We’ve all seen the home renovation shows where the nice young couple buys a decrepit home with a kitchen so ugly even 1960 wouldn’t take it back. In 30 or 60 minutes, that ugly house becomes a veritable dream home, with every detail perfect, down to the color-coordinated stand mixer and coffee maker in the now gorgeous kitchen.
This is today’s reality TV, at least in the home renovation space. But is it reality?
“We live in a world of home improvement as entertainment,” says Angie Hicks, founder of AngiesList.com, which provides referrals and reviews of contractors. She loves watching home remodeling shows, while knowing at the same time that they don’t give a complete picture. “A lot of steps get left out in that entertainment because obviously it would be kind of boring.”
Boring steps that are usually left out include the homeowners’ research before they decide what renovations to make, drawing up plans with architects, consulting engineers on structural issues, getting estimates from multiple contractors and then choosing one and getting permits from local building officials, all of which can add months to a project.
“It’s not sexy. It’s not exciting. That part doesn’t make good television,” says Christy Biberich, an interior designer and remodeler in Los Angeles, where she worked on the HGTV show “Brother vs. Brother,” in which brothers Drew and Jonathan Scott lead two teams of renovators competing to raise property value. But, she says of the early planning, “That’s something that is so important to the results of your project.”
“It’s apples and oranges for sure,” she says. “On a television show, everything is already set up.”
The timeline is often significantly compressed, with a bathroom or kitchen renovation taking a few days and a whole-house renovation completed in several weeks or months. Castle Building & Remodeling in Minneapolis made a YouTube video of a bathroom remodel called “Bath Remodeling Not As Seen on TV ” to show all the steps involved and explain why a simple bathroom renovation actually takes 21 to 30 days – after the design and product selections are completed.
The home renovation costs you see on the shows may not be accurate, either. Costs vary significantly by geographic area – a roof in Colorado has to withstand snow and ice, while a roof in Florida needs to withstand hurricanes. Materials that have to travel may cost farther, and labor costs always vary by city. Plus, home renovation shows often get discounted labor and materials.
“The shows are great for inspiration and getting you excited about making a transformation in your own home,” says Biberich, who owns her own design and renovation firm, Christy B. “Use the shows as inspiration and motivation for your projects, and then make sure you do enough planning and preparation before you start on your project.”
Here are eight things you see on home renovation shows, identified as fantasy or reality.
Home renovation projects include unexpected, and often expensive, setbacks. Reality. Life is not quite as precisely scripted as “Love It or List It,” which finds designer Hilary Farr being forced in every single episode to curtail her plans after a surprise problem with the plumbing or foundation or another less exciting part of the house eats into the renovation budget. In truth, the TV project may have fewer surprises, since the real plans were done before the video shoot. No one knows what you’ll find when you open up walls and floors, but it is often something expensive, especially in an older house. “There are so many things that happen that you can’t foresee,” Biberich says. “The fact of the matter is that renovations go over budget.” Setting aside a contingency fund, which our TV homeowners never seem to do, is a smart move.
The home looks like a magazine cover story when it’s finished. Fantasy. A home renovation project usually ends with everything in your home covered in dust. All your pots and pans remain in the living room, and no one brings in fresh flowers or just the right throw pillows. Once the contractors have finished, the home shows probably bring in cleaning crews, window washers and designers with accessories, all costs that are not included in the original renovation budget.
Adding the right furniture and accessories can make your home look like a magazine cover story. Reality. Those accessories don’t come with a renovation job. But if you’re willing to do some shopping and spend the extra time, you can make your home look just as nice.
Contractors show up on time and work into the night to get the job done by deadline.Fantasy. The TV crew is working solely on that project (and there may be people working you don’t see on screen). Your contractor is juggling your renovation with several other projects, and you may not be his top priority. Plus, he doesn’t work nights.
Changing flooring, finishes and layouts can transform an ugly house. Reality.This is where the shows are true to life. While the changes the crews make are not as easy as they look, knocking out a wall, changing the floor tile or replacing old wallpaper can make a big difference. “There’s a lot of good educational stuff you can get from these shows,” Biberich says. She finds that the shows make smart choices and show good use of space.
A major home renovation project can be done in 60 minutes. Fantasy. Many of the projects featured on home improvement shows can’t even be done in 60 days, and real-life renovations almost always take considerably longer than they do on TV. Timetables are a frequent struggle between homeowner and contractor, and required municipal inspections at various points of the project can also cause delays.
The stress of a major home renovation can bring homeowners to tears. Reality. Many episodes show homeowners overcome with emotion as they struggle to make decisions, cope with unexpected and expensive setbacks and live with the chaos of having their homes turned upside down. Renovation is extremely stressful and can also tax family relationships. In real life, you are likely to continue living in your home during the renovation and experience months of chaos.
You can choose materials while the project is underway in just one visit to a store. Fantasy. Shopping for the exact materials you want to use in your renovation can take weeks or months, and you probably will have looked at pictures for months before that. “In real life, you have so many endless options when you are choosing your finishes,” Biberich says. Plus, many items have to be ordered and can take weeks to arrive, which is something you need to plan for.
A version of this story appears previously at U.S. News & World Report.