The untold truth of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

Even though the show wrapped up in 2012, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition lives on in both reruns and the gorgeous homes they built during their nine-year run. Host Ty Pennington and his team created dream homes for some of the most deserving families you could ever meet.

While the show was a shining positive light in a reality television world of arguing housewives and drunken roommates, it had its fair share of scandals and heartbreaks. From dishonest contestants to shady tax practices, there was a lot more going on behind the scenes than we knew. So allow us to "Move that bus!" and give you a sneak peak at the inner workings of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Not their first reality rodeo

Thanks to its unbelievable success, the hosts and designers from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition seemed like overnight stars. While their fame shot up thanks to the show, they had all done television before, though some did work you might not have heard of. Designer Rib Hillis told the The Futon Critic he actually hated reality television. He was an actor and had worked on the show Model Citizen. "As an actor, I didn't want to do reality TV. I hate reality TV," said Hillis. "It takes away work for actors. As an actor I was reluctant but as a father of twins I thought, 'I'll do what I gotta do.'" Thankfully it was the right choice.

Designer Jillian Harris started out on ABC's The Bachelorette before signing on to be a reality show designer. Host Ty Pennington got his start as a model and later worked as an assistant on the show Leaving Las Vegas. He then went on to star in TLC's Trading Spaces.

The application process was lengthy

While the show was active, anyone could apply to be on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The application was quite long, and it took a while to hear back. Designer Rib Hillis spoke with The Futon Critic about the process. "We have an amazing casting department that goes through, I heard, a thousand applicants a day," he shared. "There are background checks since we need to know that these people are representing themselves truthfully and we're not going to get caught with some sort of a story point that we're not aware of."

The families chosen for the show had all gone through unbelievable hardships, making the process of going through them all a heart-breaking one.

No such thing as a free house

You'd have to be emotionally dead to make it through an entire episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition without a few tissues. Seeing a hardworking family being given their dream home made you feel good. You just knew things were going to turn around for them. However, while the house was free to the families, the rest wasn't.

Many of these families were left with giant mansions that required higher taxes, utility bills, and upkeep. India Dickinson and her family were given a beautiful 4,000 square-foot home, but were barely making ends meet before the show. Another show guest, Victor Marrero, sold his makeover home, because his utility bills had soared to between $700 and $1,200 per month.

Foreclosures are all too common

When I first heard about a free house going into foreclosure, I was confused. I figured the families must have squandered their money away on frivolous cars and luxuries. How could you lose a house that was given to you? Well it's a little more complicated than that. Because most of the families on the show are barely scraping by, any new expense can put them over the edge. When their taxes and utility bills are doubled, tripled, even quadrupled, they simply cannot keep up. In 2005, the Harvey family was given a spacious 4,289 square-foot house, but the bank auctioned it off six years later. This pattern became common with many former guests of the show, who took mortgages out on their new, expensive homes to pay off old bills or start new ventures.

It's hard to say where the fault lies. Should ABC have given families smaller homes, or should the families have not accepted the mansions? The St. Augustine Record reported the show built a six-bedroom, seven-bath mansion for a family of four, which many would say is more house than they ever needed.

Shady taxes

In addition to the doubled or tripled power bills, brand new makeover houses come with higher tax bills as well. Perhaps fortunately for the families, the reality show helped them in some creative ways. Endemol, USA, the company behind Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, did some serious acrobatics to help the families avoid paying taxes on their makeover. An IRS loophole says if your home is rented out for less than 15 days per year, you do not need to pay taxes on that rental income. With that in mind, the show explains to families that they are "renting" the house from the family for a week, and the improvements are the rental payment, meaning they don't have to pay taxes on the improvements. While this plan helps families upfront, they'll still be responsible for the future property taxes that will undoubtedly rise with the increased value of their home.

Lawsuits and legal action

It's hard to imagine a scenario where you would actually sue the people who built you your dream home for free, but it happened in 2005. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition built a house for the Higgins family, five orphans who had lost their parents to cancer and heart failure. The home was built for them and the Leomitis family who had taken them in. The show built them a nine bedroom mansion and even provided new cars and groceries, but after the cameras left, things got ugly.

According to the Higgins children, the Leomitis family launched "an orchestrated campaign" to force them out of the new mansion. The family allegedly used racial slurs, verbal abuse, and physical abuse to drive out the orphans. The Higgins children moved out and promptly sued ABC, stating they were promised a house which is not in their name. "We were promised a new home," explained oldest sibling Charles Higgins II. "They broke that promise."

Though ABC did not make an official statement on the case, they did remind fans the show was intended to build a home for the Leomitis family, who had taken in the orphaned kids.

A house can't fix everything

For Extreme Makeover: Home Edition families, life hasn't been easy. They have dealt with truly tough circumstances, and those can weigh on you. And sure, a brand new house can change your life, but it can't fix everything. That was certainly true for Debbie Oatman, who received a brand new 3,700 square-foot home for her and her children. Oatman is the single parent of four boys, three of whom are adopted and two of which have HIV and special needs. However once the cameras left, Oatman's children say 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," Oatman's 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."

Oatman told friends that being on the show took away her family's privacy. With her boys' medical problems broadcast on television, they started being picked on at school. However, the kids tell a different story. Kevin Oatman described verbal and sometimes physical abuse before and after the show. In fact, between 1997 and 2007, Colonie police filed 18 incident reports for Oatman. According to the Times Union, Oatman two of her adopted sons out of her home after the show. Oatman herself declined to comment on the show and her family, but it's safe to say not all episodes had a happy ending.

Unhappy neighbors

One of the best parts of Extreme Makeover Home Edition is seeing the community come together. Friends and neighbors drop everything for a week to pitch in and create an incredible house. It seems like it is usually a happy experience for everyone, but what happens when that family turns around and sells the house? If a family can no longer afford the taxes and utilities, they may have no choice but to downsize. The problem comes in when the neighbors don't approve of the new buyer.

In 2010, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition built a new home for Larry and Melissa Beach in Houston. The Beaches had fostered and adopted 85 children with special needs over the years, but could not keep up the cost of their new mansion. The neighbors began to worry when the home was sold to Butch Woolfolk, who turned it into a high-end drug rehab center.

Daily Mail reported that after donating their time to build this house, many neighbors were worried it would now hurt their own property values. Not to mention the fact that no one was thrilled about now living next to a drug rehab facility.

When contestants lie

Sadly, even a feel-good show like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is not immune to people trying to scam the system. While the participants each went through a thorough background check, one family may have embellished, or even fabricated the truth, in order to be chosen.

Yahoo News reported that in 2009, Chuck and Terri Cerda were chosen for the show. In her show application, Terri shared that she and their two daughters suffered from severe immunodeficiency diseases, causing them to have to wear masks at all times. The Cerdas were given a massive home complete with high-quality air ventilation systems, but the story didn't end there.

When the family was unable to afford the utility bills, they sold the house and moved. When the family connected with new doctors in Oregon, the medical team questioned the family's diagnoses. Dr. Thomas Valvano, an OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital pediatrician who specializes in suspected child abuse and neglect, reported his concerns to child welfare offices, and the girls were actually removed from the Cerdas' home. Dr. Valvano told the court the daughters were not chronically ill and had been the victims of "medical child abuse."

Where are they now?

Ty Pennington and his crew devoted their lives to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition before it ended in 2012. The star spent an average of 240 days per year working on the show and helped build over 200 new homes.

Since the show ended, Pennington has not taken a break. He became the host of the talk show The Revolution while it was briefly on television. He has made multiple appearances on Rachael Ray and Good Morning America. In 2014, Pennington became the host of TNT's cooking competition show, On the Menu. He must have liked the food world, because he is now the host of the Food Network series, American Diner Revival, where he and his team help struggling diners get a makeover (sound familiar?).

When he's not hosting, Pennington is working on his furniture line with Sears and his community outreach program, the Sears American Dream Campaign.