Realty Check: Televison Hit Show ‘Extreme Makeover’ Downsizes

Interesting, mostly due to the television aspect… In my mind dealing with smaller homes should have broader appeal.

Realty Check: ‘Extreme Makeover’ Downsizes Its Dream Homes
Producers of Hit TV Show See Bad Loans, Dashed Dreams, Default
The Wall Street Journal
April 6, 2010

The house at 10512 Baldy Mountain Rd. in Sandpoint, Idaho, looks like just another vacant foreclosed home. Some appliances, a bathroom mirror and even the hot tub are missing. The dining room of the three-bedroom house has water damage.

But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill problem house. Call it an Extreme Foreclosure. The 3,678-square-foot McMansion is a product of the popular “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” reality television show. It isn’t the only “Extreme” home to fall on hard times.

Each week, an average 9.4 million viewers tune in to ABC-TV for what, over seven seasons, has become a classic formula: Find a struggling family with a heart-tugging story and send them on vacation as an army of volunteers work frantically to replace an existing home with a much nicer and bigger one in just 106 hours. Each episode ends with a dramatic tear-filled tour of the new home, packed with donated furnishings, and outsize extras like a carousel or bowling lanes.

But after the cameras have gone, another trend has been developing: Homeowners struggle to keep up with their expensive new digs. In many cases, the bigger, more lavish homes have come with bigger, more lavish utility bills. And bigger tax assessments. Some homeowners have tapped the equity of their super-sized homes only to fall behind on the higher mortgage payments.

The show’s producers say they are aware of the problem and are making changes appropriate to current economic reality: downsizing.

Back in the boom, the makeovers got a little out of hand because of competition among home builders aware of the free publicity that came with the show and who tried to outdo previous projects. These days, the show is backing away from the boom-era showpieces. We “scaled back,” says Conrad Ricketts, an executive producer for the show created and produced by Endemol USA.

The average size of current makeovers is 2,800 to 3,000 square feet. A 2005 episode featured a house in Lake City, Ga., that became a 5,300-square-foot English castle boasting five bedrooms, seven bathrooms, five fireplaces and an outdoor kitchen. These days, the houses appear more subdued, eschewing over-the-top amenities.

A swimming pool is no longer a must, unless it could be used for therapy. When pools are built, the show explores a well system to help reduce water usage and costs. Lavish landscaping is out, working with the local environment is in. “We’re not going to New Mexico, the desert, and trying to put sod down,” Mr. Ricketts says.

Tracy Hutson, an interior designer who has been with “Extreme Makeover” since the beginning, says homes are receiving more earth-friendly products, such as low water-flow toilets and solar panels, curbing the giant electricity bills that caused a hardship for some families. “I think our hearts were in the right place, but we just got carried way,” says Ms. Hutson. “It can be extreme without being the biggest house you’ve ever seen.”

Back in 2003, the 59-year-old Mr. Ricketts, who has worked in movies and TV for nearly three decades, was looking to develop a home-remodeling series. As he traveled down a “nice street” in Santa Clarita, Calif., he came upon a broken-down house that didn’t seem to fit in. He learned the family had a child battling leukemia, leaving little money for maintenance. “I knew at that moment it was the soul of the TV show,” Mr. Ricketts recalls.

The California family’s home was remodeled for the first episode airing later that year. But soon, remodeling gave way to razing and rebuilding houses, making for more dramatic television during the housing boom. As the show became more popular, donations flowed and builders got more and more ambitious.

It has since become part of pop culture, and, while plenty of makeover shows have come and gone, it remains the most ambitious, well-known and generous of the genre.

It’s also important to ABC when it comes to ratings and selling ads: Among broadcast networks, the show ranks second in the key female demographics and tops with children ages 2 to 11.

Huber Engineered Woods LLC has donated its premium floor, wall and roof products for 25 houses. While TV viewers don’t always see the brand, “connecting with builders and framers on job sites” has led to increased awareness and additional sales, says Matt O’Brien, vice president of commercial operations.

For many families featured on the program, the Extreme Makeover experience has been a dream come true. But for some, the experience has been financially stressful.

Several owners have sought loan modifications to reduce their payments in order to stay in their homes, lenders say. Some families seek a quick-fix by trying to sell. But because Extreme Makeovers tend to be big, fancy residences plopped into working-class or rural communities, the houses can be a hard sell.

The house in Sandpoint, which was owned by Eric Hebert, appears to be the first Extreme Makeover home to actually fall into foreclosure, in October. Mr. Hebert did not answer requests for comment. But he told a local television station last year that “the biggest mistake I think that I made was I took too much money out on the house thinking that I was going to have a job, you know, in the future.”



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