Wendy and I are sitting on the couch watching an episode of HGTV's "My First Place." In this episode, Stephanie and TJ, a DC newlywed assistant production editor for a scientific journal and an aerospace engineer, are trying to buy a house in Arlington, VA, a neighboring city to our home in Alexandria. Right now I'm shocked we have enough time to watch the show, given all of the projects we should be working on, but we just can't pull ourselves away. Throughout the entire show we've been shaking our heads at the bad advice and misleading information the first time home buyers have been getting at every turn.

Stephanie and TJ, if you happen to stumble on this post through some random Google search in the future, I'm sorry for what you had to go through.

When the episode aired in 2010, Stephanie and TJ were a young hipster couple working in DC with a substantial budget. Looking at houses in the high $600K to $800K range, they were shown some really cool mid-century places in Arlington with tons of potential. However, in our opinion, their entire experience as first time home buyers (at least from what we saw on TV) was completely soured by their Realtor.

Although TJ and Stephanie were interested in an older home, perhaps one that needed a little work, their Realtor seemed determined to sway them from their decision at almost every turn. Looking at a 1930s home they were very interested in that was in the bottom of their price range, he kept making statements like "So then the question [about installing a doorway], you might want it, but is it $5,000 or $50,000? You might want it if it's $5,000, if it's $50,000 you want to focus your energies elsewhere." 

I understand that he may be trying to educate the newbie home buyers using order of magnitude estimates, and that you can take or leave things based on importance and overall price, but what he is doing is quite a disservice to his customers. Honestly, when would a simple doorway in an exterior wall cost $5,000 on the cheap and $50,000 on the top end? Frank admittedly has little actual experience estimating costs on construction and suggested calling in a pro, so why make SWAG guesses at the expense of your clients? The client doesn't hear that this project could be minor or major, they simply get the dollar amount that was randomly thrown out stuck in their head.

When he told TJ and Stephanie that their utility costs were likely to be 30% higher due to old windows, that they would need to ask a home inspector if the stove "could" be switched over to gas, or suggested that installing central air was the equivalent to qualifying the house as a "money pit," Wendy and I simply couldn't believe it.

It seems that in this day and age, especially in an area absolutely full of mid-century homes, a good agent would need to have an understanding of what is and isn't possible in the realm of renovation, and steer their clients based on this, not seemingly random cost estimations that skew their perception. The couple received an estimate from professionals of approximately $130,000 ($55,000-$60,000 for changes and $70,000 for structural) to make the home what they wanted it to be. I took these numbers with a grain of salt simply because the designer estimated $10,000 just for demolition, high IMHO, but not out of the question. Total cost of this home with renovations, about $800,000. But as I said, their Realtor seemed to discourage this purchase fearing a "Money pit." However, it felt more like he was discouraging it because it was an older home.

Also, just to play devil's advocate here, a $650,000 home that requires close to $150,000 in renovations, versus a move in ready home of $800,000, offer's a significantly lower commission to the Realtor, since their percentage is based on the sales price of the house. A fixer upper purchase can also be more difficult and risky for the Realtor because of the chance the house will not appraise for enough, or other problems will derail the sale, causing the Realtor to spend more time and effort than they otherwise would have. Not saying that weighed into the Realtor's schpiel in this particular case, I'm just sayin... 

I found a video of the episode on YouTube. Sorry for the quality, it looks like it recorded by a camera pointed at a television, hence the flicker on the screen.

The next home they looked at was a fully renovated home for $800,000. Roughly the same end cost, but in move in condition. Their Realtor couldn't say enough positive things about this place. But, shockingly, no mention of the lack of central air (window units evident) and no mention of a few older windows in the house and the "horrible" efficiency issues that come with them (don't get me started on the energy efficiency of old windows, it's just not true). The funniest part to me was when their Realtor points our the "Super efficient tankless water heater, that is really great and will be very energy efficient." Ask Wendy, I think I started jumping around on the couch when he said that. He got one point right, it was an energy efficient unit, but it was actually a boiler, not a tankless water heater, with a rather large indirect hot water storage tank sitting just to the right of it in plain view of the shot, that the home buyer was actually touching. So no, no tankless water heater at all actually. Luckily for the home buyers, the inspector pointed out this fact.

I know we really only see 1/2 of the story, and what you see on reality TV is not necessarily what you get, so perhaps editors cut the entire show to focus on the failures of the Realtor, regardless of circumstance, their experience as first time home buys really leaves something to be desired in my book. I'm sorry to the Realtor for unloading on him here, especially because I don't know him, but I just don't see how this technique is an effective one for the home buyer. 

Wendy and I felt very much the same during our home buying experience, and understand all of the problems and places where we would do things differently if we were going through it again. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but would be so much cooler with a time machine. At least the fine people at HGTV did the couple a solid after their turbulent buying saga (and the fact they seemed to be moving into their first home during the massive blizzard that was Snowmageddon 2010) and gave them a great sofa with classic mid-century lines as a housewarming gift. It seemed to fit their style. 

Ok, the show is over, another DC episode is on, but we have to take Lulu for a walk. Besides, I don't think I could take another thirty minutes of potential frustration.Hopefully for the new home buyers in this episode, their Realtor is a little better than the last.

Do you get the same pit in your stomach when you watch some of the home shows on various channels? Our feeling isn't nearly isolated to this one show. Honestly, I can barely take it sometimes, especially when people start throwing around the good ole phrase "this has to be gutted." The combination of those words often has me seeing red. Ok, really, I need to go out and walk Lulu.

I actually found the Realtor's blog on the interwebs after I posted this. It seems his approach to realty is to try to talk the home buyers out of buying a home, not into buying it. While a good philosophy, in practice it is a fine line to walk. In my opinion, the best agent spends their time presenting valid information to the client, rather than attempting to influence their decisions. It is especially muddy if the agent begins offering wild estimates based on nothing more than a guess of what the buyer will feel is a low value and a high value (I'm talking about the 5K to 50K doorway item). Hopefully the agent's clients feel good about their work with him, but I know we wouldn't be a good match. I want my agent to find houses that fit our needs that we outline, and to assist with the paperwork, not to steer me towards a house I don't like, or away from a house I do like. Just my 2 cents.

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Comments 14


6/30/2011 at 10:40 PM
Oh man, a few weeks ago on vacation, we watched an episode in DC with a couple where it was the opposite. The agent was good and did his best with the hand he was dealt, but he had a couple where the girl was dead set on a house (instead of a condo), had a budget of 400k or less, wanted to be on Capitol Hill, and near the metro.

It was frustrating to watch, because they clearly knew nothing about DC neighborhoods at all, and the agent was trying to persuade them to consider a condo or a different neighborhood at that price, and this fairly strong-willed girl wanted nothing to do with it.

They ended up with a 2br house south of Pennsylvania Ave (around 15-16th street) in that area up against the SE/SW freeway that needed a brand new kitchen, had mold issues, no central air, a potbellied stove in the den and a street that looked like an alley. Yes it was close to the Potomac Ave metro and it was technically on the Hill, but they're going to have to move anyway one day again with only 2br, making one wonder why she wanted a house not a condo????

The part that got me was that they clearly knew very little about DC neighborhoods and had no open mind whatsoever. They automatically figured the Hill was safe and other neighborhoods were not, though I'd bet that the crime is far higher in that part of the Hill than our part of Petworth. And for the same price, they could've gotten a 3-4 bedroom house in any number of transitioning neighborhoods near metro where they could've done 30-40k of work and had a house they could stay in for 10 years.

I had been meaning to blog about it too, but this super long comment will have to suffice. Opposite problem of your show, but annoying nonetheless. I went and found their house with Redfin after the fact I was so curious. :)
I think I know the episode you are talking about, and I'm pretty sure we had the same reaction as you. Whenever either side of the equation is out of touch with what is realistic you end up with a home buying train wreck. It's amazing, but I guess it makes for better TV.

I do think it is far worse if you see a show with a home buyer who feels like they know a lot about renovating and spend most of the episode talking about what they will "blow out," "tear down," "rip up," or "take a sledgehammer to."

Though, I'm not sure what is worse between everything we've mentioned or the person who passes up an otherwise perfect house due to the paint color on a few walls.
7/1/2011 at 6:58 AM
Cute Blog! Love the post! I have never been to DC but I did see this episode!I'm a new follower! Happy Friday!! I would love for you to stop by and check out my blog as well! If you like it you can follow back! Thanks! Hope to blog with you again soon!

Thanks Krista, and welcome! We'll be sure to check out your blog.
7/1/2011 at 11:34 AM
For me, it is usually the home buyers' unrealistic expectations (and um, taste level) that drive me crazy--of course everything MUST have, say it with me now, "granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances." It could be a drinking game with any HGTV home buying show.
This region is at a crazy price level, and I am so thankful every day for the home I ended up with. I cannot imagine doing it without renting here for 7 years first. Many people would have turned their noses up at the nearly untouched 50s gem, but it was perfect for me and my husband. We definitely stumbled into it though, as we knew nothing and our agent was really tight lipped (we ended up thanking that was a good thing).
I think you're onto something with the drinking game idea, Val. I love it! It bugs me too how people turn their noses up at a house if it isn't in move in ready condition, complete with granite countertops and stainless steel. Why are people so afraid to roll up their sleeves and make a house theirs to call home?
7/3/2011 at 3:56 PM
Since the dude wore a headband out in the snow, they deserve the house they got...just sayin.
I assume he was channeling Björn Borg in an ironic sort of way.
7/5/2011 at 7:57 PM
As a Realtor, watching these shows makes me cringe! There are so many bad agents out there and shows like these only give the few good ones (myself included, of course - ha ha) a bad name. It's amazing how little research most buyers do when making the largest financial purchase of their lives.
PS - "stainless steel and granite countertops" make me want to take up drinking. I hear that about a dozen times a day when asking for desired traits. It's so boring!
We just bought a 90 yr old bungalow in Asheville. My husband is a general contractor - so we'll definitely be fixing it up. No stainless steel or granite is allowed, ha ha!
Can't wait to keep reading more of your renovations. Your home is lovely.
Thanks Jen, and good luck with the new project. Sounds like you have an exciting new renovation on your hands!
7/6/2011 at 1:59 AM
I know that on House Hunters, the couple has already picked out their home before they appear on the show and it basically serves as free advertising for the realtor. (I first read about that here: hookedonhouses.net/2010/06/02/the-truth-about-house-hunters-on-hgtv/) I kind of assumed that My First Place was the same. I think it's kind of ridiculous budget-wise, as well- it seems like they are all either cheaper houses who would be at the top of the budget after renovations, or houses that are already at the top of their budget. Being pre-approved for X amount of money doesn't mean you need to spend all of it!
7/25/2011 at 6:25 PM
I have a love/hate relationship with these real estate shows. I love getting glimpses of other places across the globe and what the markets are like there, but usually I really dislike the people. So often I feel like they are uneducated about the market and because they are on a TV show are expecting miracles. Attention newbies: you will not get a pristine house in a coveted neighborhood for $4. I also get frustrated when people start whining about how small the rooms are when it's a 2000+ house. I can't imagine what they'd think if they stepped into my house. The worse though are the international versions where people talk about wanting to immerse themselves in the local culture and absorb what it's really like to live among the locals and then they whine and complain the whole time because they don't have American sized rooms or amenities.
Monty Wentzel
10/8/2015 at 10:17 PM

I've been a contractor for 40 years. These home shows on TV infuriate me because there is no way their estimates are anywhere near reality in any part of the United States.
Yes the shows are very fun to watch especially because it's all done in 30 or 60 minutes, which again placed stress on my business because most homeowners have no concept of reality and expected us to do the same work for the same money in the same artificial short period of time. The truth is remodeling and even new construction cost quite a bit more than is shown on television. It's for this reason I believe HGTV is doing a disservice to general contractors because of the artificial expectations and budgets that are so carelessly plastered throughout these TV shows.

8/7/2019 at 1:56 AM

I also get frustrated when people start whining about how small the rooms are when it's a 2000+ house. I can't imagine what they'd think if they stepped into my house. The worse though are the international versions where people talk about wanting to immerse themselves in the local culture and absorb what it's really like to live among the locals and then they whine and complain the whole time because they don't have American sized rooms or amenities.

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