Affording Your Dream Kitchen

It's no surprise that amid a weak economy and a deepening housing bust, Americans' spending on home improvements is declining. For the latest evidence of that, look to Home Depot, which reported that in 2007 its sales fell for the first time in its history—and that sales will likely dip another 5 percent in 2008.

But even as tough times lead fewer of us to actually renovate, many of us still aspire to—and still spend time watching other people remodeling on cable channels like HGTV. There's a vicarious thrill to be had watching more fortunate homeowners transform their spaces. Turns out they're even luckier than we thought. That's because on some shows the production companies step up to cover big chunks of the renovation expense.

Consider the case of Nicole and Marc Lombardi. When they purchased their Philadelphia-area home in 2006 they had their hands full. The house hadn't been updated in years, so the couple dove into the DIY lifestyle, tearing down paneling, scraping acres of bad wallpaper and trying to bring their 1925 home into the 21st century.

But despite their handiwork, big eyesores remained—especially the kitchen. It featured mismatched cabinetry, layer upon layer of vinyl flooring (which the previous owner had also put on a countertop), a terribly cramped floor plan and too few electrical outlets. While the Lombardis were comfortable renovating the living room and bedrooms themselves, remodeling a kitchen would require plumbers, electricians, carpenters—and money. Their dream kitchen would have to be deferred.

Then one day Nicole clicked over to HGTV.com, the Web site run by the home-improvement cable channel. She clicked on the button marked "Be On HGTV." And she began looking over applications to appear as a homeowner on various home makeover shows. She zeroed in on "Spice Up My Kitchen," which is produced by a Philadelphia-area company and looks for homeowners in her area. Then she downloaded the application.

Some of the questions focused on simple logistics. Could both husband and wife take off five days from work to film the show? Is there a room near the kitchen to use as a staging area for cameras and lights? Do they have allergies?

Most of the questions, however, focused on three areas: exactly how bad is their kitchen right now? What, specifically, do they want their dream kitchen to look like? And have they lived through prior renovations, to ensure they'll put up with the inevitable headaches while still smiling for the TV cameras?

The Lombardis, both writers with jobs in marketing, polished their answers as carefully as a high-school senior crafting a college essay. They tried to be funny and show lots of personality. They mocked the previous owner's penchant for applying multiple layers of wallpaper and paint to every flat surface. They offered lots of specifics about what they'd like from their new kitchen: instead of a standard granite-and-stainless-steel combo they hoped for a Tuscan feel, with oatmeal-colored cabinets, textured plaster walls and a copper sink. But at the same time they made it clear they were receptive to designers' suggestions. "We're open to new ideas, even if they're currently not all the rage," Nicole says, suggesting that concrete counters would have been fine. "And we tend to view projects like this as an adventure, versus a headache." They were also in no rush.

As someone who has watched a fair bit of HGTV—and who has spent time inside the company as a reporter listening to a producer debate whether to cast a family on a show—I would say their application was pitch-perfect. They highlighted precisely why their current kitchen is a disaster—a requisite ingredient in makeover shows, since the "before" photos must be compellingly awful. (Inside HGTV, producers call this "the oops factor.") The couple's sense of humor comes through; a TV producer would guess that they would be good on camera. It's also evident that they've done enough renovations that they'll be game to help tackle easy aspects of the job themselves, like taking a crowbar to their old cabinets.

Within a few months a producer brought a camera to their house for a pre-interview. "He just turned the camera on us and said, 'Just go. Talk about the room. Talk about yourselves'," Nicole says. The couple spent nearly 45 minutes being filmed. They tried to be enthusiastic and funny, and they felt good about how it went. (The fact that they're both in their early 30s and attractive didn't hurt.) The only problem, the producer said, is that the rest of their house was still in the midst of remodeling. To be on the show the couple needed to finish the adjoining rooms. But after the pre-interview the Lombardis felt they had a reasonable shot at being cast. "We didn't really get the impression we were in competition with a lot of people," Nicole says.

A few months later, when they'd finished renovating the downstairs, they called the producer back. A staff member came back for a look-see. Afterward they heard they were "accepted" for a segment, though they could have to wait months before a crew showed up. In July it did.

Their kitchen remodeling took two weeks, including three days in which Nicole and Marc were filmed for the show. The results are stunning, with a more workable floor plan, a gleaming copper sink and high-end Aga appliances, including a $6,000 range. The best part: while the producers estimated their renovation job at $40,000 to $45,000, the Lombardis paid just $7,000, since many of the materials (including, presumably, the Aga appliances) were donated by sponsors.

In the episode the couple comes across well. They filmed so much material, Nicole says, that she was worried about what pieces might be used. For instance, to play up the couple's Italian roots, the producers had them mugging bad Italian accents ("fuggedaboutit"). Thankfully, those clips didn't air.

HGTV says that because production companies control the homeowner selection process, it's impossible to say how many people apply every month, or to estimate any applicant's odds of showing up in an episode. In an e-mail, HGTV senior VP Melissa Sykes also points out that the Lombardis' financial windfall isn't necessarily typical. Each show's producers have their own policies about who pays the renovation costs. On some shows homeowners pay full freight; in other cases, such as the Lombardis', the homeowners and the production company share the costs. "We're pleased the production company in this case provided a high-end makeover and stretched the couple's budget … [but] homeowners appearing on HGTV should not expect to receive free products," Sykes says. Homeowners should also be aware that in some cases they'll need to pay income taxes on the gratis products or labor—no different than if they'd won cash outright in a lottery.

Still, there are 27 HGTV shows currently soliciting guests on the network's Web site, and while some make it clear that they don't provide financial help on the projects, others are mum, suggesting they might. Even as the housing bust leads many families to pull back on renovations, your star turn may be just a few clicks away.

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