Remodelers and clients have a love-hate relationship with reality television. Remodelers say that shows such as Love It or List It and Property Brothers, which often cram whole-house remodeling projects into too-small budgets, give clients the wrong impression regarding pricing and time constraints. For instance, some shows might suggest that two weeks and $50,000 is enough to renovate an entire house. You know that’s under time and over budget, but homeowners don’t have your perspective, and they see you as the bearer of bad news when you give them a realistic time frame.
On the other hand, clients gain new ideas from home improvement shows, and the remodeling industry as a whole is growing at a healthy pace. Though reality TV probably hasn’t driven that growth, it certainly hasn’t discouraged homeowners from renovating their homes, keeping up with the latest trends, and using the newest technologies.
So, do remodeling shows always hurt, or can they sometimes help remodelers in their efforts to educate clients about the remodeling process? To find the answer, we spoke with remodelers, a television producer, and even a couple of reality show celebrities. Here’s what we found out.
“Wrong, wrong, wrong.”
It’s no secret that renovation TV is popular right now. One need only look at HGTV’s latest ratings for proof: As of the last quarter of 2013, it was the second most-watched channel on weekend cable programming among viewers aged 25 to 54, beaten only by ESPN. Between 2012 and 2013, the channel gained 8% more primetime viewers. Compare those ratings with niche programmers such as the History Channel or TLC, which both lost 6% of their primetime viewers in that time, and it’s evident that HGTV and others like it have some serious appeal.
Which shows are your clients watching? The answer depends on who you ask. On HGTV, some of the top-watched renovation shows include the House Hunters franchise, Love It or List It, and The Property Brothers. On the DIY Network, it’s Holmes Makes It Right, The Vanilla Ice Project, and Rehab Addict. Additionally, the Public Broadcasting Service has the long-running This Old House, and NBC has the American Idol of remodeling shows, American Dream Builders.
Max Weissman, executive producer of seven remodeling shows including DIY’s Million Dollar Contractor, The Vanilla Ice Project, and A&E’s Flip This House, acknowledges the popularity of remodeling-themed reality shows. “There’s been a big trend to have more construction in these shows than there used to be,” he says. In fact, his company has seen so much success with renovation shows that that’s all it currently produces.
“We’re trying to appeal to as big an audience as possible,” Weissman says. One format that’s especially dominant right now is the celebrity renovation show, which Weissman’s company helped start with The Vanilla Ice Project in 2010. That show follows the one-hit-wonder rapper as he flips homes faster than records on a turntable. Today, that program is the second most-watched show on the DIY Network, and there are more like it on the way. New shows starring Jenny Garth, William Shatner, and Ellen DeGeneres are slated to premiere on HGTV and DIY in the coming months.
“[When] I end up getting called in by a heavy DIY watcher, my prices and time lines blow the [homeowners'] minds so much that I never get a call back.”
Ever since the War of the Worlds radio broadcast sent panicked listeners into city streets clutching rifles, sociologists have argued over whether the media directly influences its audience. Though that debate continues today, remodelers have their own evidence that TV can play a role in warping reality. Craig Knott, owner of Houseworks Unlimited, in Washington, D.C., says that because of what they see on TV, clients often make lavish—or even impossible—demands, all for half the price. “A lot of these shows tend to glorify the low cost,” he says. “Not just that it can get done in three hours, but that the costs are very low.”
That blend of extravagance and lack of realism is best suited for, well, his 6-year-old son. “It’s crazy,” Knott says. “He gets up on Saturday mornings [to watch]. I can only watch a couple [of episodes] and I can’t take it anymore.”
Ari Fingeroth, owner and project manager of Federalist Builders, also in Washington, D.C., has the same problem as Knott. “[When] I end up getting called in by a heavy DIY watcher, my prices and time lines blow the [homeowners’] minds so much that I never get a call back,” he says. Sometimes his clients know nothing of revisions, permits, or lead times for special-order items that could delay work and break the budget.
The team at Castle Building & Remodeling, in Minneapolis, fields so many TV-related misconceptions that it created a YouTube video to address those points. “Remodeling on TV isn’t real,” says the narrator in the video, before walking viewers through an actual remodeling job, step by step. The process provides viewers with a window into the process and shows them that, even if the job goes completely smoothly, it might take a month or more to finish a project. Troy Sinykin, Castle’s sales and design manager, says it’s important to educate clients before you break ground.
But not all remodelers share the same problems with the boob tube. Gregg Cantor, president and CEO of San Diego-based Lampert Design, Build, Remodel, says that reality TV doesn’t really affect his clients’ expectations. And although he agrees that TV shows oversimplify the remodeling process, he says they’re based on fantasy, and his clients tend not to dwell on it.
“Typically, we have a laugh with our clients, and then move on to discussing what we can do for them,” Cantor says.
Perhaps the biggest critic of remodeling television is one of its biggest stars. Mike Holmes, celebrated cynic and host of the HGTV program, Holmes on Holmes, says that he hate-watches remodeling TV all the time. According to Holmes, nearly every other remodeling show on television has at least a few glaring factual errors. “I watch many different shows and go, ‘Wrong, wrong, wrong,’” he says. Like many contractors, Holmes rolls his eyes at the types of renovation shows branded so often as “reality” TV. “Pros watch and go, ‘Oh my god, this guy has no idea what he’s doing,’” he says.
In fact, it was the bad influence of reality TV that got Holmes into the television business in the first place. In 2001, Holmes approached the executives at HGTV and spoke his mind. “I said, ... ‘I can clearly see they’re doing it wrong on the television. I’m surprised you haven’t been sued.’” But instead of calling security, those executives offered Holmes a TV show of his own. That show, Holmes on Homes, became HGTV Canada’s top-rated program and launched the contractor’s U.S. television career. “My goal was to educate everyone out there,” Holmes says.
Although he is entrenched in the business, Holmes says that remodeling-themed reality shows often set expectations too high. “I think that homeowners … believe they’re going to get a Taj Mahal,” he says. “It’s unrealistic.”
Client SpottingWho watches remodeling television shows, anyway? Here are some of the TV addicts you might spot on the job. ▼ Show ▲ Hide
The budget baron
With deep pockets come high expectations. These homeowners tend to want the latest and greatest in home furnishings. They watch channels such as HGTV for inspiration and want their home to mirror a showroom. Can they afford it? Probably—Research by HGTV says that nearly half of these clients have $20,000 or more disposable income left over each year to spend on whatever they want. Expect custom cabinetry, rain showers, touchscreen controls—the whole spectrum of trendy, techy products. If they saw it on “Property Brothers,” “Love It or List It,” or “House Hunters,” you can bet they’re salivating at the sight of all those upscale domiciles.
Favorite show: House Hunters (HGTV)
The young idealists
These clients are married, young, and willing to try new things. They like modern—but not inaccessible—designs, and are eager to shop around to get it just right. They’re also well-educated: research by ThisOldHouse.com says that 64% of them went to college. Though they like watching TV, they’re no strangers to browsing online content and using social media. Through outlets such as Houzz and Yelp, these couples seek an expert to renovate their homes, and they’re looking to do it soon. In fact, 14% of these clients are actively looking to remodel their kitchen or bathroom in the next year. Could you be their Bob Vila?
Favorite show: This Old House (PBS)
The DIY-er gone overboard
Viewer see, viewer do. The DIY-er watches remodeling television for inspiration, not just for entertainment. According to marketing research by Scripps, the parent company behind DIY Network, these viewers tend to try new things, buy new products, and jump into projects headfirst. Construction? Plumbing? Electrical? They can do it all…at least they think they can. But when the going gets tough, they call the pros to step in and finish the job. We all know that demolition is the easiest part, but when that’s over with, it may be up to the contractor to pick up the pieces—sometimes literally.
Favorite show: Rehab Addict (DIY Network)
Reality Show Reality Check
Just how real are these renovation shows, anyway? Mark Clement, co-host of the Philadelphia-based MyFixitUpLife radio show and a presenter at JLC Live and the Remodeling Show, should know. He has served as a general contractor on TV programs such as ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and The Food Network’s Save My Bakery. Clement worries that clients might get the wrong idea from the programs they’re watching. “I have no doubt that some people can be swayed by the power of a television show that makes things look easy,” he says. On Save My Bakery, for instance, a crew of eight remodelers work around the clock to renovate an entire bakery.
Clement says that while working on the series, his team of contractors slept just five hours a night. On one episode of the show, Clement stayed up for 40 hours straight to complete a job. While admirable—and even a little crazy—this kind of around-the-clock pace is impossible to follow in real life.
Andy Doyle, owner of Doyle Remodeling, in Willow Grove, Pa., worked alongside Clement on Save My Bakery, and shared that experience: “In a typical remodeling project, you wouldn’t schedule everybody at the same time and have to work around each other. But due to the time constraints that we had, we had no choice.”
“It's nice to see the curtains. It's nice to see the pillows. But it's even nicer when you see that the person who's in charge may be having a heart attack.”
But not all shows flaunt unrealistic time constraints. On the DIY Network, Million Dollar Contractor follows the day-to-day work of high-end contractor Stephen Fanuka as he remodels the homes of the rich and famous. While most reality TV projects were created to be filmed, Fanuka’s jobs are authentic. “They are my real jobs,” Fanuka says. “They take, on the average, seven to eight months per project.” Weissman, who produces Fanuka’s show, strives to make Million Dollar Contractor as true-to-life as possible, which means showing the good along with the bad.
Remodeling Television Timeline
Since the premiere of This Old House in 1979, remodeling television has captured millions of viewers across the country. Here's a look at some significant moments.
- February 1979 This Old House premieres on WGBH-TV in Boston.
- November 1986 Hometime airs for the first time on WHYY-TV in Philadelphia.
- April 1989 Bob Vila is replaced as host of This Old House amid controversy over his numerous product endorsements.
- September 1991 Home Improvement, the ABC family comedy starring Tim Allen, taps the handyman craze of the '90s.
- December 1994 The Home, Lawn, and Garden Channel comes online in the U.S. The Channel would later become known simply as "HGTV."
- October 2000 Design and renovation show Trading Spaces comes to life on TLC.
- January 2001 Mike Holmes smack-talks his way into Canadian living rooms with Holmes on Homes.
- September 2008 Love It or List It premiers on HGTV, to the chagrin of contractors everywhere. (Later, Hillary Clinton would list it among her favorite shows.)
- October 2010 Vanilla Ice trades his microphone for a hammer in The Vanilla Ice Project.
- January 2011 Twins Jonathan and Drew Scott charm viewers in the first episode of Property Brothers.
- October 2014 The Shatner Project is set to premiere on the DIY Network, where the Star Trek captain will gut and remodel his '70s-style California home.
“We really strive to find organic situations,” Weissman says. “You can’t fake the transformation of a house. ... I think everyone knows that when you do a renovation, things go wrong.” But a little drama doesn’t hurt, either; in one episode, Fanuka drops to his knees and pleads to the remodeling gods, “Please let me finish on time.” Still, Fanuka says that the point of his show is to expose the inherent problems that arise in any given job—not to show how low the price can go. “It’s nice to see the curtains. It’s nice to see the pillows,” he says. “But it’s even nicer when you see that the person who’s in charge is having a heart attack.”
Other shows, like the late Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which aired its final episode in early 2012, tout surprise renovations made over an incredibly short period of time. “We’ve seen other shows that were doing these massive jobs that had 300 people, and they built crap,” Fanuka says. And Holmes has seen it time and time again. Too often, he explains, clients think that’s the way you actually do business. “I love the shows that try to say, ‘We’re going to do it; don’t be involved; we’re going to surprise you,’” Holmes says. “I think that’s a bad idea. People don’t want to be surprised. But unfortunately, that’s what the viewers want.” And we all know that what the client wants may not always be in their best interests.
Even more reasonable shows such as The Property Brothers and Love It or List It portray home remodeling as an easy, concise process. Often TV remodelers find and fix leaky foundations, “open up” rooms, and swap out faulty plumbing faster than it takes to change the channel—and with good reason. These shows, above all else, are chasing ratings. Cue Holmes, our favorite cynic: “[Remodeling shows] are moving in the wrong direction. They’re just trying to create a show that gets a hell of a lot of numbers.”
And what about the budget? How can shows charge so little for pricey remodeling jobs? Oftentimes, Weissman says, production companies can work out lower rates with contractors to soften the total cost of a project. “We’re able to negotiate very good prices with contractors because we tell them, ‘This is what we’re going to do, you’re going to get paid on time, we’re not going to change our mind, and you’re going to be able to get it done quickly.’” Add that to the bonus of being on television, and most remodelers are willing to take a pay cut. Sometimes, remodelers might even do the job for free, and materials are donated by companies for exposure, Weissman says.
Mike Holmes' three-point plan to bring your client back to Earth
1. Let's take this slow. Your client doesn't need to make every decision right away. Deal with things one step at a time. "Don't be in a hurry. Any time you're in a hurry, it's going to go upside down," Holmes says.
2. Allow me to explain. Educate your clients. Walk them through the remodeling process. Make sure that they know what's going to happen, what it will entail, and how much it will cost. Remodeling is messy, so make sure they know that, too. Holmes encourages his clients to do their homework. He tells them: "The more homework you do, the better you're going to be in the long run."
3. Look me up. This is a great opportunity to plug your Houzz, Yelp, or Facebook pages. Show your client that you're reputable, clean, and honest. As Holmes always says, "Check out your contractor!"
Take It From the Pros
Most remodelers agree: The best way to dispel misinformation is to address and disarm it right away.
On his newest show, Holmes Makes it Right, Mike Holmes fixes home improvement projects gone awry, some of which could have been avoided up front simply by better communication. “Be very clear. Very clear,” Holmes says. “What are you going to do for the homeowner?” The simpler your explanations and the more readable your service contract, the better.
And while Holmes usually administers a hefty dose of telling, Fanuka takes a different approach—he listens. “The remodeler has to listen,” he says. “You always have to pay attention. Even if the client’s not saying something directly, they may be speaking to you indirectly.” He explains it like this: Let’s say a client wants all the bells and whistles, but you suspect that they can’t afford it. To avoid a dispute down the road, go with your gut. “It’s the remodeler’s job to listen to the client’s needs, to see what they can actually afford, and to then explain it to them before anything starts,” Fanuka says. Though it’s the clients’ responsibility to know what they want, it’s the remodeler’s job to know what they need.
At the end of the day, there may be a case to be made for reality TV—at least that’s what the guys on TV say. “Anyone in the industry, period, should be watching these shows,” Holmes says. His belief is that, in order to communicate with a homeowner, you need to speak their language. “Then,” he says, “[remodeling TV] becomes an educational tool.” And, Fanuka adds, just like a client, remodelers can become aware of new products and trends by watching remodeling TV. “They can also watch to inspire themselves and say, ‘I love that design, I want to use it on one of my jobs or sell it to one of my clients.’”
Either way, it wouldn’t hurt to familiarize yourself: Reality shows aren’t going away anytime soon.
We asked three real-life remodelers to watch three reality TV shows. Here are their reviews.