- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

Avid watchers of HGTV, TLC and other cable networks with real estate programming assume they are learning important lessons that will help them buy, sell or improve a property. If you ask many local real estate agents, they would agree.

Shows such as “Curb Appeal,” “Designed to Sell,” “Flip That House,” “Design on a Dime,” “House Hunters” and “My House Is Worth What?” have garnered millions of loyal viewers nationwide. Do they paint an accurate picture?

While some programs may be a bit unrealistic in terms of appraised values or the ability of average adults to remodel their own kitchens, Washington-area real estate insiders say the overall message is worthwhile: Homeowners need to clean, maintain and neutralize their homes to improve their value.

“Real estate television shows are great because they let people know that you can’t put your home on the market ‘as-is’ any more,” says Maggie Britvec, a Realtor with Prudential Carruthers Realtors in Alexandria. “It’s almost a given now that people know you need to do stuff to improve your home.”

Mrs. Britvec says that while the shows are sometimes unrealistic about what home improvements cost and the time it takes to make sure quality work is done, the overall messages of neutralizing and updating homes are particularly valuable in the Washington area, which has many older homes.

“Some of these television programs are valuable because they give another perspective in addition to the perspective of the Realtor,” says Brenda Lawson, a Realtor with RE/MAX One in Bowie.

“For instance, the show where sellers hear the comments made by visitors during an open house is great,” she says. “The sellers make changes based on the comments, and then they bring the visitors back to get their reaction. That show reinforces the lesson that agents try to share with sellers when we delicately try to tell people how important it is to clean up their house.”

Mrs. Lawson says people who watch a program like that are less likely to be offended by comments made by their real estate agent.

She believes the popularity of these programs has already made some of her customers more receptive to the idea that they need to make improvements to their home.

HGTV, a cable network with programming devoted entirely to home and garden shows, is now receivable in 95,850,000 U.S. households.

In January 2008, HGTV had its highest average prime-time audience, watched by 917,000 households.

Several HGTV shows are frequently filmed in the Washington area, including “Designed to Sell,” “Get It Sold” and “Curb Appeal.”

Michael Dingley, senior vice president of HGTV for programming and content strategy, says the programs try to cover as many areas of the country as possible in recognition of the local nature of real estate.

Additionally, the network approaches its programming decisions with an eye toward trends.

“We try to keep our fingers on the pulse of the country in terms of economics, tastes and trends,” Mr. Dingley says. “About three or three and a half years ago, when the big change in the real estate market started, we introduced new programs such as ‘My House Is Worth What?’ because people just want to make sure that what they do to enhance their enjoyment of their home isn’t hurting their home’s value.”

HGTV splits its programming between design shows focusing on decorating and property shows related to buying and selling, along with some shows that are hybrids.

“ ’Designed to Sell’ is geared to people who are looking to get more value for their home when they sell it, but it also appeals to people who want to watch home-makeover shows,” Mr. Dingley says.

Eight of the top 10 highest-rated HGTV shows so far in 2008 are real-estate-related programs rather than design shows.

“Consumers can get good tips from these TV shows about improving their home on a budget,” says Craig Kay, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate in Rockville. “They show people that you don’t have to go to Urban Country to shop, that you can improve your home by shopping at IKEA, too. As a marketing tool, it’s great to have these shows demonstrate the importance of keeping your home in good condition. Homes that look better outside and in are always the ones that buyers will choose.”

Mr. Kay says homeowners should not focus on how much money they will get back from making home improvements, though, because that is not necessarily the case.

“Spending money on your home increases the chance that a reasonable offer will be made, or at least an offer at all, but there’s no guarantee that you will get back more than what you spent,” Mr. Kay says.

Mr. Kay says viewers should realize that the budgets for the projects on the shows are only accurate about 40 percent of the time. He points out that the programs are filmed all over the country, so prices for labor and materials vary widely.

Realtor Ron Sitrin, with Long & Foster Real Estate in the District, says the value of real estate television is in the lesson that homeowners should always strive to have a home that is light, bright, neutral and clutter-free.

He says he thinks it helps consumers to hear that message from someone besides a real estate agent.

However, he says, “people can watch as many TV shows as they want, but they need to remember that a fresh coat of paint and replacing an old carpet will always bring the best bang for the buck.”

Kristin Burns, a Realtor with Century 21 Stackhouse and Associates in Montclair, says viewers should carefully notice the original air date of the programs because the market has changed so much in recent years.

“I used to tape and give to my clients some of the shows that feature sellers making changes from one open house to the next after listening to feedback on their homes because I think they are so valuable,” says Mrs. Burns.

“I’m a big believer in staging, and these shows can help demonstrate how homes can look better when they have continuity,” she says. “Plus, it’s exciting for people to see what’s current and what’s not. A lot of homes look as if they are in a time warp, so these programs can introduce them to current trends, such as switching from 4-by-4-inch floor tiles to 12-by-12 tiles.”

Tessa Morris, a Realtor with Tutt, Taylor and Rankin Sotheby’s International Realty in the District, says buyers and sellers in this area are well-educated and understand how much competition there is in the real estate market.

“Anything that reinforces the message that your home has to be in great condition and up-to-date is a good thing,” Mrs. Morris says. “Buyers have to be able to walk into a home and see how it can look at its best.”

Mrs. Morris says that some of the real estate programs are unrealistic, though, because they underestimate the pressures associated with remodeling and renovating a home.

“People need to understand that preparing your home for sale isn’t something you can do smoothly in one weekend,” Mrs. Morris says. “The value added to a home by renovating and staging it can be enormous, but people need to be ready to put in the time and money to do it.”

Susan Bruce Anthony, a Realtor with McEnearney Associates in Alexandria, believes many of the home programs on television can be helpful in giving sellers an idea of what buyers are looking for in a home.

“The reality is that decorating to sell a home is a completely different thing than decorating for yourself,” Miss Anthony says. “It’s very important that sellers remove themselves and their personality from the home so that potential buyers can envision their own lives there.”

Financially, however, Miss Anthony believes viewers need to be wary of the costs of some home improvements.

“The value of a property is not determined by what you put in it, but by what the market will bear,” Miss Anthony says. “Because the market has gone down, homeowners are not necessarily recouping what they spend. They should only do major projects if they intend to stay in the house and do them for the long term.”

Mrs. Lawson says that as the market changes, it becomes more difficult to place a dollar value on home improvements.

“You really can’t hang your hat a statement such as if you put ‘X’ dollars into this, then you’ll get ‘X’ amount back,” Mrs. Lawson says. “It’s still a good rule of thumb that you can get maximum value for your home if it is updated, but it is just too hard to place an actual dollar value on it.”

Mrs. Lawson says viewers should consider where a show is filmed because values vary so much around the country.

HGTV provides most of the programming for HGTV Canada. The programs are seen in 125 territories across all seven continents, with some programming also available to servicemen and -women onboard U.S. Navy ships and through American Forces Radio & Television Service (AFRTS), which services more than 1,000 outlets in more than 175 countries, according to the HGTV Web site (www.HGTV.com).

“We are careful with our property shows to travel across the country to different markets so that we can show different price points and areas,” Mr. Dingley says. “We are trying to film in more and more different places because of the differences in costs, style and tastes in homes.”

Mr. Dingley says that HGTV programs currently focus on the trend of people not wanting to hurt the value of their home by making certain improvements.

“If people don’t have to sell right now, they are often staying put, but they are thinking of ways to improve their enjoyment of their home,” Mr. Dingley says. “We have more shows coming down the road which will focus on which improvements will help your home value and which choices might hurt it.”

Mr. Dingley says that consumers are often strapped for time, effort and money but that these three factors shift in importance.

“A few years ago, people were mostly time-starved, but now the focus is on money,” Mr. Dingley says. “Now folks want us to show them how to get great results with more effort and less money.”

This should please Mrs. Burns, who says she is concerned that too many consumers overspend on their homes.

“It’s good for people to see the potential for a great home on television, but they need to be a little more conservative in how they spend their money,” Mrs. Burns says. “It is so important to maintain and upgrade your house, but it should be done within your means, not by going into debt.”

One show Mrs. Burns criticizes is HGTV’s “Designed to Sell,” a program mentioned by several agents as being unrealistic because home sellers are given a budget of $2,000 and then work with a team of contractors to improve their home by remodeling a kitchen, opening up a wall or redoing a bathroom.

“I still like the show because it gives people an idea of what they can do, but it definitely does not represent the true cost of those types of improvements,” says Mrs. Burns.

Mr. Dingley says “Designed to Sell” clearly states that the $2,000 budget covers only materials. He says labor costs vary widely from one area to the next, along with the ability of homeowners to work on the home improvement projects.

The consensus of Realtors who were interviewed for this article is that consumers should watch as many of these television programs as they want, but, as Mr. Kay puts it, “take them with a grain of salt.”

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