From million-dollar island bungalows to multifamily homes in the 'burbs, reality TV shows on Bravo, HGTV and other networks take viewers behind the scenes of the home-buying process. HGTV's "House Hunters," for instance, shows a couple or individual with an opinionated sidekick who tour three properties and discuss the pros and cons of each property before choosing one.
Real estate shows, especially those featuring pricey properties, often appeal to viewers on an aspirational or voyeuristic level. "It's about seeing beautiful homes and properties that people might not get to see," says Steven Aaron, a Keller Williams broker in Beverly Hills, Calif., and a regular on HGTV's "Selling L.A." (Also from U.S. News: 7 reasons your house isn't selling.)
However, those beautiful properties aren't always what they seem. Last year, a Texas couple who appeared on "House Hunters" revealed that two of the houses they toured on camera weren't even on the market. They scrambled to find properties similar to the one they bought and wound up touring friends' houses on camera.
Some viewers were outraged, but HGTV didn't deny it. In fact, production crews don't start shooting until after a deal has closed or is in escrow in case things fall through, according to Herman Chan, a San Francisco real estate broker who's appeared on HGTV's "House Hunters" and "My Home is Worth What?" He says the properties the homebuyer tours may or may not have been on the market when the homebuyer started looking.
A lot of reality TV is staged, Chan points out. "People still watch even though they know a lot of it is produced because it's about the journey," he says. "It's the same reason people watch 'The Bachelor.' They love watching the emotional highs and lows."
For "Selling L.A.," Aaron says crews film about 40 hours of footage over several months and cut it down to a nine- to 10-minute story, with two stories per episode. "Unfortunately, there's never enough time to get into the detail," he says. "It's much more intricate because you're dealing with so many moving parts that can't be shown."
The process from house showings to closing takes only about 22 minutes on TV, but in real life, it can take several months. Reality shows rarely feature homebuyers doing important tasks such as choosing an agent, talking with home inspectors or applying for a mortgage, though they often mention getting pre-approved.
"It's a very condensed version of what to expect," Chan says. "On 'House Hunters,' they're just showing the happy moments where you're shopping. Afterwards is when it gets problematic. What if the appraisal doesn't come in or there are whackadoo neighbors?"
Homebuyers in real life typically have contingency periods when they can bring in inspectors, have the property appraised and potentially walk away if issues like termites or foundation problems pop up. Buyers rarely back out on a reality TV show because that wouldn't fit the format of the program or the viewer's expectations for a happy ending.
Reality TV shows also diverge from real life in the way properties are presented. Thanks to home-selling shows like HGTV's "Designed to Sell" and "Get It Sold," terms like "curb appeal" and "staging" have entered many consumers' lexicons. "Not all the homes are staged on the shows, but it does set an expectation that they're clean and well-lit," Chan says. "In regular, real-life showings, babies might be crying or peoples' laundry might be hanging in the background. It does put pressure on sellers to up their game."
In that regard, some reality TV can serve as a wake-up call for sellers, especially those whose homes have been sitting on the market. "They can learn that you need to clean out your house, you need to paint it," says Janice Leis, an associate broker who handles properties in Pennsylvania, Florida and New Jersey. "The outside needs to be cleaned up, and you need to take furniture out. It shows sellers what's important to the masses of people that are out there looking."
Another key aspect of homebuying shows is when buyers list their needs and wants. Leis says this is helpful for first-time buyers who gain tips from watching the programs. "[The shows are] excellent in discussing [homebuyers'] expectations, limitations and the pre-approval process, which is something I've always made people do from day one," Leis says.
Despite the condensed nature of reality TV shows, Chan says he believes they still offer useful information. "Before the proliferation of reality TV, your only information as a consumer was what your real estate agent was telling you and friend's anecdotal experience," he says. "The real estate reality shows are almost like a mini course: Ask about the foundation, or this is how to act at an open house." (Also from U.S. News: 10 Ways Your Home Can Pay You Money)
The shows also depict the compromises homebuyers make in real life.
"The good thing is that you see the pros and cons of the house that they end up buying," Chain says. "They film them talking about the trade-offs. Those are very real conversations that people have. Usually by the end of the show, someone makes a compromise because there's no perfect house."
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