ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition aired from 2003 to 2012, and it made a huge dent in the hearts of people all over who watched the show religiously. I mean, it had all of the ingredients: real people, real stories, real help, and real homes! The construction crew, led by Ty Pennington, granted gorgeous new homes to people who were struggling financially. It was the perfect feel-good watch. Who doesn’t like to fantasize about landing the home of their dreams?
But was it all too good to be true? Was the show fake? The answer is yes, and no. Behind the scenes of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the situation wasn’t always as joyous and exciting as it appeared onscreen. For example, the families’ financial problems didn’t just vanish when they entered their new digs. The “reality” show involved many aspects that were altered and manipulated. Although viewers enjoyed nine seasons of joy, the families dealt with inflated utility bills, upside-down mortgages, and sometimes even a broken home.
A Challenging Application Process
While the show was on the air, anyone could apply. The application was quite long, though, and it took a while to hear back. Apparently, the casting department went through around a thousand applicants a day. The families that were chosen for the show all went through unbelievable hardships, but the application process to get on the show was challenging on its own. Sometimes even too challenging.
Some finalists included families with medical illnesses, special needs, or were going through rough financial times. Sadly, some families with real needs were looked over for others that faked their hardships. It’s unfortunate, but even a feel-good show like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition isn’t immune to those trying to scam the system.
Like this one family…
When Contestants Lie
Take the Cerda Family, for instance, who knowing deceived the producers of the show. They claimed that their two young daughters were ill due to mold in their house. Yahoo News reported in 2009 that Chuck and Terri Cerda were chosen to be on the show. In her application, Terri claimed that she and their two daughters suffered from severe immunodeficiency diseases, and they had to wear masks at all times.
The Cerdas were accepted and were featured in an episode, which involved them getting a massive home complete with high-quality air ventilation systems. But when the family couldn’t afford the utility bills, they ended up selling the house and moved somewhere else.
But the story didn’t end there…
The Cerdas Family
When the family moved to Oregon and connected with new doctors in their town, the medical team was starting to question the family’s diagnoses. Dr. Thomas Valvano, an OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital pediatrician. He reported his concerns to child welfare services.
It was then discovered that not only did the girls not have the disease, their mother claimed that they had, but that they were victims of medical child abuse. The girls were temporarily removed from their home while the parents were investigated. Dr. Valvano told the court the daughters weren’t, in fact, chronically ill and had been the victims of Munchausen Syndrome, which is the fancy name for medical child abuse.
Nothing is Really Free
You’d have to be a robot (or emotionally dead inside) to make it through a whole episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition without shedding a tear. Seeing a hardworking and deserving family being given their dream home can make anyone feel good. It was the kind of boost many of the families needed. However, while the house was free, the rest wasn’t.
And any homeowner will know that there’s an endless amount of bills and expenses that come with owning a house. Many of these families were left with mansions that required higher taxes, utility bills, and maintenance. India Dickinson and her family were given a 4,000 square-foot home on their episode of the show.
But it ended up being way more than they could handle…
Working Hard to Make Ends Meet
The Dickinsons were barely making ends meet even before the show, and once they had their fancy new mansion, India and her family were victims to increased monthly bills. In an article she wrote, Dickinson shared that “their electric bill was around $200 before the makeover; now, in a good month, it’s about $450, and it often ranges between $500 and $600.”
Dickinson’s 1,869-square-foot ranch house was rebuilt by Extreme Makeover and replaced with a two-story, 4,000-square-foot home with six bedrooms and four bathrooms. Dickinson noted that taxes and utilities will be higher, but says she’s not worried. “God provided this house; God will provide a way for us to take care of it,” she said. “My husband works, and I work, so if I have to work another job to help keep it up, that’s what I’ll do.”
One of the nicest parts about the show is seeing the community come together. We would see friends and neighbors drop everything for a whole week to pitch in and create a house of dreams. But what happens when the family turns around and sells the house that everyone worked so hard to build? It happens, though, that a family can no longer afford the expenses and are forced to downsize.
It’s a problem, however, when the neighbors don’t approve of the new buyer. In 2010, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition made a new home for Larry and Melissa Beach in Houston, Texas. Over the years, the Beaches fostered and adopted 85 children with special needs. But they just couldn’t keep up with the cost of their new mansion. The home was then sold to Butch Woolfolk, who turned it into a high-end drug rehab center. Many neighbors were worried that it would hurt their own property values. There’s also the fact that they weren’t so thrilled about living next to a drug rehab facility.
Speaking of Neighbors
After a family spotlighted in the show was whisked away to enjoy a vacation or activity, the team went straight to work. The cast and crew included neighbors, friends, and members of the community that wanted to help out. And the surrounding neighbors would often feel the effects of this team effort.
The crew worked well into the evening, and while the family was able to enjoy their vacation, the neighbors back home were subjected to heavy construction work throughout the night. Moreover, neighbors that lived right next to the new homes were often bombarded with leftover construction stuff, like wood, and even had property damaged – all in the name of doing a good deed for a neighbor.
Every Reality Show Has its Lawsuits
It’s hard to imagine a scenario where someone would sue the people who built his or her dream home for free, but it actually happened in 2005. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition built a home for the Higgins family, which included five orphans who lost their parents to cancer and heart failure. The house was built for them and the Leomitis family who took them in.
They got a new nine-bedroom mansion, new cars, and groceries. But after the cameras left, things got ugly. According to the Higgins kids, the Leomitis family began “an orchestrated campaign” to force them out of their new mansion. They said how the family used racial slurs, verbal, and physical abuse to drive the orphans out. The Higgins moved out and sued ABC, claiming that they were promised a house that is not in their name. ABC didn’t make an official statement on the case, but they did remind fans the show intended to build a home for the Leomitis family, who had taken in the Higgins children.
Over The Top “Improvements”
One of the biggest complaints made about Extreme Makeover was the inclusion of many home additions that added no real value at all. While the crew did their best to incorporate personalized touches and elements to the home, some were just too “extreme.” There have been homes that were loaded with large home theaters and even fully working carousels.
The team was just that good. Since the show aired on national television, the carpenters and designers were pushed to do more elaborate designs and gimmicks for the sake of ratings. But with that came criticism of the production’s use of useless additions. The backlash became great, and producers finally acknowledged there was an issue. They changed the future renovations to include essentials only. No more carousels.
ABC Searched for the Saddest Families
Why? To boost ratings. The focus of each episode was to help a struggling family to make a change for a better life. And while charity was at the core of the show, so was viewership and good ratings. Let’s not forget – this was a production. Because of this, producers of the show sought out the worst-case scenarios that they received every month.
They even looked for specific ailments and diseases. According to The Smoking Gun, “Extreme Makeover has a secret wish list of victims the show’s trying to hunt down: They want to find a family who has multiple children with Down Syndrome. They want to find a child with a rare condition that causes rapid aging and death. They want to find an extraordinary mom or dad who’s diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.” How do they know? Details were revealed in 2006 when an NBC exec saw an uncovered memo.
Questionable Tax Loopholes
Aside from the doubled or tripled power bills, makeover houses come with higher tax bills, too. Endemol USA, the company behind Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, did some serious work to help the families out and avoid paying taxes on their home makeover. Apparently, an IRS loophole says that if your house is rented out for less than 15 days a year, you don’t need to pay taxes on any rental income.
With that in mind, the show explained to the families that the production will be “renting” the house from the family for a week and that the improvements are the rental payment. It meant that they don’t have to pay taxes on the home’s improvements. While this plan helps families in the beginning, they still have to put up future property taxes that only rise with every year.
Foreclosures Are Common
Who knew that a free house could go into foreclosure? You would think that the families must have wasted all their money away on frivolous cars and other luxuries. I mean, how do you lose a house that was given to you, right? Well, it’s more complicated than that. Since most of the families we saw on the show were barely scraping by, any new expense can easily put them in over their heads.
In 2005, the Harvey family was given a huge 4,289 square-foot home, but the bank ended up auctioning it off just six years later. This became a common pattern with many former guests of the show who were forced to take mortgages out on their expensive homes. But who’s to blame? Should ABC have given families smaller homes? Or should the families have not accepted these mansions?
A New Home Can’t Fix Everything
Debbie Oatman received a brand new 3,700 square-foot home. Oatman is a single parent to four boys, three of whom were adopted, two of which have HIV and special needs. Once the cameras left, Oatman’s kids said that she went back to her old problems. “I honestly thought things would change after we moved into the house, and it would make everything better,” her estranged son, Kevin, told Times Union.
“She was happy and excited for maybe the first week, and then it was back to the same old garbage,” Debbie told people that being on the show took away her family’s privacy. After the episode aired and her boys’ medical problems were broadcast on TV, they started getting bullied at school. The kids, however, tell a different story.
The Oatman Family
In the case of the Oatmans, their familial situation only got worse after the show. Kevin had described verbal and even physical abuse both before and after the show. Between 1997 and 2007, the police filed 18 incident reports for Debbie Oatman. According to the Times Union, Oatman kicked out two of her adopted sons after the show.
Debbie declined to comment on the show and her family. Sadly, since the show, Kevin has become estranged from his mother. Debbie claimed that the increased scrutiny only added pressures that she was unable to bear. There are additional cases where families were torn apart by separations and even divorce stemming from problems surrounding their dream homes.
Reselling Their Homes for Profit
While some families had to leave their homes due to impossible costs and finances, others took advantage of their newfound wealth. Depending on the renovations and upgrades, the property value of these new homes almost doubled. And some saw their gift of love as a means for a quick buck and put the homes up for sale.
These sellers also exploited the fact that their home was on TV. To boost the sale of their homes, they would use the line: “home featured on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” This way, they were able to sell their homes at inflated prices and walk away with significantly higher profits – all thanks to the generosity of the show and the volunteers who helped build the homes.
Between the family trip and the surprise reveal at the end of the episode, the winning families were treated by the staff and community with the utmost respect and kindness. Yet, for some families, they were also met with harsh criticism and judgment after the show was over. Many people in the town chose to participate in the build, but others declined because they didn’t think that the family was deserving of the upgrade.
And apart from those physically in the community, many overzealous viewers at home would track down the homes of the finalists and park outside of their homes, just to get a glimpse. While many yearn to be famous one day, there is a high price to pay if you ever achieve this status.
Renovations Were Sometimes Incomplete
One of the most hard to believe aspects of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was the short period of time allotted to complete the whole project. Crews were given seven full days to renovate or completely rebuild homes, having to work tirelessly throughout the night. It seems impossible, right? Viewers never ceased to be amazed at what they were able to accomplish in such a short timeframe.
But let’s remember that it’s a TV show and there’s always some form of smoke and mirrors. In some cases, the crew just couldn’t meet the strict timeline and would have to finish enough of the work so that the big reveal could be accomplished. And then, after the “Move that bus!” moment, the crew and cameras would leave, and the family was left with the burden of completing the rest of the renovation on their own.
Shoddy Construction and Utilities
Aside from the stories of inflated bills, taxes, and maintenance, were more tales of incomplete and shoddy construction. Such was the case for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition finalist Georgia Yazzie and her family. Their home came with a promise of no future electric bills due to their new solar technology. Yet after five months, they were faced with more problems than they started with.
According to The Navajo Times, “Problems had started to surface with the air conditioner, water was draining from the roof right into the foundation, and the greywater irrigation system was malfunctioning, creating a stinky cesspool in the yard. Without water, the landscaping was dying.” As it turns out, the shoddy construction and the incomplete insulation work were the sources of the problem. ABC made minor repairs, but the Georgia Yazzie’s family had to face the rest on their own.
What Does Ty Pennington Have To Say About All This?
It came to a point, deep into its run, that the show began getting media pushback for how some featured families fared after the cameras stopped rolling. The Wrap asked the face of the program, Ty Pennington, to give them his take on the matter. “We did absolutely phenomenal things,” he began. “And honestly, I don’t know if there will ever be a show quite like that.”
“That on network television, there’s a show that actually benefits a family. On television, that’s just unheard of. Let’s face it; it’s about ratings; it’s about ad sales — it’s about all those sorts of things.” Okay, that’s nice and all, but what does he have to say about the rising bills that the families had to deal with?
Where is Ty Now?
“But yes, the property tax probably went up a little because the value of the house went up,” Ty told The Wrap. He acknowledged that some families lost their homes. He explained how they left them with a financial adviser. “However, if the family chooses to triple-mortgage their house to start a business that they’ve never done before just to see if they can get into it, that’s their own demise.”
He basically said that’s how you lose your home. Ty and his crew devoted their lives to the show before it ended in 2012. He spent an average of 240 days per year, building over 200 new homes. And ever since the show ended, he hasn’t taken a break. He was the host of The Revolution (while it was briefly on air), made appearances on Rachael Ray and Good Morning America. Now, he’s the host of American Diner Revival, where he and his team help struggling diners get a makeover.
Here are some updates on families who were featured on the show…
Jim and Carmen Simpson and their three children were living in a broken-down home in Savannah, Georgia. One of the children has special needs and severe breathing difficulties, but the family’s living conditions were making the child’s condition worse. When they applied to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, they were thrilled with the result.
They got a beautiful, airy Victorian style home, equipped with a therapy room and pool. But less than two years later, the family had no choice but to put the house up for sale. The home was assessed at more than $600,000 (was sold for $442,000), and the annual real estate taxes were more than they could handle. Adding to the pressure, they had another baby since moving in. The home was way more than the family could afford, even before they moved in.
The Okvaths’ Showplace Home
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition consistently went way over the top. And some homes were more extravagant than others, like the one featured in a 2005 episode on Arizona natives Nicole and Bryan Okvath, a couple with eight children. Their new 5,300 square-foot home featured a carousel, a home theater, and other amenities that drew way too much power.
They faced astronomical power bills. To keep up, the couple had to take out a $405,000 loan and spend the next few years struggling to maintain their showplace of a home. In 2012, the couple broke up, leaving Nicole to raise eight children on her own. The house was sold way below the market value. They ended up getting rid of all the luxury items in an effort to start a simpler life.
Arlene Nickless’ Home Foreclosure
Arlene Nickless was on an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in 2008. The production came out to give her a new house after the death of her husband. The house that was built for the Michigan mom and her kids had four bedrooms, stone columns, and an indoor water wall. All very nice. One son even had a LEGO-themed bedroom and another with an airplane bed.
Over the years, though, Arlene struggled to keep up with the higher bills and taxes. This is aside from the fact that she had a good deal of assistance from donations by several utility companies and charities. By 2017, Nickless’ home went into foreclosure. Unfortunately, a show that wanted to do well did so much harm.
Eric Hebert’s Bills
Eric Hebert from Idaho took in his orphaned niece and nephew to raise them as his, which made it so unfortunate to hear that he had to sell the gorgeous home built for them in November of 2006 by Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Hebert and the kids were euphoric when they first saw their new 3,600 square-foot home, which a fireplace, hot tub, and fancy outdoor play stations for the kids.
But as a single adoptive parent and construction worker, Hebert just couldn’t keep up with the higher taxes on their property, and he put it up for sale in 2008. He was worried that the volunteers who helped build the home were going to think that he was only selling the property to make a profit. “I’m doing it not to lose money,” he clarified.
The Jacobo’s Financial Problems
Another over-the-top example of disasters from the show revolves around the Jacobo family of Kansas City, Missouri. They always struggled financially, but, by 2006, their extended family of 12 was living in a house that was way too small for comfort. After the show wrapped up, they suddenly had a new home that was five times larger than their old one.
They had a room for everyone and a fantastic backyard with a playground for the children, too. Despite the optimistic outlook, moving into a luxury home didn’t exactly solve their money problems. The couple felt the pinch immediately. Their tax and utility bills doubled, and they still had a mortgage on their old home. A fundraising effort was constructed to help the family afford their higher cost of living.
The Kings’ Neighbors
Remember how we learned that some neighbors were either extremely helpful or very envious? Well, a Charlotte, North Carolina couple, Curtis and Alisha King, had some unpleasant neighbors in their story of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in 2008. In their case, the whole community cheered. But, once the finished two-story brick house towered over the more modest homes of the neighborhood, some began to complain to the city council.
Some people were upset that the film and construction crews had trampled over their lawns, moved their usual bus stop to another location, and didn’t let neighbors walk down the street past the home under construction. Others had complained about the sheer size of the production. The Kings apologized for the inconvenience that the presence of their new home had caused. But hey, what more can be done?
Diane Korman, the senior producer of the show, said that the main goal was to build houses the families can keep for generations. She noted that families were made aware that their property taxes will go up and are assessed before being selected. Also, local organizers of Extreme Makeover petitioned donations from the community.
They provide the family with a fund to help them get the right start. The money can be used to pay off a mortgage on the property so that they can own the house free and clear. According to Beaufort County public records, Bill Dickinson, for example, holds a $143,408, 30-year mortgage on his property, and due in 2039. And while the house no longer exists, the mortgage remains.
It’s Time to “Move That Bus” Again
So here it is, folks: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is returning, this time to HGTV. But it’s not with Ty Pennington anymore. The new host will be Jesse Tyler Ferguson from ‘Modern Family.’ Like before, it will feature down-on-their-luck families with rebuilt (or substantially renovated) homes after a weeklong transformation.
Ferguson says the timing is right for the show’s revival. “With all the news that’s happening in the world, so much negativity, a show like this that’s purely positive and softening borders and political lines is something we all can use right now,” he said. “I couldn’t look at this and ignore the human element of it, and the fact that this show is changing people’s lives.”
Unlike the Previous Version…
In contrast to the previous ABC version, which had the extravagant McMansions, this one isn’t going to be so over the top. “We’re not giving people more than they need. You’re not going to see crazy playrooms, slides going into pools,” Ferguson said. The show is going to change people’s lives, but not their lifestyles.
He also said that the production simply doesn’t have the budget to create such insane mansions. Sponsors like Best Buy and Wayfair donate the furnishings, which replaced Sears in the original series. The makeovers are going to be dramatic, but that doesn’t mean that the homes need to be enormous. Unlike the ABC version, the taxes and bills are something the producers think about every step of the way.
New Technology Makes it Easier
Many of the new homes have “net-zero” energy costs because of the new solar panels and design innovations that are often cheaper than the rent these families were paying. The original show was ridiculed so much that it was nicknamed “Tears for Sears” by ABC insiders.
Speaking of tears, will they keep flowing in the revival? Yes. Did Ferguson cry? Yes. In his words: “It’s impossible not to. I’ve gotten to meet people that I never would have come across. They’re such inspirations.” He got especially emotional when having to deal with children who get to finally walk into their own room. “It’s pretty powerful.” Ferguson is also amazed at the sheer speed that the homes are built, too.
Ty Pennington’s Life Before the Fame
Before his TV career, Ty Pennington was a college student with a real interest in art and home improvement. He’s the real deal, having studied woodworking and carpentry. But he ultimately decided to focus on graphic design. After graduating from college, Pennington went into modeling after he was scouted by an agent.
He took the opportunity and traveled around the world and appeared in ads for brands like J.Crew, Swatch, and Land’s End. After his modeling days came to an end (they always do), Pennington began working in television. He started out by taking a job as a set designer for a number of shows before he was offered a chance to join TLC’s ‘Trading Spaces.’ Remember that show? It was awesome!
His Days on Trading Spaces
If you’re anything like me, a major part that I remember from Trading Spaces was Ty Pennington, the cute carpenter guy who did awesome work. He appeared on the show for a few seasons as the resident carpenter. Despite not being a cast member, he still managed to charm viewers everywhere with his looks and fun personality.
It was in 2003 that Pennington became a star when he was offered a hosting job on ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The show became a huge hit and grew in popularity every year. Pennington landed a deal with Sears, too, and released a line of home products. Maybe you’ve seen them? They’re called Ty Pennington Style. Pennington also got his own spinoff called Ty’s Great British Adventure, but it lasted for about two years.
The Show Did Some Good, Too
Sure, there have been lots of backlash and negative outcomes about Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, but that shouldn’t overshadow the very amazing things they have done for some people. Take the story of Brian Keefer, for example. Every morning, Brian Keefer looks up at the framed words of encouragement on his bedroom wall, and he smiles.
One note reads: “Brian, you keep smiling because that’s what makes you so special! Keep believing that you can fly!” one says. Another reads: “You’re my hero and inspiration.” These notes were written by friends and family, and are Keefer’s favorite part of the room that was built for him in 2011. By now, Keefer has them all memorized, but he still reads them every day.
Nine years ago, life was very different for Keefer, now 33, after an unfortunate gymnastics accident in 2008 left him a quadriplegic. He spent most of his time confined in one or two crowded rooms in his parents’ home in Newberry Township. His wheelchair simply wouldn’t fit through the narrow spaces and doorways to go anywhere else in the house.
He couldn’t even get into the bathroom.
To make matters worse, his family didn’t have a wheelchair-accessible van, so he couldn’t even leave the house or go and see his friends. Most of the time, he was stuck in the same room for most of every day. That’s why when in June of 2011, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was a Godsend.
They Gave Him Independence
In one week, the show brought together hundreds of volunteers (dressed in togas and blue and white face paint) to transform the Keefers’ 1970s two-story family home into a state of the art rehabilitation paradise with a living area just for Keefer. Locals were happy to help. Keefer has his own bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room, guest room, and therapy room.
He has an indoor pool and an underwater treadmill. He also has his own entrance so he can come and go without going through his parents’ house. But, the show gave him much more than his own space. It gave him independence. The doors to his therapy room have motion sensors, which means he can roll right through without any help. And some of his doors and gadgets are controlled by voice command.
Hope for the Future
“It’s neat to be able to talk to the house and have it help me out,” Keefer said. “Just being able to be more independent, that’s been the most helpful thing.” He said how the therapy room, alone, has been a game-changer. He can do three to six hours of therapy exercises every day now. And he’s started to notice that his hard work is paying off.
When he first moved into the place in 2011, he was only able to move his left index finger. But now, his left arm is strong enough that he can steer his wheelchair with a joystick. He’s also managing to gain some core strength, too. He can now sit up on the couch without any help. He has even felt “little flickers” in his leg muscles –something he didn’t have before.
Sharing His Story
Possibly one of the best things the show has given Keefer is an opportunity to share his story. Since the episode was on air in 2011, Keefer heard from so many people who were nothing short of inspired by his message. He has since spent a lot of time traveling to churches, schools, and groups to share his story with others.
“Everybody has different situations in their lives, challenges that come up – the death of a family member, loss of a job, anything. And, I really want to just emphasize that life is about choices,” Keefer said. “Do you choose to wallow in self-pity, or do you choose to fight and become stronger and overcome these obstacles? Because I am faced with this challenge of my spinal cord injury, and I’m pushing every day to overcome and fight it.”
It Was What He Needed
Since the show, he learned how to scuba dive, he coached a Paralympic volleyball team, and met new friends and has given back to the community. “I’m in a wheelchair – yes,” he said. “But, I’m not done with my life.” Keefer also went back to school and graduated from Lock Haven University with a degree in recreational management.
He plans to use his degree to work with spinal cord-injured patients in an aquatics program. His next goal for himself is to achieve arm functionality. He wants to one day be able to brush his own teeth, comb his own hair, feed himself, and maybe use a self-driving car. “I love my mom and dad, but I want to be able to get out sometimes on my own,” he said. And who blames him?!