What It’s Really Like Being on a Home Improvement Show

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: HGTV)

To your average homeowner watching HGTV, the idea of Fixer Upper hosts Chip and Joanna Gaines or some other home improvement hero waving a magic hammer and turning your 1970s kitchen catastrophe into something out of a glossy magazine spread sounds almost too good to be true. So is it? We asked two alumni of home renovation shows to tell us what the experience was really like, and whether there were any downsides or unwelcome surprises.

The verdict? “We would do it again in a heartbeat,” says Jeff Jones, who with his wife Sara bought their first home on Season 3 of Fixer Upper, getting the full the Magnolia treatment in Waco, Texas. “When else in your life do you get your whole house renovated in six weeks?!”

Amy McCay is similarly grateful for TV magic. Her New Jersey home was featured on Season 1 of Rescue My Renovation, a show aimed at righting the wrongs of bad contractors. “We had hired someone to put a roof on our home and, long story short, they removed most of it, had a few beers for lunch, came back, and fell off of it,” Amy says. “It was pouring, and the house was slowly being ruined due to exposure, so we had to quickly hire another roofer—who was equally as unqualified but more than willing to overcharge us for the rush job.”

For years afterward, Amy and her husband Patrick were emotionally and financially drained as they repaired damage and searched for the source of a leak that eventually collapsed part of the kitchen ceiling. Then they submitted their story to the show online—and heard back from a producer the same week. In less than three months, the crew was on site and ready to start.

“We assumed they would just replace our roof for us and patch the kitchen ceiling,” Amy says. To her surprise, the crew also gut-remodeled and expanded their kitchen, opened up walls for a more open layout, and refinished other rooms that had suffered some water damage. On top of the quartz counters and new appliances in the kitchen, Rescue My Renovation also furnished new light fixtures, a dining room set—even new dishware, rugs, artwork, and counter stools.

The work took seven weeks from start to finish, Amy says. After a lot of filming in the first week, followed by demolition, they lived in the shell of their house as things progressed slowly for a few weeks—getting some help from her parents (and their functioning kitchen) next door. “When the full crew—I’m talking 17 vans’ worth—returned for Week 6 in full force, we were asked to move out for five days so they could work around the clock and it could all be a surprise,” she adds. The only big downside in Amy’s mind is the lack of control that comes with placing your home in the hands of a TV crew, no matter how capable they may be. “I am a control freak…this process was very much a blind faith scenario,” she says.

“It was unnerving to just sit back and relax and trust,” Amy continues. “They asked if they could paint my woodwork. The house was over 100 years old and the detailed trim throughout had never been painted; it was beautiful, classic, timeless, and I was not budging on that, and I was hoping and praying they listened when I begged no.” (They did—but they stopped asking her opinion after that.)

(Image credit: HGTV)

There are some other side effects associated with being on a home renovation show, too, like taking time off from work to accommodate the show’s demanding filming schedule. “We did have to take time off to film,” Jeff says. “We did all our shots in one day. It was exhausting.”

Amy says they were only needed for three days of filming—one each in the beginning, middle, and end. “It would’ve been a sacrifice of three vacation days at worst, though it was pretty much at their mercy, so flexibility was key,” she says.

There’s also the fact that you’ll appear on national TV, at the mercy of a director’s edits. “I cried a lot on the clips they chose which really made me seem like a hysterical housewife, but what can I say, it was an emotional time,” Amy says. “At least I didn’t look short—they made me stand on an apple box when they interviewed my husband and I together since he’s a foot taller than me.”

Speaking of rustic farm crates, Joanna Gaines famously stages Fixer Upper homes in her signature style to look their best for the big reveal. As you might know, a lot of those items are sourced from Magnolia Market, and don’t come with the house—homeowners can opt to purchase them, but they’re not cheap.

And it turns out, some of it isn’t for sale at any price. “Joanna actually staged our house with some of our furniture and some of it was her own personal stuff that she uses from her house, and that isn’t for sale,” Jeff says. Of the items they could buy, he adds, “I think we purchased all the succulents and we killed them all.”

While the McCays received furniture, dishware, and other items that looked great on camera, Amy says it soon became clear that perhaps some of it was donated after not meeting quality standards. “Our counter stools broke with little wear and tear, our dishes cracked easily upon regular use, and the appliances were the worst of all: The fridge leaked constantly, so much so that it ruined our new floor and we had to ultimately replace it within four years, and the wine fridge they provided broke down after a year,” she says.

And then there’s the double-edged sword common to virtually any home renovation, televised or not: It’s bound to increase the value of your home and, therefore, your property taxes. “Our taxes did go up,” Amy says, after the county inspector reassessed the property.

Jeff says their taxes went up as well—as has tourism in Waco, fueled by Fixer Upper‘s wild popularity. After converting their garage into a separate living space, the Joneses rent out their Fixer Upper on Airbnb, and get the occasional drive-by from fans of the show. “Also a local tourism company called Waco Tours drives by our house 4 to 6 times days to show people. I guess that’s the price you pay to have your house on TV,” Jeff says.

Still, Jeff and Amy both insist, these are mostly minor inconveniences in the service of a dream come true.

“Overall it was an extremely positive experience,” Amy says. “We got far more than we could’ve ever dreamed from a situation that had started out as any homeowner’s worst nightmare.”

Editor’s note: We reached out to both HGTV and DIY Network for comment, but didn’t receive a response as of publication.