Extreme Makeover: Home Edition: Facts About The Controversial Home Reno Series

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Even though the show wrapped up in 2012, ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" lives on in both reruns and the gorgeous homes built during the series' 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 light in a reality television world filled with arguing housewives and drunken roommates, the series had its fair share of scandals and heartbreaks. From dishonest contestants to shady tax practices, there was more to "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" than what meets the eye. So, it came as a surprise to many when HGTV rebooted the series in 2020 — an announcement first made in 2019, per Variety — with a few smart changes, we might add (which we'll get to soon). Allow us to "Move that bus!" and give you a sneak peak at the inner workings of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was not the first reality rodeo for its stars

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 that 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 as the Bachelorette 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" before going on to star in TLC's "Trading Spaces."

The show's application process was lengthy

While the show was active, anyone could apply to be on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." The application was quite long — as ABC sought families experiencing major hardship, making the process of going through them all a heart-breaking one.

While applicants did not get a response for quite some time, it's understandable that the selection process took some time to ensure the network found the most deserving families. Rob Hillis, a former designer for the show, 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." This, unfortunately, did happen, as we'll get to soon.

The free homes given from the series came at a cost

You'd have to be drained of emotions to make it through an entire episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" without a few tissues. Seeing a hardworking family given their dream home feels good to watch. However, while the house was free to the families, it came at a cost in other ways.

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 upwards of $700 to $1,200 per month.

A worker for one of the show's contracted construction companies shared his experience which occurred "when the show was at the height of its popularity." As shared on Reddit, which BuzzFeed later reported, the worker wrote, "It was a huge, nice house built for a widowed mother with several kids ... Even though the house was 'given' to her, she couldn't afford it after a year or so (property tax, electricity, water, upkeep, etc...) and put it on the market. Simply owning a home of that size is very expensive."

Many of the original Extreme Makeover: Home Edition homeowners experienced foreclosure

Following the airing of many "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" episodes, the show made headlines for its many homeowners who were forced to go into foreclosure. 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.

The show had some allegedly shady tax practices

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. 

According to one IRS loophole, 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 threatened the former ABC series

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.

For some Extreme Makeover homeowners, a new house can't fix everything

For "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" families, life hasn't been easy. They have dealt with truly tough circumstances. A brand-new house can surely change your life, but it can't fix everything. That was certainly true for single mother Debbie Oatman, who received a new 3,700 square-foot home for her and her four sons, three of whom are adopted and two of which have HIV and special needs. However, once the cameras left, Debbie's children say she went back to her old ways. "I honestly thought things would change after we moved into the house and it would make everything better," her estranged son, Kevin Oatman, told the Times Union. "She was happy and excited for maybe the first week, and then it was back to the same old garbage."

Debbie 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, including that of physical abuse, both before and after the show. In fact, between 1997 and 2007, local police filed 18 incident reports for the family matriarch. According to the Times Union, she kicked two of her adopted sons out of her home after the show. Debbie herself declined to comment on the show and her family, but it's safe to say that all episodes didn't have a happy ending.

Former contestants have lied to appear on the show

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. 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. Valvano told the court the daughters were not chronically ill and had been the victims of "medical child abuse."

Some of the show's gifted new homes were not all that functional

In addition to being money pits, some of the homes built for "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" reportedly had structural problems. In a piece for Builder, John McManus gathered comments from those involved with the show. One comment stated that the show is for entertainment and does not depict the reality of home construction in that quality work requires more time and money. For example, one Reddit user shared that a house in their town built for the show "has any number of problems" (via BuzzFeed), adding, "The owner went back to ['Extreme Makeover'] to fix everything, and was told, 'You got this for free, fix it yourself.'"

Another Reddit (via BuzzFeed) user wrote about a fire station rebuilt for the show. According to the author's brother, a firefighter well-versed in construction, the building was not up to code, and the alarm system failed to work. "The fire station was not functional at all," wrote the user, further describing "sinks [that] weren't even hooked up." A high school constructed for the show received similar complaints. The Reddit user wrote of "questionable paint color choices [used] on the exterior" and, inside the classrooms, "paint [which] didn't actually go all the way up to the edge/ceiling."

More than one of the show's properties have been burglarized and vandalized

While the producers of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" had good intentions, building and renovating properties in low-income neighborhoods is not always a good idea.

Case in point: A 2010 episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" features the rebuild of the Tripp family's home as well as the school the father ran, known as The Fishing School, which provides after-school programs. That same year, The Washington Post reported that the school had been broken into and vandalized. Fortunately, the four suspects were caught by police as they tried to get away with computers, a flat-screen TV, and a safe. "We are very saddened this happened," said Erin Gore, director of development for The Fishing School. "This is the type of thing we are working to overcome" (via NBC4 Washington).

In another situation, a week after an episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" aired, the house built for the episode had been "broken into and cleaned out" — "every TV, every computer, everything," according to one Reddit user, as reported by BuzzFeed.

One house featured on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was turned into a high-end rehab facility

In 2010, the Beach family appeared on an episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" after their Texas home was destroyed by Hurricane Ike. The family of six plus their multiple special needs foster children were living in a FEMA trailer when they applied for the show, which brought in volunteers including actress Jessica Alba.

Unfortunately, due to the high property taxes, the upkeep, and that they no longer needed such a large space after they stopped fostering, the family could no longer afford the eight-bedroom, four-and-a-half bath turquoise home located near the boardwalk. "The community put a lot into this house and that's really the conflict we have struggled with," then-owner Larry Beach told the Houston Chronicle, explaining that, despite their attachment to the house, selling was their best option.

In February 2013, they listed the property for $700,000 before dropping the price to $535,000 by year's end. The home's size made it difficult to sell, according to their realtor, Alana Croker, who said the property would likely better "suit a commercial venture ... rather than a family."

Neighbors were less than thrilled when an investor purchased the house and turned the property into a high-end drug rehab facility, as they feared their property values would decline, something they told Houston's KHOU11 (via the Daily Mail). Despite their efforts, Kemah Palms Recovery was built, where it remains, as of publication.

Some Extreme Makeover: Home Edition homeowners had positive outcomes after the show

Despite the negative stories that have made headlines, not all "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" homeowners had poor outcomes following their experience with the show.

In 2006, ABC's production crew came to Raleigh, North Carolina's historic Mordecai Village to build the Riggins family a beautiful new home courtesy of the network. As of 2022, the family still lives in their 2,300 square-foot home. Homeowner Linda Riggins showed ABC11 her favorite room, her writing room, which didn't make the episode. "Welcome to my writing room," she said proudly. "I've always liked reading and writing; that was my safety." Interestingly, she didn't use the room for years. "Before five years ago I heard, 'Linda, you can write; you have a way with words,'" she said, adding that she never believed it. But she kept at it, and, in 2022, she published a poetry collection, "WORDS: Beholding Black Women," which celebrates her identity as a Black woman.

While the original owners of a Havelock, Nebraska, home rebuilt for the show moved out, its current owner, former mayor Don Wesely, purchased the property for $250,000 in 2015. The 4,000 square-foot house boasts six bedrooms, six bathrooms, and indoor-outdoor waterfalls. "There are nicer houses and more expensive houses, but none was built in six days, and none was given for free on national TV," the happy homeowner shared with the Lincoln Journal Star (via The Spectrum), adding, "There's no other house like this."

Why did Extreme Makeover: Home Edition come to an end?

In December 2011, The Hollywood Reporter announced ABC's cancellation of its hit series "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." According to the report, the Emmy-winning series would conclude on January 13, 2012, at the end of its ninth season, and ABC would air four special episodes of the series at a later date.

The series began as a 13-part ABC special airing on Wednesdays before moving to its longtime Sunday night timeslot, where it averaged 15.8 million viewers per episode. However, for the show's ninth season, it moved to Friday nights, where it struggled to keep its audience. One episode from that season, for example, attracted only 5.1 million viewers. "It is with a somber heart I close this chapter, but with such excitement I begin the next one," former series designer Michael Moloney said in a statement to the outlet. "I have 'EM:HE' to thank for the platform I have to continue doing good work and great design in 2012 and on."

In a statement from the show's former host, Ty Pennington, he referred to his longtime hosting gig as "the greatest job of my life." He wrote, "I believe the spirit of what we have done across the country for over 200 families will continue to inspire. It has been an honor to work side by side with the EMHE families, builders, and thousands of volunteers who have proven that good hearts can and do change the world."

In 2020, HGTV rebooted the former ABC series with some changes from the original

In 2020, HGTV rebooted the former ABC series, replacing host Ty Pennington with "Modern Family" star Jesse Tyler Ferguson. "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," Ferguson told USA Today of the 10-episode season revival, adding, "I couldn't look at this and ignore the human element of it, and the fact that this show is changing people's lives."

While the series' core concept remains the same, this time around, show creators planned ahead to avoid the pitfalls that occurred with the series' original run. "We go in and we learn the story of the family, we see the family, we see their stories, we pinpoint what it is they need, and we move from there," Carrie Locklyn, a designer for the show, told Forbes. "We always start every design with practicality, organization, and functionality. Because we want these homes to be something that the families can grow with. We don't want anything in the home to become a burden for them."

In the HGTV reboot, families still had to pay a mortgage on the new house

In the original "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," selected families were given their new homes free of charge. However, the same cannot be said for the reboot. As the network confirmed to Country Living, "HGTV doesn't cover the cost of the mortgage."

A statement issued by HGTV (via Forbes) read, "We want the families to continue to thrive in the homes after the cameras leave, so we ensure that the home is sized to meet their needs and we emphasize the function as well as the design ... We also identify ways to offset increased expenses from taxes and utility costs." Examples include using energy-saving technology or providing financial assistance to help with some other need, courtesy of HGTV's partners. "This, in turn, frees up funds for the family to maintain the new or renovated home," the statement concluded.

We hope that the new model works out for these deserving homeowners!

Where is the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition cast now?

Ty Pennington and his crew devoted their lives to "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" for nine seasons, spending an average of 240 days each year working on the show and rebuilding more than 200 homes for families (per the Gazette Review).

Since the series' cancellation, Pennington has continued to be an ever-present face on TV. Per IMDb, after "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," he co-hosted the short-lived talk show, "The Revolution," as well as TNT's competitive cooking show, "On the Menu." From 2015 to 2016, he hosted the Food Network's "American Diner Revival," and he co-hosted "Small Business Revolution: Main Street" for two years starting in 2018.

That year, he returned to "Trading Spaces," the other home reno show that made him famous, for the series reboot. HGTV viewers have also seen Pennington on several of the network's series: as host of "Ty Breaker" as well as on "Battle on the Beach," "Home Town Kickstart," and "Rock the Block." Over the years, he's appeared on "Rachael Ray" 14 times and made multiple appearances on "Good Morning America" and "Entertainment Tonight" (via IMDb).

Additionally, he had partnerships with Westminster Fabrics and Lumber Liquidators as well as a furniture line for Sears, per his website. In 2019, Pennington released a memoir, "Life to the Extreme: How a Chaotic Kid Became America's Favorite Carpenter," which he spoke about on the "Today" show. And, in 2021, the home renovation star got married after a short engagement.