Unreal Real Estate TV: The Fake and Sometimes Dark Side of House-Hunting, Renovating & Remodeling for Our Viewing Pleasure

Anyone who's ever bought, sold or renovated knows that it's an experience that cannot be replicated wholely by a sunny reality show

By Natalie Finn Jan 20, 2017 3:00 PMTags
Real Estate Shows HGTVHGTV

As anyone who's ever bought or sold a home, renovated or remodeled or undertook an extensive home-improvement project knows—it's impossible to wholly encapsulate that experience in 22 to 48 minutes on TV.

And even if you haven't done any of those things, you can imagine.

High-stakes negotiations between realtors don't get hammered out in seconds over fancy cocktails. People are that picky and indecisive. The news that "you got the house!" isn't met with muted politeness —though "exhausted stupor" we believe. (Not to mention all of this is far more likely to occur over text or email than face to face. Most people have day jobs.) A 30-day escrow close is nice work if you can get it, but "10-day, all cash" is truly the purview of the only place you've ever heard those words used all together—Million Dollar Listing

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F. Scott Schafer/Bravo

But the Bravo franchise, which so far has spotlighted the upper-upper tier of the real estate business in Los Angeles, New York, Miami and San Francisco, doesn't purport to operate at a relatable level. 

"In New York, buying a 5 to 7 million dollar apartment, is still technically considered middle class," MDL New York star Ryan Serhant, whose firm Nest Seekers International sold $630 million worth of property in 2015, told Fishbowl NY last summer.

So MDL—for better or worse—is obviously going for that aspirational, envy-inducing vibe, though it would stop being quite so sexy if you saw the triplicate paperwork and the notarizing that accompany every transaction. So. Much. Paperwork. (And the fantastical real estate doesn't make the consequences of fraudulent business practices any less real: Now former MDL NY star Luis Ortiz was briefly investigated by state authorities in 2013 after he was seen—on the show—Photoshopping pics of a property that he planned to distribute to get the place sold faster.)

But what about the shows that, while still qualifying as escapist TV, market themselves as being a lot closer to an average person's experience with real estate?

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Apparently, the answer is: So, what about them?

When a woman whose family appeared on HGTV's House Hunters blew the lid off the whole racket in 2012 (actually there was never a lid on anything) when she divulged all the aspects of her experience on the show that were staged, viewers were of course fascinated and momentarily scandalized—but ultimately they shrugged.

Bobi Jensen of Dallas revealed that she and her husband had not only already decided on and bought the house that they would later "pick" on the show, but the other homes they toured during the "hunting" portion of the proceedings belonged to obliging friends "who were nice enough to madly clean for days in preparation for the cameras!"

The Jensens had to shoot "five or six takes" per reaction scene, Bobi shared with Hooked on Houses, and producers also took liberties with their back story—that they were desperate to find a bigger house. The reality was that they were perfectly happy to find a bigger home, but they were also renting out their old place.


HGTV wasn't particularly embarrassed by the revelation, and in fact the network not long ago made fun of the whole "scandal" with a video spoofing the predictability of the House Hunters process.

"We've learned that the pursuit of the perfect home involves big decisions that usually take place over a prolonged period of time—more time than we can capture in 30 minutes of television," HGTV told Entertainment Weekly in response to the hubbub. "However, with a series like House Hunters, HGTV viewers enjoy the vicarious and entertaining experience of choosing a home — from establishing a budget, to touring properties and weighing the pros and cons of each one.

"We're making a television show, so we manage certain production and time constraints, while honoring the home buying process. To maximize production time, we seek out families who are pretty far along in the process."

Moreover, "because the stakes in real estate are so high, these homeowners always find themselves RIGHT back in the moment, experiencing the same emotions and reactions to these properties."

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Basically, like with Survivor or The Bachelor or The Real World, what you're seeing is real-ish, but heavily enhanced by editing, storyboards and character massaging.

The formula worked so well on House Hunters, a marathon of which you can catch just about all the time on HGTV, it's since been joined on the lineup by House Hunters InternationalHouse Hunters RenovationHouse Hunters on Vacation and the much talked-about Tiny House Hunters.


Fixer Upper, featuring the rather darling Chip and Joanna Gaines, who provide a 1-2-3 punch of buying, renovating and decorating, isn't that much more realistic, if not less so, but that didn't stop it from becoming HGTV's most-watched show in 2016.

As with House HuntersFixer Upper's home buyers have often already purchased the house they choose on camera. And then, once Joanna has pulled her usual all-nighter to add the rustic yet chic finishing touches she's known for and we've all lost our stuffing over the end result...out goes the furniture. That's right, all of that glorious staging is only staging, and the new home owners have the option of buying the goodies.

The Chapman home, season 4/episode 2. #FixerUpper #HGTV.

A photo posted by Fixer Upper (@fixerupperhgtv) on

Which in turn made us realize that there probably aren't a bunch of families all over North America still enjoying the immaculate decor picked out by Property Brothers' contractor-interior designer Jonathan Scott, either. Boo.

Yet all of those shows are going strong, and their watchability factor—reliable formula with just enough differences to prevent boredom—remains high.

What will be leaving the lineup, however, at least in first-run-episode form, is HGTV's second most-watched show in 2016, Flip or Flop.

Married real estate agents and parents of two Christina and Tarek El Moussa, who started flipping houses after the 2008 home mortgage bubble burst and joined the HGTV family in 2013, are divorcing after what turned out to be months of behind-the-scenes acrimony. Sources said that Christina ultimately wanted more out of their burgeoning fame than Tarek did and having diverging visions for their future broke them up.

Co-stars not getting along is a tale as old as TV, but when your co-star is your spouse...having to be together 24/7 while raising a family and working together certainly doesn't leave much room for home improvement.


And while their picture-perfect marriage was crumbling (though we didn't know it yet), the couple were not without their business-related controversy.

In October, the Associated Press reported that wannabe flipping tycoons were complaining that a series of how-to seminars featuring the El Moussas neither featured the El Moussas nor actually helped them make any money. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The series would start with a free info session, after which interested guests would be directed to the $1,997 three-day course. But while the classes were at times informative, and some people had positive, lucrative experiences, disgruntled attendees claimed that the majority of the time was spent pushing more expensive training sessions, one of which cost as much as $26,000.

HGTV was not affiliated in any way with for-profit education company Zurixx, which runs the Success Path Education program that the El Moussas' classes were a part of, so neither the network nor parent company Scripps had anything to add. The El Moussas did not give a comment for the AP's story.

The report also mentioned Andy and Candis Meredith of DIY Network's Old Home Love. The Utah couple were similarly attached to a class series that started with a free info session before students were asked to plunk down $1,997 for a three-day course. One woman told the AP that she didn't return after day two because she had been advised to get her credit limit raised for the $23,000 next step of the program. The Merediths' manager said they were too busy to be interviewed.


A similar issue occurred with those who sought the tricks of the trade from Armando Montelongo, a San Antonio-based real estate investor featured on A&E's Flip This House (not to be confused with Discovery Home Channel's Flip That House). 

Montelongo was sued in March 2016 by 164 of his former students who alleged that his pricey seminars, which could run as high as $50,000, were a scam. 

"Montelongo seminars are really just ruses to sell more education," plaintiff attorney Christopher Wimmer told San Antonio's ABC 12. "Hysteria is created at the events, we allege, and really financially dangerous results because this bullet proof system which is sold as something that works in all markets, at all times, does not in fact."

Montelongo's eponymous company responded in a statement: "Unfortunately, there is a small group of people, 164, out of more than 1.5 million people, who have come through the Armando Montelongo Companies, that have decided that continuous hard work is not for them. Now they have chosen to try and make money the easy way by clogging up our legal system with a frivolous lawsuit." He also vowed to counter-sue.

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The lawsuit was dismissed in San Francisco, for jurisdictional purposes, but plaintiffs refiled in San Antonio this month, stating in court documents that Montelongo was peddling "worthless, dangerous and unlawful advice." Also, per documents obtained by Radar Online, the students accused Montelongo of buying up flippable homes through an affiliate, and then encouraging the would-be flippers to buy them without disclosing he had a stake in the transactions.

"The financial devastation wrought by the AMS programs has taken a heavy emotional toll, destroying friendships, wrecking marriages, driving students into clinical depression, and even resulting in suicide," the suit further alleges.

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Lawsuits against activity that was actually seen on TV—or at least a version of it that was seen on TV—are not unheard of, either. 

The production company behind HGTV's Love It or List It, which stars interior designer Hilary Farr and real estate agent David Visentin, was sued last month by a North Carolina couple who alleged the home renovation they ended up with was sub-par.


Moreover, the suit alleged, "The show is scripted, with 'roles' and reactions assigned to the various performers and participants, including the homeowners"; the contractor affiliated with the show wasn't licensed to work in North Carolina; and the reno plans they were shown were not drawn up by licensed architects. "The homeowners' funds essentially pay the cost of creating a stage set for this television series," the plaintiffs contend.

Big Coat Productions/Big Coat TV didn't comment, but told the Raleigh News Observer they planned to vigorously defend themselves against false claims.

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Celebrity home stager Meredith Baer, who scored her own HGTV series Staged to Perfection after appearing on the network's Selling L.A. (which, according to Sotheby's, was more realistic than Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles), was sued in September for $1.3 million by a client who alleged Baer filled her New York townhouse with "defective" furniture.

Her company told the New York Daily News that the lawsuit was "frivolous and they fully stood behind Baer's work.

In 2015, meanwhile, John Colaneri and Anthony Corrino of HGTV's Kitchen Cousins and America's Most Desperate Kitchens filed for bankruptcy after a New Jersey couple won a $857,894 judgment against them in arbitration, having sued them and their construction company for doing a supposedly shoddy renovation job on their kitchen. HGTV and the shows weren't party to the suit.


And last but not least, Nicole Curtis, star of fan-favorite HGTV show Rehab Addict, has been a one-woman hotbed of drama lately.

In 2015 she was reportedly in danger of being sued after a subcontractor she had hired to work on one of her properties in Minneapolis quit because he hadn't been paid—three years after Curtis first showed off the "before" pictures of the house on Instagram.

"It's a considerable amount of money that we're owed and we just want to be paid for the work we did," John Jepsen, who said his structural shoring and carpentry business was owed $25,000 for work already done, told TV station WCCO.

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Curtis told the station that Jepsen, whom she'd worked with before on Rehab Addict, had been properly paid and that his people had left the job site unsecured.

A plumber and an employee had previously taken Curtis to small claims court to collect payment, and she had complied, though one case brought by a former assistant was still outstanding, according to the same report. 

Meanwhile, Curtis expressed hope that the neighbors who were starting to complain about being next to a construction site for three years would sit tight. "I've never said to the community we're not going to do this," she told WCCO. What I've said is you need to be supportive of this and quit criticizing it because we're doing the best that we can."

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Fast-forward to summer 2016 and the neighbors were getting restless.

According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, when Curtis bought the condemned property for $2 in November 2012, she signed a contract with the city that mandated she "substantially complete construction" of improvements to the house within a year of purchase, as well as keep the city updated on her progress. As of last July, there were two liens on the property for unpaid bills and Curtis owed unpaid taxes and fines.

"I don't know what the plan is," City Council member Blong Yang, who toured the property with other city officials last June to gauge how much work had been done, told the paper. "I think we as a city have to figure out what to do at this point, because it has been a burden on the neighbors who live there."

"Piles of rocks, foundation—everything was left as if time stood still and the earth stopped," Juliee Oden, said to live across the street from Curtis' property, told WCCO

Curtis, via Facebook, attributed the massive delay to a contractor who was supposed to be done by December 2014 but "kept pushing back and then left two of our sites in shambles."

But as it turned out, Curtis had a reason as to why the Minneapolis property may have been the last thing on her mind.

Over the summer, it came to light that she was embroiled in a nasty custody battle with ex Shane Maguire, whom she had broken up with shortly before learning she was pregnant with her now 19-month-old second child, son Harper, and was having legal issues with her mother, Joan Curtis.

On one day in August, Curtis was ordered to pay back expenses and fees to Maguire for five separate instances of missed visitation time—and then she was ordered to stay away from her mother, who had requested an order of protection against Nicole, claiming she had threatened her. The judge didn't issue the order, but still advised Curtis to back off. 

Regarding the custody issues, Judge Lisa Langton told the court, "I'm tired of the parties being back here every other week. I consider this contempt of a court order...and could include jail time."

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"I just want my son to have two good parents," Maguire, who successfully sued Curtis for joint custody in November 2015, told reporters outside the courthouse, per the Detroit News.

In July, Curtis filed a petition to make all of Maguire's visits supervised and prevent overnight visits until Harper was 2. The judge refused, and barred Curtis from bringing her son with her to job sites where there might be lead or other toxic chemicals.

Tearfully speaking on her behalf before the same judge with regard to her rocky relationship with her mother, Nicole Curtis said, "I'm deeply embarrassed about our family...I do the Home and Garden Network—its not like I'm in prime time and not a celebrity, far from it. I want this to go away."

Curtis opened up further about her experiences—which included hiding her second pregnancy as much as possible, including while filming her show—in her recent book Better Than New: Lessons I've Learned From Saving Old Homes (and How They Saved Me)

"I had no idea that this stuff went on in family courts and everything, so I am really trying to use a negative experience and really be an advocate for women who don't have this," she told People in October. "I have my own money and I can afford different things and make this a little easier. There's women out there that can't."

As for her decision to share so many personal details, she said, "It took me a long time to find this person that I am now. I'm not hiding anymore."

Now this stuff, you can't make up.

(Bravo and E! News are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)