'House Hunters' TV show is fake. Does it matter?

'House Hunters,' the popular HGTV program about the search for a new home, is mostly staged, featuring buyers who have already decided on houses. Is 'House Hunters' giving aspiring homeowners unrealistic expectations by overly simplifying what is usually long, messy buying process?

Gregory Bull/AP
This June 13, 2012 photo, shows a house for sale in San Diego. The popular, long-running reality show 'House Hunters' on HGTV was revealed to be not quite what seems this week, as a former participant revealed that the show had her pretend to be interested in houses that weren't even on the market.

Earlier this week, the shocking news broke that “House Hunters,” the popular real estate reality program and flagship show of the HGTV network, is staged.

Okay, maybe it's not all that shocking. “House Hunters,” for the uninitiated, is a documentary-style show that features one couple or family per episode that has recently relocated and is looking to buy a home in their new city. Guided by a local realtor, the buyers look at three potential homes, taking factors like budget, location, and amenities (girls need their closet space!) into consideration. At the end, they decide on one. A month or so later, “House Hunters” checks back in with the buyers, by then happily settled into their dream home.

Participants run the gamut of age and income, from college students renting their first apartments to Danish multimillionaires looking for beach homes in Turks and Caicos. Since its 1999 debut, “House Hunters” has been HGTV’s tent-pole franchise, spawning 13 seasons, 332 episodes, and three spinoffs.

But now the program has come under fire for revelations that the “house-hunting” part doesn’t actually involve much real hunting. As first reported by the A.V. Club on Monday, the blog Hooked on Houses recently ran a firsthand account from former “House Hunters" participant Bobi Jensen. Jensen, who was featured on the show’s “Texas Week,” claimed that HGTV wouldn’t even consider having her and her family on the show until they had actually closed on their new home. “So then when they decided to film our episode we had to scramble to find houses to tour and pretend we were considering,” Jensen writes.

What’s more, Jensen says, the two other houses she looked at during the episode weren’t even for sale, but were “two friends’ houses who were nice enough to madly clean for days in preparation for the cameras!”

But the fact that “House Hunters” shoots its episodes backwards, picking participants well into the closing process and working from there, has been an open secret for years. HGTV even owned up to it, issuing the following statement to Entertainment Weekly on Tuesday:

“We’re making a television show, so we manage certain production and time constraints, while honoring the home buying process. To maximize production time, we seek out families who are pretty far along in the process. Often everything moves much more quickly than we can anticipate, so we go back and revisit some of the homes that the family has already seen and we capture their authentic reactions. Because the stakes in real estate are so high, these homeowners always find themselves RIGHT back in the moment, experiencing the same emotions and reactions to these properties. Showcasing three homes makes it easier for our audience to “play along” and guess which one the family will select.”

The statement doesn’t address the issue of showcasing houses that aren’t on the market, however, leading some to worry that “House Hunters” oversimplifies the process to the point where first-time homebuyers will enter the real estate market with unrealistic expectations. "House Hunters is presenting dangerous misinformation about the home-buying process and deleting all of the accompanying complications and consequences,"  Marcelle Friedman writes in Slate.  "It's turned what is actually a messy, frustrating, often dead-end process into a seamless (and perhaps necessary) path toward fulfillment."

It's true – home buying is messy, and even the easiest transactions take longer than they do on "House Hunters." “On finding the property, I often work with people for two to three months,” says Ilya Jacob Rasner, a real estate agent at the Rasner Group at Keller Williams Realty in Cambridge, Mass. Walking through “10 to 15 houses is not unreasonable,” he points out, not to mention hundreds of potential listings that clients often peruse online before even meeting with him.

From there, Mr. Rasner says, the closing process can take anywhere between 45 and 60 days. “You’re looking at at least a month and a half to facilitate this whole process. Generally speaking, it gets done no faster than that, but it often takes even longer.”

Such a drawn out process doesn’t really jive with TV production schedules, especially for a show as prolific as “House Hunters” has been over its 13-year run.

What’s more, conditions vary wildly across different real estate markets. A high-demand urban area like Boston, where Rasner works, will have more prolonged searches and quicker turnaround times than a depreciated or rural market. But on “House Hunters,” all regions are given equal time in front of the camera.

The question is, does any of this really matter? If there are still people out there with a shred of faith in the “reality” part of reality television, then maybe.  Showing houses that aren’t even for sale is pretty egregious for a show all about the search process.

But out in the real world, Rasner doesn’t think the show has contributed to any problems in the buyers’ market. “People aren’t buying houses all that often, so watching it isn’t affecting them on a day to day basis,” he laughed. “And it doesn’t change the real process in any way. I always sit down with clients first thing to discuss in detail what’s really involved.”

"Furthermore," he added, “people aren’t watching that show for the procedural stuff. They watch for the actual houses, and the [buyer's] needs."

He has had several clients who have watched “House Hunters.” So far, none have had a problem reconciling their real-life expectations to what they saw on the show.  

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