FEB 12, 2020

‘They slap lipstick on a pig’: What Chicago real estate experts think of HGTV shows and ‘Windy City Rehab’ woes

Chicago Tribune

The HGTV effect is nothing new, with real estate agents and renovators long grappling with sky-high expectations of buyers and sellers who assume outdated interiors can be fixed at the drop of a hat and homes will sell in a snap — because that’s what they see on TV.

But Chicagoans have glimpsed the less-than-perfect underbelly of such reality shows, as “Windy City Rehab” continues to make headlines for city-ordered halts on work that lacked the right permits and, more recently, as the subject of an ongoing lawsuit accusing stars Alison Victoria Gramenos and Donovan Eckhardt of selling a “defective property” to a Chicago couple for $1.36 million.

In addition to being bombarded with complaints of shoddy rehab work, the show reportedly used actors as stand-ins for homeowners who didn’t want to appear on camera — a TV practice Gramenos deemed “pretty common” on Twitter.

But when the reality being peddled is less than real, it can be an uphill battle to get homeowners to set realistic expectations, Chicago real estate agents and contractors said.

Some, like Michael Valente, have capitalized on the shift in what buyers want. Putting a house on the market used to require just a little paint here and there, but it’s now the norm to pay more attention to prepping homes for sale, he said. Valente’s firm, Renovation Sells, specializes in minor renovations to prepare homes to sell faster.

“What they do on TV, that’s my day job,” he said. “If you’re not doing some sort of work to give potential buyers what they’re looking for, you’re doing yourself a disservice.”

Whether the shows are misleading or not all depends, Valente said. His firm, he said, makes the TV polish possible, with most projects taking an average three weeks and $20,000.

“We really try to give that TV experience and that look that people are looking for,” said Valente. “We’re trying to get Instagram-worthy homes for our sellers.”

Others hope to better educate consumers and taper expectations gleaned from TV. Here are some of the most frequent myths they want to bust.

1. You don’t need experts to get the job done

When a home sells in a 30-minute episode, it can seem easy enough to tackle the task yourself. But licensed experts can make the process smoother, whether it’s buying, selling or rehabbing a home.

“The TV shows remind me of an eight-second elevator pitch to capture the attention of the audience in the shortest amount of time,” said Lineata Carter, a real estate broker with Prince Realty Group.

Carter watches a handful of broker and rehab shows, including “Fixer Upper,” “Flip or Flop” and “Million Dollar Listing.” She said some shows stretch the truth about the ease of selling a home. Others who see extensive rehabs on TV might think selling their own home is out of reach without sinking tens of thousands of dollars into renovations.

While “Fixer Upper” is one of her favorites, Carter said the projects on the show seem to be geared toward savvy investors, adding that rehabs don’t always go as smooth as it seems on the big screen.

“It only provides a snapshot of the projects and not the true timelines of what actually happens behind the scenes of home renovations,” said Carter. The timeline can go from three months to a year or more, complicated by unpredictable circumstances such as weather, staff changes, budgets, inspections and city code compliance — most of which are glossed over on TV.

2. Brokers cash in big on luxe listings

Maurice Hampton, president of the Chicago Association of Realtors and owner of Centered International Realty, also used to watch real estate reality shows — but not anymore.

“Being in the industry, you realize just how exaggerated many of the scenes are, so it kind of loses its luster,” he said.

He also takes issue with shows always portraying brokers as making a lot of money on the “Million Dollar Listing”-type shows.

“They don’t really go into how that commission is split, what fees are paid, the fact that they’re up-fronting the cost prior to you closing,” Hampton said. “And if you don’t close, they don’t get paid. They don’t show those scenarios at all.”

3. Rehabbing your home can easily be a DIY project

When it comes to rehabs, Hampton said he thinks the shows do an injustice to the industry. Putting an addition on a home, for example, takes a lot more heavy lifting than blowing the walls out, running a drawing by the city and wrapping up in a couple weeks.

“This is Chicago, and things don’t happen that fast,” Hampton said.

As for budgeting, because TV shows rehab in volume, their margins are much different than the average Joe, he said. Picking up an inexpensive property and rehabbing it as cheaply as possible could be disastrous.

“They run the risk of destroying the property worse than what it was,” he said. “It creates a lot of part-time rehabbers that don’t know what they’re doing. That’s what happens when somebody sits in front of a television for 30 minutes and says ‘Oh, I can do that,’ and they slap lipstick on a pig.”

K. Tyler, partner with Morgante Wilson Architects, sometimes watched “Windy City Rehab” and said the narrative portrays the construction process as fast and fluid — and almost always with a happy ending — when it’s actually a long, winding road that takes a lot of patience and stamina.

“That one snafu they actually show in a TV episode was just one of a series of many unexpected challenges that had to be negotiated in order to get to the finish line,” she said.

4. The decision-making process is a breeze

Many of the reality shows like to focus on home purchases, be it first-time homeowners or luxury buyers. But Jeff Benach, co-principal of Chicago-based Lexington Homes, said the concept of whittling the decision-making process down to three homes with vastly different locations, amenities, home ages and amount of needed rehab is completely unreal.

“To be choosing between a cottage in the country versus a high-rise in the city is just not reality,” he said.

He said it’s important to remember that half of “House Hunters” episodes focus on rentals rather than purchases, making it a lot easier to make a quick decision.

“We also never see anyone who just decided they needed a change so they picked up and moved to Chicagoland,” he said, using the example of “House Hunters International,” where he said the storyline often depicts couples bored with their lives in suburban Boston, so they pick up and move to Bangkok.

5. What you see is what you get

Real estate professionals warn buyers to not expect things to happen at a reality show pace. Tyler said there are hundreds of hours of site observation, general contractor questions and coordination of finishes and fixture selections that go into achieving the kind of results witnessed on television.

Benach said he and his wife, interior designer Denise Benach, have about 130 episodes of “House Hunters” crowding their DVR. He said either “House Hunters,” “Love It or List It” or “My Lottery Dream Home” is on when he walks in the door.

“We also love ‘Windy City Rehab,’ even though we know from being in Chicago and hearing local news that the process isn’t as smooth as they’d want you to believe,” he said.

Bob Zuber, partner with Morgante Wilson Architects, doesn’t watch home improvement shows these days. However, he used to watch “Trading Spaces” and especially “This Old House,” from childhood through college.

“Those shows were often more realistic and less ‘staged’ than what you see today,” he said.

There are, admittedly, some benefits to homeowners tuning in.

The shows can be helpful, Benach said. “House Hunters” offers lots of ideas on interior finish trends and shows like “Windy City Rehab” and “Rehab Addict” depict affordable ways to rehab an existing home — or they may encourage potential buyers to consider a home that needs work.

And at the end of the day, Carter said, what matters is that buyers and homeowners do their research and know what they’re getting into as they embark on one of life’s biggest investments — even if it means watching a few episodes for inspiration.

“They should have a memorable real-life experience,” she said, “not a reality show perception.”

"The purchase of the our townhouse in Vernon Hills, IL – Lexington at Port Clinton – was the first combined home purchase for my husband and I (we both owned homes individually before we got married)."

- The McClains