“Flipping” off home makeover TV
By Emily Stoner
Sam Leccima is a con man. His real estate license was revoked in 2005 by the Georgia Real Estate Commission, with a panel ruling he “does not bear a good reputation for honesty, trustworthiness, integrity, and competence.” But he continued practicing as a real estate agent anyway. Sonya McGee, an Atlanta pharmaceutical representative who contracted Leccima says that he took $4,000 from her in an investment scheme. He also faked home repairs with quick, temporary patch-ups to impress potential buyers.
Not only did he dupe unsuspecting home buyers, he also fooled the public. Sam Leccima is the former head of the Atlanta crew on the hit reality television show “Flip This House.” Consequently, A&E has since hired a new Atlanta crew, and had the prior one erased from history.
Home makeover television is some of the most popular and acclaimed (if you can call reality television that) programming shown today. ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program in 2005 and 2006 and was nominated for another in 2007. TLC’s “Trading Spaces” won a BMI Cable Award in 2005 and has been nominated for three Emmys.
But aside from being entertaining and educational, these shows are often deceptive. Featuring illegal house flippers and fraudulent home repairs, they bring into question the line between entertainment and ethics.
Shows like “Flip This House” and it’s younger sibling, TLC’s “Flip That House,” follow a very basic format: they are informative guides to house flipping. Profits from this practice come from either buying low and selling high in a rapidly rising market, or buying a house that needs repair, fixing it up and selling it for more money; the latter is dealt with in these types of shows.
Each episode of “Flip That House” presents the initial cost of purchase, budget and work schedule. Later on the viewer is given the final estimated sell price from a professional (and hopefully credible) real estate agent and the actual budget, work schedule and profit.
The flipping company is then followed throughout the show — they buy the house and land, fix it up, run into an inevitable disaster sequence, and show tours of the finished product at the end. One attribute of the house is often highlighted during a tour until someone makes a positive comment about it.
Ben Tietz, a junior television-radio major who interned at “Flip This House” this past summer, attests that a lot of situations that the flipping company encounters are formulated by a group of writers that he never came into contact with.
“It’s clearly scripted,” says Tietz in reference to the formulaic, dread-inducing last-minute slip up. For example, on one episode, a crewmember dropped and broke a window near the end of the program. It caused a lot of turmoil and excitement, but in fact there was another window waiting in the wings off camera. According to Tietz, A&E readily owns up to scripting the show, and acknowledges that people watch for the entertainment value, as well as the home makeover tips.
Making up entertaining situations to boost numbers is one thing, but faking home makeovers for the camera is another. Tietz blames the culture of real estate, rather than the producers of the show, for the ethical dilemma. “That’s the thing about real estate… it really is more about aesthetics than anything,” he says.
One of the homes Leccima worked on even had “mismatched wooden floors and unpainted patched walls that were out of view of the TV cameras.” Flippers focus particularly on making their houses as attractive to the buyer as possible with little effort. According to Tietz, it’s more about style than substance.
Other home remodeling programs exploit the emotional appeal of real estate with inspiring sob stories, a la ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The homes they feature are always in poor condition and the families inhabiting them have always suffered tragedies or hardships of some sort. After a beleaguered family is sent away to a relaxing location for a week, the team gets to work fixing up their house, again featuring dramatic slip-ups and personality clashes and, finally, a beautiful home appears to surprise the deserving family at the end.
The show, at first glance, has a particular knack for finding dilapidated homes full of sick kids with exotic diseases. But ABC does not just stumble across these families; they actively seek them out. “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” has specific tragedies and rare illnesses that it wants featured on its show; families on the show have been afflicted by Lou Gehrig’s disease, melanoma, progeria (accelerated aging), congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA, the inability to feel any physical pain), and, on many occasions, Down Syndrome.
An email sent by Phinel Petit-Frere, a network representative of ABC Affiliate Relations, was printed on The Smoking Gun Web site. It reads, “As we begin to cast a new season for ’Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,’ we also begin to look for stories of families who are trying to overcome adversity, but just need a little help (Especially with their home!).” Later on, he makes light of the issue of CIPA: “There are 17 known cases in U.S. – let me know if one is in your town!”
Overly enthusiastic emails aside, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” is a top-rated show, combining quality drama and DIY home repairs. But when real-life problems are sold out for ratings, viewers must decide for themselves when entertainment becomes exploitation.
Not all home makeover shows contain this ethical dilemma. TLC’s “Trading Spaces,” where two sets of neighbors go into each other’s homes and redecorate one room with a $1,000 budget, was able to gain popularity without taking a sensationalist approach.
Additionally, HGTV even offers an entire network of the home makeover genre. They feature shows such as “Designed to Sell,” “If Walls Could Talk…” and “Small Space, Big Style,” which deliver home makeover tips on a truthful, practical level. Similarly, The Style Network’s “Clean House” goes to a home each episode with families suffering from no more than extreme messiness. Granted, I have witnessed an episode or two that highlights a dead parent whose death subsequently causes pack rat-like behavior, but there is still a difference between showing the occasional tragedy and actively working for a tearjerker every week.
Reality home makeover shows like “Flip This House” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” have both entertaining aspects and useful tips, but they are not to be taken too seriously. How real, for the everyday viewer, is an HIV-positive family of ten living in a two-bedroom shack? How many people with a home makeover budget of only $1,000 would be careless enough to break a window? And how can a show be considered reality when people on camera are told what to say? Reality home makeover shows are fine for entertainment’s sake, but remember what goes on behind the scenes before you turn on the TV.
Emily Stoner is a freshman journalism major who would attentively listen if walls could talk. Email her at estoner1[at]ithaca.edu.