On TV, real-world realty
Shows reflect the times in tips emphasized.
Kelly Walsh and her husband, Brendan, had bided their time renting a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C. But when they learned they were going to be parents, the search for a home to buy took on a whole new sense of urgency.
"The only spot that a baby would have fit was in the fireplace," Walsh recalled.
So last year, with a budget of $400,000 to $500,000 and the help of real estate agent Stephen Newman, the couple began the hunt anew after feeling as if they'd been priced out of the market two years earlier.
They eventually settled on a house in Alexandria, Va., and their story was featured in a recent episode of the HGTV staple House Hunters.
Rather than creating obstacles, the economic downturn ended up working in the Walshes' favor, said Newman, who works for Century 21 New Millennium: "They were able to get a lot more home, and the sellers were willing to work with them on their purchase."
And viewers could take away at least one lesson, Newman said: Buyers should ask about having their closing costs covered.
It's that kind of instruction and insight that the brains behind the myriad real estate series are trying to maintain given the fast-changing housing market - and the economy in general.
"We have had to pay close attention," said Freddy James, HGTV's senior vice president for program development and production. The cable network has even looked at episodes already in the can but not yet shown, to make sure they reflect the current situation.
Eric Black, TLC's director of programming overseeing My First Home, said the pool of home buyers from which to choose has shrunk. The series has evolved with the economy in other ways, as well, he added.
Several years ago, there were more stories about people who bought homes with no money down or other "creative" bank offers.
"Those types of stories of people buying homes with very little money dried up," Black said. "Instead, we found more people with money saved up for a down payment."
Black said he started to observe a shift in the market at the end of 2007, when TLC was developing a series about helping people refinance their mortgages. "We realized what we thought was an interesting niche topic had wider appeal," he said.
HGTV recently took a more dramatic approach to the financial hardships homeowners face in its series HGTV's $250,000 Challenge, in which five cash-strapped families competed for a prize to help pay off their mortgages.
Generally, real estate TV series portray stories of people in less dire straits. But programmers said they try to show the challenges during the various steps of the home-buying process, and not just skip to the end result.
"We don't by any means want to sugarcoat anything," James said.
Black noted, "There are all kinds of problems that can crop up," particularly when it's time for an inspection.
For a good number of people, however, "it is a great time to buy a home," Newman said. They just have to be realistic.
"I think that what I'm seeing across the board is you have people who are willing to dial back and scale down, but not in a begrudging or negative way," James said.
He and Brian Balthazar, program director for House Hunters, also recognize that viewers watch these shows not only to learn, but also to live vicariously through people in different circumstances, such as those portrayed in House Hunters International.
"It just shows that people don't mind maybe fantasizing a little bit about buying that house in the Caribbean," Balthazar said. "It's a beautiful kind of voyeuristic trip to another country."
Stateside or not, real estate agent Newman believes such series are relevant to everyday buyers and agents.
"It makes my life and my job so much easier that they take the time to sort of make this road map for purchasers," he said.