These days, there are dozens of home renovation TV shows currently airing or in production on networks like HGTV, Netflix, DIY, or Magnolia. These shows often follow the same formula: A contractor-designer duo (think Fixer Upper’s Chip and Joanna Gaines or Home Town’s Ben and Erin Napier) sits down with a set of eager and telegenic homeowners who have volunteered to change up their living space, which sometimes just means buying a newly flipped residence, and other times involves inviting the crew into their existing home for a much-needed update. There’s a budget, one that the show will strain against along the way, but in the end, there’s a big reveal and all parties seemingly walk away happy.
But in recent years, there have been more than a few stories where participants have spoken up about televised home makeovers gone awry, even though most contracts bind homeowners to firm confidentiality, preventing them—at least in theory—from spoiling unaired storylines or making public complaints. In January 2022, Magnolia Network, which is run by Chip and Joanna Gaines, even pulled its Home Work series from the air following allegations from at least three homeowners that its hosts performed shoddy work and broke promises about renovation timelines and budgets. Former contestants on shows like Property Brothers and Love It or List It have gone as far as to file suits against the production companies that call the shots on these series, and some have been met with countersuits. But that’s not to say homeowners can’t walk away happy. Here are six things industry experts and former participants think everyone should know before they go on a home renovation show.
You’ll have to chip in time, energy, and (probably lots of) money
Almost all home renovation shows—save your Extreme Home Makeovers and other more charitable productions—require the homeowner to pay for their own renovation. This means footing the bill for everything from the materials to the permits to the dumpsters, not to mention the porta potty workers use on-site. You’ll also have to pay to move out and store your existing furniture for the duration of shooting (anywhere from two days to three months) as well as any relocation costs you or your family might incur. Hopefully you’ll be able to find a place to crash for free, but if you need to rent a hotel room or an apartment, you’re going to have to do that on your own dime.
Most casting notices for renovation shows will make this clear, calling explicitly for homeowners with budgets to work with. The amount a show is looking for can vary wildly, from $10,000 for a backyard makeover to $125,000 for a historic redo. That being said…
You’re getting a great deal on the work
One perk of being on a home renovation show is that, for the most part, you know the work will be done on schedule and within budget. Anyone who’s had work done on their home knows that this can be a rarity, especially now, with pandemic-related material shortages and shipping delays. “The biggest secret that most people don’t know about home renovation TV is that it typically expedites your renovation by about 20 percent,” says Loren Ruch, group senior VP of programming and development at HGTV. “Since we have crews at your house and hard deadlines, it’s typically the sole focus of the contractor and designer, as opposed to the real world where they may be working on multiple projects at the same time.”
Scott Feeley, president of High Noon Entertainment—the production company behind Fixer Upper, Good Bones, Restored By the Fords, and more—echoes this sentiment. “When you sign up for one of these shows, you’re going to get a unique opportunity to work with one of the top designers in your state,” he says. “You’re also most likely going to get your renovation within your budget and schedule, which I think is huge.” In other words: The show is not going to tell you that your job will be done in three months for $50,000 and then have it take nine months and cost $100,000. That’s bad TV and bad business. “At least on our shows,” Feeley continues, “We’re going to stay within budget and on schedule.” (And if they don’t, that’s a red flag.)
There’s also the possibility—though it’s not a guarantee—that the show might kick in some money toward your renovation if it serves the story they’re telling. For instance, if a design is all about a certain kind of cabinets that are a few thousand dollars out of the homeowner’s budget, the producers might choose to make up the difference or work with a sponsor to get a good deal on that product. This isn’t something to rely on, but it’s nice to know it’s occasionally possible.
You’ll have some control over the design, but you can’t make all the rules
Heather Huntington, a homeowner in Los Angeles, says that when she was on HGTV’s Carter Can in 2007, she had to give producers a list of a few rooms she’d like to see made over. They scouted her house, took measurements, and ultimately decided they’d turn a blank, box-like concrete space she hadn’t been able to figure out what to do with into a theater. Luckily, Huntington says she was thrilled with the outcome, but that doesn’t mean producers always pick the rooms homeowners would like done the most.
Mark Abulencia says when his family was initially approached about being on HGTV’s First Home Fix, he and his husband, Michael Hargrove, suggested the show renovate their family room and kids’ bathroom. Producers came to check out the rooms and decided the bathroom didn’t give enough bang for the show’s buck. “It’s a pretty narrow, small room and I guess it lacked any kind of wow factor,” Abulencia says. Instead, producers said they’d rather makeover the family room and dining area, which the homeowners were ultimately fine with.
“I always say that the best candidates [for these shows] are the ones who are the most collaborative,” says Ruch. “If you know exactly what you want before meeting with the designer, you’re probably not going to have as much fun as someone who comes with an open mind and enthusiastic energy. Take the opportunity to tap into the incredible brains of our experts so that you’ll end up with a makeover that’s even more spectacular than what you imagined.”
Feeley says taking away a little of the homeowners’ control is also about making good TV. Participants always sit down with designers before construction, tell them their needs and wants, and check out a design plan. Once the homeowners agree to a plan, the show typically asks them to move out of their space. “The reason we do that is because we want that big reveal,” Feeley explains. “We want the homeowner to walk into the house and be blown away by what they’re seeing. We’re not going to get that reaction if the owner is living in the home or stopping by every other day to see the process.”
If you’re not picked to be on a show, it’s not necessarily about you
Feeley says that for each of the 10-plus home renovation shows High Noon develops, the company is looking for a different type of participant. If a show is about ugly duckling homes and shoots in Fort Worth, for example, you’ll need to own a home in the area that’s got zero curb appeal and is in need of major updates. You’ll also have to have the hefty budget to pay for those updates and be personable, available, and willing to put your life and home on television.
“It’s really about the right fit,” Feeley says. “A lot of it is timing, too. Are you ready to renovate your house when the show needs to be shot? Does your house fit into the creative [concept] of that show, and does your budget match the scope of work that we want done?”
A homeowner’s design vision also has to match with the show’s aesthetic. If you want to go on Home Town, for instance, but your whole vibe is brutalist furniture and primary colors, the show’s producers might decide you’re not a great fit. “Generally, the designers on these shows really work with the clients to figure out what they like and talk about what the homeowners are envisioning,” Feeley says. “At that step, if the designers and producers feel like the homeowners want a look that just doesn’t match what we’re going for, we probably won’t end up casting them.”
Your background and story can also help you get a leg up in the casting process. Abulencia says a friend of his pointed a casting director their way after hearing they were looking for a more diverse set of first-time homeowners with unique stories to tell. He says he feels like the reason they were cast—apart from their home, their budget, and their personalities—was because he, his husband, and their two children represent a type of family not always seen on home renovation shows. “HGTV tends to feature middle-class white families in the Midwest that can redo a whole house for $30,000,” Hargrove adds. “First Home Fix wanted to really show the real estate market in Southern California and how much things cost, and they wanted to show diverse families across the series.”
The furniture isn’t always included
While Huntington says some of her own budget went toward buying the furniture needed to create her entertainment room, her case is more of the exception than the rule. Most shows will stage rooms for televised reveals, then offer homeowners the chance to buy the staging furniture if they’re into it. Some pieces stay, like anything made custom as part of the show, but many of those white couches that look great on camera (but are wildly impractical for families with children) don’t stay after production has wrapped. Abulencia says that he and Hargrove opted to purchase two chairs they fell in love with on the shoot day, but sent the rest of the staging furniture away with the production crew. It’s worth noting that, for the most part, the staging furniture is fairly priced. “Generally, the pieces that designers put in these homes are relatively affordable,” Feeley says. “It’s not like their staging budget is astronomical so they’re putting in high-end designer furniture.”
The process might seem like a lot, but in the end, it’s generally worth it
Going on a home renovation show isn’t right for everyone, but if you’ve got an adventurous spirit and are willing to give up a little control, it could pay off. It’s also a great option for homeowners who may not have the strongest design sense or overall vision for their space. “I would not have known what to do with the room the show made over,” Huntington says. “I certainly would never have dreamed of making it into a screening room. I felt so spoiled and special to have it.”
Abulencia says part of what he and his husband got from the show was peace of mind. “Before the show, we had another contractor that was supposed to do our family room and he dropped out mid-project,” he explains. “Michael ended up trying to fix it by himself and he did not like the job he did. That’s why this show was so appealing to us, because we got professional help that wasn’t gonna flake on us.” Even better, he says, was that the help actually ended up being better than expected. “It was supposed to be done in six weeks, and sure enough, it was actually done in five weeks,” Abulencia says. “That’s unheard of with non-TV contractors.”
Ruch says that HGTV strives to leave the homes it redoes on its network “in tip-top shape,” especially since the network and its experts put their reputations on the line. “I call it the ‘white glove treatment,’ where we genuinely do our best to have the homeowners feel like the end result is better than they imagined,” he says.
Feeley agrees that, for the most part, participating homeowners end up walking away from the process satisfied. “They also often mention that having this basically one-hour documentary on how their house was renovated is a very special part of the process,” he says. “It’s something that they treasure, and that, if you were going to renovate your home outside of television, you’re just not going to get.”
Top photo courtesy HGTV, of the show Good Bones.
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