A few years ago, some friends appeared on a house-hunting reality TV show. They had a blast, but afterward, they revealed something that surprised me: It was all staged. They’d already purchased a house when they filmed the episode, and that house wasn’t featured on the show at all. The houses they did look at weren’t even for sale.
Like any normal person, I accept that so-called “reality” TV is scripted to a certain extent, but I’d previously assumed there had to be some truth to those real estate shows: that the information they presented was somewhat reliable, and that you might be able to pick up at least some basics about real estate and home renovation from watching them.
The actual reality is: Nope. Whether it’s a house-hunting show, a home renovation show, or a house-flipping show, the only thing you can rely on is that you’re probably being lied to. Buying or selling a house is more complicated than looking at three homes and having a conversation over a glass of wine, buying a fixer-upper probably isn’t a bargain, and the Property Brothers are not going to spend weeks in your house personally hanging drywall and grouting tiles.
But it’s worse than mere fakery—a lot of the information these shows give out is completely wrong. If you base your life decisions on what you see in real estate shows, you’re going to be very sorry. Here’s why.
Everything is oversimplified
The simple fact is, renovating, buying, or selling a house is almost always a lengthy and complicated process. Reality TV makes the house hunting process look like something that can be accomplished in a breezy weekend—your Realtor jots down some notes, makes a concerned face when you mention your budget, then shows you three options and you choose one. That’s it. Or you meet with your contractors, they jot down a few notes, make a concerned face when you mention your budget, and renovate your entire home in what seems like four days, brilliantly managing your tiny budget so there are no cost overruns. Sure, there’s usually a dramatic moment when they discover mold or an entire shipment of floor tiles arrives smashed to pieces, but somehow it all works out on-time and on-budget anyway.
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These shows are lying. A typical house hunt can take weeks, if not months, and real estate agents work with people on every step of the process. These transactions are complicated—they involve complex, lengthy negotiations; people are rarely making “cash” offers; and the purchase of a home is often contingent on selling an existing piece of property first, which involves fixing up that home and working to sell it. The act of buying a house isn’t a lot more than a bank cutting one enormous check—the mortgage process can take weeks or months (and often sees the buyer biting their nails in some pricey lawyer’s office while they wait for the bank to fax over documents and deposit the funds)—and there are tons of additional costs involved, including more taxes and fees than you ever knew existed, that these shows typically skip over entirely.
Another lie real estate reality TV shows are telling you: That their renovation experts are a) actually doing the work themselves and b) are doing good work. In fact, the opposite is often true.
These shows have a narrative to craft: The host meets the homeowners, discusses their needs, and then works their tail off to miraculously transform the home—without blowing out the budget. The formula requires that there will be at least one obstacle—an unforeseen cost or something terrible revealed during the demolition process—that the star will overcome with creativity and sweat equity. And then the homeowners get a beautiful home filled with brand-new stuff!
The truth is a lot less rosy. Those fast renovations come at a steep price: Many shows have been sued by the homeowners for poor work that doesn’t meet local codes or that actually leaves their homes in worse shape than before. This makes sense when you think about it. Renovations are complex and expensive, and anyone who has ever had work done in their home knows two things: The contractor your hire will sub-contract out just about everything; and whatever you’re having done, it will take forever. These shows rarely show you how bad weather often delays work, or that subcontractors will leave your job for days or weeks at a time, or that local inspections can take weeks to arrange, meaning no work can proceed on your home at all. Often in order to get the work done in time for filming, the production companies behind these shows will (and do) cut corners, slap up superficial work that looks good on camera but won’t last, and leave behind a mess.
Don’t watch a home renovation show and assume your house can be gutted and renovated in two weeks for precisely the amount of money you can spare. It’s going to take longer, cost more, and disrupt your life way more than you think.
Flipping math often doesn’t add up
The real estate math on these shows is also more or less imaginary. Aside from the aforementioned sleight-of-hand when it comes to the costs of buying, selling, an renovating a home, TV loves to make flipping houses seem like a straightforward proposition: You buy a run-down place, put in a lot of sweat equity, then sell it for a nice profit. Repeat this often enough and you’ll get rich, and be able to automate the process by sub-contracting a lot of the work.
And this is how house flipping works, in theory, but these shows typically leave out a lot of the details. There are permits to pull—and if you’ve ever tried pulling a permit at your local construction office, you know it can be a real time suck. There are inspections to pass. There are carrying costs to consider—including mortgage payments, utilities, taxes, insurance, and HOA fees—that are either totally ignored or presented as no problem, because you’re somehow going to flip the house within 30 days and avoid them all.
That doesn’t mean you can’t make money flipping a house. It’s just not nearly as streamlined a process as these shows make it seem. You have to be diligent about figuring out your total costs, beyond the purchase price, renovation materials, and contractors. And you probably need to assume you won’t sell the house immediately or for the price you’re hoping for, and pad your budget to compensate for that.
The best advice to take away from any real estate show is to assume everything on it is a total fiction. And please, can someone tell the folks on these shows that walls can be painted and a bad color palette is never a good reason not to buy a house?