- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

The national housing market is on the skids, and reality television is hoping to capitalize.

“Hope for Your Home,” a new offering in the genre from TLC, focuses on homeowners who have hit a financial rough patch. Premiering on Saturday at 8:30 p.m., the show gives participants $10,000 and one month to get their house in shape for either a timely refinance or a quick sell. Avoiding foreclosure is the ultimate goal.

During the housing market’s boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s, cable networks like TLC and HGTV took a different tack. TLC created programs like “Flip That House” and “Property Ladder,” shows designed to take advantage of a sizzling market and stun viewers with massive, unexpected spikes in a home’s value after a series of renovations.

Now that the market has softened, the focus of such shows has shifted. One Seattle family that participated has been hit directly by the foreclosure crisis: After appearing on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” the Harper family used its renovated house as collateral for a $450,000 loan. The lender foreclosed on the house earlier this year.

“[‘Hope for Your Home’] is a reflection of the change in the real estate market,” series host Kirsten Kemp Becker said. “Some people would love to refinance, but their home and their credit won’t allow them to.”

Ms. Kemp Becker and her crew of contractors tend to focus on smaller improvements that make a big difference to potential home buyers and appraisers. “Many of the improvements are simple things,” she said. “As we say: Plants on the outside, paint on the inside. A lot of these homes need decluttering and revamping so you can reveal the home in its best light.”

This is a common strategy, said William Gale, vice president of economic studies at the Brookings Institution. “Sellers will continue to do the types of renovations these TV shows feature in an effort to raise the value of their house and it’s ‘curb appeal,’” he said, adding that it’s “not surprising that the preponderance of TV shows about real estate have had to change their focus to reflect the current housing market.”

“Hope for Your Home” has been in the works for almost a year. “About 10 months ago, we could see the foreclosure crisis starting and thought that this could be a cutting-edge show for our audience,” said Eric Black, the director of programming at TLC.

As problems in the mortgage market mount, the series’ potential has climbed as well, Mr. Black said. “This may be a show with a much broader appeal because of where the market has gone.”

Michael Dingley, senior vice president for programming and content strategy for HGTV, emphasized that his network’s “Designed to Sell” and “The Stagers” are not necessarily about panicked homeowners about to lose their residences.

“People are so traumatized [by the market] that they are staying put unless some major life change happens, like a job transfer or a divorce,” Mr. Dingley said. “Given the housing market and the economy, they’re looking to further the enjoyment of their current home while at the same time doing things that are not going to decrease its value.”

Not every story is so rosy. “It’s sad to say that in some cases we’re just postponing the inevitable,” Ms. Kemp Becker said. “It’s a reality check for the families who don’t step up” as well as for the audience. “Some Americans have loans they shouldn’t have qualified for in the first place. Like Oprah says, sometimes people need to see other people going through the same thing on TV before they have that ‘aha’ moment and decide that it’s better to step out of the market, move into a rental.”

The educational aspect of these programs is a key to their enduring appeal, Mr. Black said.

“I think that the audience for home and property shows is very sophisticated in that they want useful information, they want to learn something and file it away for future use,” he said. “You might be seeing a mishap or a great solution. We try to put tips into everything we do.”

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