Some Reality TV Home Makeovers Not So Free

Free home improvements from reality television shows may not be so free after all. Some winning homeowners are finding they have to pay for repairs when they discover the rapid-fire "makeover" work is shoddy. Still other contestants find they can't afford the extra property taxes that come from an improved home. Alex Cohen of member station KQED reports.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, at a community swimming pool in Seattle, an idea to make forbidden pleasures possible for a group of Muslim women.

First, on TV home makeover shows, designers and builders will transform your miserable little domicile into a dramatic dream pad--newly redone paint and plaster. But when the camera crews leave, look more closely at that paint job and ask yourself what's underneath it. Just who are these contractors, anyway? From member station KQED, Alex Cohen reports on the woes of getting a home makeover.

ALEX COHEN reporting:

Last year, Charles Higgins' parents passed away, and ever since then, the 22-year-old says, he wanted to keep his four siblings together, but they couldn't afford to live on their own. So they moved in with the Leomitis, family friends who lived in a one-story, two-bedroom house in LA. The Leomiti family already had three kids, so space was at a minimum. Six months ago, ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" renovated the house and added seven more bedrooms. On the show, one of the program's interior designers showed off Charles' room, which included a giant map on the wall.

(Soundbite of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition")

Unidentified Man: This is Charles' room. Charles likes to travel; he wants to see the world. And thanks to us, he now will. I gave him the world.

COHEN: But according to Charles Higgins, the Leomiti family recently told him and his siblings to leave, and now they're homeless. Last week, the Higgins' kids filed lawsuits against the Leomiti family and ABC. Standing outside an LA courthouse, Charles Higgins says ABC capitalized on his family's misfortune. They're story made for great drama. The episode drew more than 16 million viewers.

Mr. CHARLES HIGGINS: I'm really upset at what happened, you know, because they broke a promise to us. You know, they promised that we'd have a home and...

COHEN: ABC wouldn't comment on the lawsuit, but they did issue a written statement. It said, quote, "It is important to note that the episode was about the rebuilding of the Leomiti family's existing home to accommodate the inclusion of the five Higgins siblings." The Leomiti family did not return phone calls.

Most makeover show participants don't wind up filing lawsuits, but quite a few have been disappointed with the results. April Lunsten(ph) had the master bedroom of her LA home redone on another network's show. Designers painted the walls, replaced old carpet with wood floors and gave them new furniture.

Ms. APRIL LUNSTEN: When I walked in, you know, they had candles lit and it was lit beautifully, and I thought, `This room is gorgeous.' And then once they left it was like, you know, everything fell apart.

COHEN: Lunsten says the work done on her home was a far cry from professional. She soon noticed paint streaks and loose moldings.

Ms. LUNSTEN: They made a bedspread that the seams immediately split, like after the first night that we slept in it.

COHEN: Lunsten estimates it will take about $1,500 to fix the work done. But at least that's a one-time cost, unlike utilities. Makeover winners can also face additional costs, like heating a brand-new pool, powering new appliances or watering a new garden. And if square footage is added or there's significant new construction, property taxes can go up by thousands of dollars. LA County tax assessor Bonnie Oliver.

Ms. BONNIE OLIVER (Los Angeles County Tax Assessor): There's no exemption for new construction just because they happen to be part of a show, you know, where the construction's paid by a third party.

COHEN: TV producers aren't oblivious to this. They'll often rent a house from an owner for as much as $50,000 while crews renovate it. And that can help defray the costs of taxes and utilities. But, says Alex Binblanc, editor of Television Week, those who sponsor home makeovers aren't exactly Good Samaritans. The network behind "Extreme Makeover" is no exception.

Mr. ALEX BINBLANC (Editor, Television Week): ABC is part of a very large company called The Walt Disney Company. Their mission is to make profits. The ABC network makes profits by attracting audience and then having Nielsen measure that audience and give them readings that are leveraged with advertisers to get high rates.

COHEN: ABC's not just in it for the ratings, argues Brian Wofford, whose home was renovated by "Extreme Makeover" last year. The single father says the cast and crew still sends his eight kids e-mails, and their new house has made a huge difference in their lives.

Mr. BRIAN WOFFORD (Home Renovated by "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"): My kids can actually take showers and not have to wait sometimes an hour for the water to get hot. It's just makes life better.

COHEN: Now that Wofford's home is more than three times its original size, his annual property taxes have gone up by several thousand dollars. But he says it's a price he's happy to pay. For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen in Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. We've got more coming up just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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