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March 2010
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May 2010

downsizing Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

The last time I wrote about Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, I got in a lot of trouble. People wrote me plenty of nasty emails, telling me that I was, variously, a "grinch," an "asshole," an "overprivilidged idiot" (sic) and that I was "totally out of touch with reality." All because I was trying to make a point about both historic preservation and long-term thinking - that it could be cheaper to restore an old house in the long run than build a new one, especially when building a new one encumbred the homeowner with increased property taxes that have, thus far, caused several recipients of these new homes to lose them. And, self-centered greedy jerk that I am, I suggested that the real purpose of this television program is not to do good for folks who deserve it but to give free advertising - not to the local contractors who do the work, but to the national homebuilding firms who may "donate" materials and expertise or the big box stores that provide all the nifty new made-in-China hardware and drywall.

So you can imagine I felt a bit vindicated by Dawn Towapka's article in the Wall Street Journal this past week, which explores the various and very sad issues recipients of these dream houses have had - everything from bad loans and defaults to property taxes they can't afford to pay. Luckily, the comments on the WSJ article aren't nearly as obnoxious as those I got, nor do any of the folks leaving comments wish violence on the author, as was the case with two that I received.

...But after the cameras have gone, another trend has been developing: Homeowners struggle to keep up with their expensive new digs. In many cases, the bigger, more lavish homes have come with bigger, more lavish utility bills. And bigger tax assessments. Some homeowners have tapped the equity of their super-sized homes only to fall behind on the higher mortgage payments.

The show's producers say they are aware of the problem and are making changes appropriate to current economic reality: downsizing.

Back in the boom, the makeovers got a little out of hand because of competition among home builders aware of the free publicity that came with the show and who tried to outdo previous projects. These days, the show is backing away from the boom-era showpieces. We "scaled back," says Conrad Ricketts, an executive producer for the show created and produced by Endemol US.

Still, it's a neat idea. I'd love to see a show like this that connects with local markets a bit better: restoring and, if necessary, expanding already-existing homes using small, same-area contractors who really need the work; using recycled and repurposed materials via local nonprofits or, for example, Habitat for Humanity's Re-Use stores; sticking to sustainable woods and US-made parts. It might be a little more expensive in the short run, but nothing worth doing is easy - and it'll certainly save a lot of heartache and cash over time.