV. He moved to Boise about three years ago. Enter Luke, a professional musician, who grew up in the area, and already had some investment properties. So already it appeared that the premise was a falsehood.
One of our sub-contractors did some work on one of the Boise Boys renovations and related what a disorganized mess it was. He also confirmed the staged, scripted, and yes, fake nature of the process. We watched with interest when the first few episodes aired, then looked up the properties on the MLS to see how well they did. After bragging about immediate sales for big profits on a couple of the early episodes we found that neither of the houses had sold. One was finally pulled off the market, and the other eventually sold seven month later after multiple price reductions.
Maybe the lesson here is don't believe everything you see on TV. Or maybe it is just that one persons reality is everyone else's scripted fantasy. Perhaps there should be a disclaimer at the beginning of each episode that says "may contain falsehoods, scripted segments, and downright lies" or perhaps it should state "edited to remove truth" So, call it "fake TV" or "pretend TV" but please stop calling it reality TV.
I'm pretty sure that Bob Villa didn't "pretend" to replace a double hung window, or build a deck. How did we, as a society, get so accepting of being lied to? Undoubtedly, I will continue to watch the multitude of renovation programs that are offered up by HGTV and the like. I just won't enjoy it nearly as much.