Mark Stewart


Among the most-watched and, not coincidentally, most profitable shows on television in 2019 are reality shows all about buying,  selling, rehabbing and renting real estate. Few subjects are more personal than transforming a house into a home. Most people will only go through this process a handful of times in their lives, so it’s easy to see the appeal of sitting back and watching others knee-deep in the myriad joys and frustrations of the experience. A bit harder to understand is where reality ends and reality television begins. Why, for instance, does it take ten weeks to renovate my kitchen when sled-hammer-wielding HGTV show hosts can seemingly redo an entire house in a third of the time? Who are these buyers that adore the curb appeal of homes I find hideous? Or who trash a brand-new bathroom as “dated?” I can’t help thinking that if everyone in 2019 is obsessed with an “open floor plan,” won’t everyone in 2021 want a closed floor plan? (P.S. some industry trend-followers say this is already happening.) Now realtors are feeling the impact of reality shows. There is a whole new breed of buyer and renter out there, and the reality is that TV isn’t making things easier.

How Did We Get Here?

A little history, first. You may not be aware of this,   but home flipping and “reno” shows are entering their third decade of popularity. Initially, they found a hungry audience during the real estate boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. This happened during an unprecedented proliferation of cable channels (and scattering of TV viewers), which in turn put a premium on inexpensive content. Consequently, series featuring “sets” that were already “built” and ready for filming— and “characters” who were unpaid or low-paid—were a good fit. These market conditions also spurred a huge uptick in reality shows and talk shows.

You may recall that the first generation of reality home programs featured people who seemed a lot like you and me. They weren’t particularly good-looking, but not bad to look at, either. They made buying, fixing and reselling homes feel like child’s play. Naturally, a lot of amateurs were tempted to jump into the market after watching these shows, driving up prices and actually pricing experienced home flippers out of the business. Those early reality series eventually disappeared, washed away by a tsunami of foreclosures when the housing bubble burst in 2008.

Yet with chaos came opportunity. A  lot of flippers who had backed out of the market in the early  2000s rushed back in to scoop up all the bargains. TV programmers were paying attention and,  this time, they focused on shows built around more compelling characters—often renovation or home- selling power couples with appealing looks, backstories, and personalities. Sometimes they worked with clients, sometimes they worked for themselves, sometimes they led “teams” of fixer-uppers. Ratings soared.

As the economy recovered, a second tier of shows emerged. They featured buyers and renters (aka house hunters) looking for homes in new cities, on bodies of water and in foreign countries. These series found an eager following, too. In most cases, the recipe for ratings success was similar: A couple tours a handful of properties before picking a favorite and either moving in as-is or undergoing a massive renovation. Viewers get to play along and guess which property will “win.”

Which is kind of where we are now.

Market Force

So how is the current crop of real estate reality shows exerting force upon the marketplace? Like it or not, people believe what they see on television. And what they often see on these series is behavior on the part of buyers, sellers, renters, and rehabbers that, while admittedly entertaining, would be considered ugly by most civilized humans out here in the real real world. The people we watch touring homes and sharing their (often insipid) opinions on a room-to-room basis are encouraging actual buyers and renters to do the same. And that has had a ripple effect throughout the industry. They are driving agents crazy.

In the real estate game, the customer is always right, right? Right. The problems begin when clients start expecting something north of perfection, even if the selling or rental price is a steal. That puts stress on the entire process, and everyone in it, which in turn increases the odds of something going wrong, a deal falling through and everyone wasting their valuable time and energy.

Today, in a home-sale situation, the agent showing a house has little choice but to nod meekly at every criticism a buyer weaponized by some reality show can conjure up. The agent representing the home shopper is put in the uncomfortable position of having to become a fierce advocate for his or her clients, even if they are being unreasonable or haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. To either agent, the prospect of losing a commission is far worse than contradicting the folks writing the big check. The end result is often a torturous closing where buyers nit-pick every detail, sellers nervously hand-wring and lawyers rack up hefty fees.

No one’s shedding a tear for real estate agents. The good ones make a very good living, so what’s a little extra angst on their part?

Ironically, the losers may be the home buyers or renters, who assume all their demands—reasonable and otherwise—have been met and everything is perfect when they finally sign on the dotted line. Landlords and home sellers are now well aware of the bad habits viewers have picked up from the reality TV couples on the real estate shows. Consequently, they are more likely than ever to make cheap, cosmetic fixes to mask much bigger problems. If they are missed during an inspection, then Oh well. The calculation here is that the arbitrary pickiness of a new tenant or owner is “going to cost me something on the back end of a deal, so I’m going to save some cash on fixes before I even show the place.” In the old days, buyer and seller (or landlord and tenant) would discuss a significant issue and come to an agreement on either a remediation or a cash credit back on the selling price or the rent. That type of civility is fading away from the marketplace.

Bad Actors

Are the homebuyers and renters we see on TV really as spoiled and stupid as they sometimes seem? Ask anyone who works for a television production company and they will tell you that there is a yawning chasm between reality TV shows and actual reality. It’s called editing. And time management. And budget limitations. The whole point of making these shows is to produce an engaging outcome, to get to the end of the episode as efficiently and entertainingly as possible. That’s what makes The Amazing Race so amazing and Flea Market Flip so flipping good.

In most cases, the shortcuts TV producers take tend to be harmless. For instance, do we actually need to watch the guy in Man vs. Food chow down on a pile of heart-clogging meat and cheese for a full 30 minutes? Can we survive without watching dehydrated contestants on Naked and Afraid debate the pros and cons of drinking puddle water? Is it important to observe the Kardashians when they are sitting around talking about absolutely nothing? (Okay, bad example.) The point is, No, of course not.

What we see in the finished hour or half-hour product is a version of reality that takes us up and down, and throws in a twist or two before we get exactly what we want. It’s entertainment, not a How-To. I watch the shows where a couple is trying to find an apartment in a new city and they turn down a perfect place because it’s $100 over their “budget.” Are you kidding me? Nobody does that! Saturday Night Live did a hilarious sketch about that recently.

As mentioned earlier, most of the buying and renting shows make it seem as if people look at three properties and then decide which one is perfect for them. Any realtor will tell you that this number is comically low. Even customers who know exactly what they are looking for—and have a realistic budget— will tour a dozen or more homes or apartments before pulling the trigger. Because film crews don’t have the budget or production flexibility to tag along on weeks- or months-long shopping excursions, they cut corners. Quite often, in fact, buyers (or renters) will have already decided on a property before filming starts, which means the entire episode is staged. The two properties they “reject” might not even be on the market—more than one program has filmed in the homes of friends who had no intention of selling, just so the producer could find some properties for the buyers to turn down.

This casts an aspect of these “best of three” programs in a new light. Fans of these series love when buyers step into a room and begin trashing the paint color or light fixture or some other easily changeable feature. Well, that means they are dumping on a property they know they will never occupy because they’ve already purchased or rented what they want.

My wife is semi-addicted to these best-of-three shows. She becomes very agitated when people walk into rooms and make idiotic comments like “this vanity is dated.” Of course, after you watch enough of these shows you come to understand that these are not honest, thoughtful reactions. Think about it: These folks don’t walk into a room and magically find a film crew set up there! The way these reaction shots are engineered is that every time the crew sets up in a room to film the couple entering, the producer asks them to say the thing they like most about it and like least about it. What actually makes the cut happens in post-production. If you walked into what is essentially a featureless bedroom and were forced to spit out quick observations, you’d probably make a dumb comment, too. The baseboards are weird. This is very blue. That window is small. You would then be at the mercy of the editor.

They Call Them Flippers

Finally, let’s take a look at the stars of real estate reality shows: the people who buy, renovate and sell homes. There is now a pantheon of stars, past and present, who made their fortunes doing what they do while the cameras rolled. But I wonder: did they really?

Something that’s always bugged me is how one of these TV power-tool couples buys a $300,000 house, fixes it up for $75,000, and then flips it for $425,000— and then crow about their $50,000 “profit.” I’ve flipped a house and I know there’s a lot that eats into that profit. In New Jersey, aka the state of taxation, a three-month flip on a decent house could set you back $3,000 or more in property taxes alone. Granted, in other places the taxes are much lower, but the cost of utilities, insurance, maintenance and possible unforeseen expenses (including shoddy work, mold, termites, theft, and vandalism) can mount up quickly regardless of where a property is located. Add a realtor’s commission and closing costs, and that $50,000 starts looking more like $15,000 or $20,000—and that’s assuming you sell it in a relatively short amount of time. You can still make a living on those margins, but you’d have to keep finding well-priced properties, have a small army of trustworthy and efficient suppliers, and run multiple projects simultaneously. (Or have a nice smile and your own HGTV series.)

Tarek and Christina El Moussa (left) of ratings juggernaut Flip or Flop (married when their series began, now divorced) apparently have been successful doing both— and their smiles are to die for. They reportedly have dozens of projects going during the course of the year, which enables them to get renovations done quickly and inexpensively by a more or less dedicated team of workers. They began fixing and flipping foreclosed homes in Orange County, CA after the real estate bubble burst and they got their own show in 2013. At the end of each episode, after a bumpy renovation project, they hold an open house and almost always get a huge offer for their flip. I can’t recall them ever having “flopped” on camera, but there no doubt have been some money pits along the way.  No one could be that good.

Two of the more popular shows where the stars renovate homes for clients are Property Brothers (starring Drew and Jonathan Scott, above) and Fixer Upper (starring Chip and Joanna Gaines). They do nice work and both shows seem pretty honest about the surprises home buyers encounter in big gut jobs. The unrealistic aspect is how quickly and how well those renovations get done. I love it when Jonathan Scott (he’s the contractor twin) delivers the horrifying news about some undiagnosed problem within a wall or floor or ceiling: It’s going to cost you an extra $6,000 and add three more days to the job. That’s it? If my contractor told me that kind of “bad news” I’d give him a long, wet kiss!—assuming he didn’t disappear for six weeks (see my 2017 EDGE story, “Hell’s Kitchen”).

Chip and Joanna (page 26) have a cool warehouse where they can build and design stuff for their clients. My contractor probably worked out of a 10 x 20 storage space on Route 9. The clients on Fixer Upper do seem delighted with their outcomes, but (not to sound snobbish) when everything is said and done, they are still living in Waco, TX.

I know, I know. Understanding what’s real and what’s not when you watch a reality television series kind of takes the fun out of it. But honestly, that could be said about every TV show ever made. Did anyone really believe The Professor on Gilligan’s Island could make a transistor radio out of coconuts but not figure out a way to patch the hole in the cabin cruiser that stranded them there? Did you buy Howie Mandel as a doctor on St. Elsewhere? Do you turn off the Wizard of Oz before they pull back the curtain on the guy working the levers?

The lesson here is to completely enjoy—but don’t entirely trust—whatever you choose to consume for entertainment purposes. And never ever believe that the real estate business is as easy as it looks on reality TV.