A real gamble on housing

Reality TV offers hope of evading foreclosure.

Kelley Alexander is appearing on a new reality TV series with something unusual at stake - her Los Angeles house.

If she and her sister can beat four other neighborhood families on HGTV's $250,000 Challenge, which debuts at the end of the month, Alexander will receive a quarter-million-dollar windfall, which she says is more than enough to save her from foreclosure.

If she loses the contest, the house, which she shares with her two teenage children, will likely be gone.

"We have a bad mortgage," Alexander, 47, said as a small army of camera operators and production assistants prepared to shoot footage outside the sliding glass doors of her bedroom. "On the first day of [the show], they put foreclosure papers on my door."

Alexander, whose former husband has helped support the family with his income as a TV writer, lives on a leafy street in what once was a solidly middle-class neighborhood in Sherman Oaks. But an economy that has afflicted even once-secure families has her turning to a reality show for financial salvation.

In better times, reality television about real estate usually meant shows about lavish home design, the renovation of neglected properties, even the construction of brand-new homes for families down on their luck.

The new show, hosted by Drew Lachey and starting May 31, is fully embracing the consequences of the recession. It has families compete in a series of weekly home-improvement and design challenges, with the winner ultimately walking away with a newly renovated home and the huge cash prize.

"A lot of these homes need updating. And people are nervous about spending money because of falling [real estate] values," Amy Quimby, director of original programming at HGTV, said as she stood on the street outside the Alexanders' home. "These are everyday people that needed a leg up."

The financially distressed, of course, have plenty of company these days.

The ordinariness of the Alexanders' neighborhood made it appealing to the producers.

"Yes, we're in California, but this is like Middle America," executive producer SallyAnn Salsano said amid the stucco cottages and single-story bungalows on both sides of the street. "It's not like some palm-lined Beverly Hills street."

Though the recessionary concept may strike some as opportunistic and distasteful, the show offers participants a potential benefit - namely, the quarter-million-dollar jackpot - that far offsets any loss of privacy.

"Things are getting really, really tight," Lisa Duvernay, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mother, said as she packed up cookware and other items for a speed-redesign challenge. Each family receives $20,000 and 32 hours to revamp its kitchen.

Duvernay's husband, Fabian, was laid off when his music-industry position in Hollywood relocated to New York. The mortgage balance on their home, where they have lived for 14 years, stands at nearly $400,000, and they have no health insurance for their girls, ages 10 and 12. Fabian's unemployment checks are due to stop soon.

"It really has my insecurity level up," he said. Referring to the show, he said: "This has been the opportunity of a lifetime."

A few houses down, Jeff and Elizabell Marquez, 30-ish newlyweds with the good looks of top fashion models, are in somewhat better financial shape. Both have MBAs and have kept their corporate marketing jobs. But the couple want children, and the plunging housing market has taken a harsh toll on their pocketbook.

They paid $740,000 for their modest home in early 2008 and have watched its value ebb ever since.

"It's lost $100,000," Elizabell Marquez said with a pained expression.

"More than that," said her husband.

But for Alexander, struggling to outrun the foreclosure process, the show is about more than just making up for lost value. It's about the hope of hanging onto her home.

"It'll take about $50,000 to save the house," she said.

Alexander is well aware that, as the only team of two single women on $250,000 Challenge, she and her older sister Phyllis stand out. But that's only increased her resolve.

"I feel like we're underdogs," Kelley Alexander said.

Phyllis agreed. "We're kind of a symbol here."

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