Real Estate: Keeping Tabs On 'This Old House'

Thursday nights are big in my house. No, I'm not talking about "The Office." For me, Must See TV is on PBS, home to "This Old House," the granddaddy of home improvement shows.

I love just about everything about this folksy program. I love learning carpentry tricks from Norm Abram. I love watching contractor Tom Silva solve construction problems. I love watching plumber Richard Trethewey install the latest plumbing fixtures. And I especially love ogling the finished projects.

I have only one complaint. Whenever a contractor is at my house, I constantly stress out about money. In contrast, "This Old House" homeowners seem blithely unconcerned about budgets. There's rarely an on-camera discussion of what anything costs. While this doesn't deter me from tuning in, it's rare for me to watch an episode without asking, "Okay, so what's the price tag—and how's that family paying for all this?"

Those questions gnawed again during last week's season premiere. This fall homeowners Paul Friedberg and Maddy Krauss have hired "This Old House" contractor Tom Silva to revamp their 1897 shingle-style home in Newton, Mass. As always, the first episode takes viewers through the house (filled with Victorian woodworking and working fireplaces) and outlines the parameters of the job (creating a master suite, a new kitchen and a mudroom, and doing a massive landscaping project to level the sloping back yard).

After I turned off the show I continued to wonder: who are these people, and what's this going to cost them? So I went online to find out.

Let's start with the homeowners. Who are they? It turns out Maddy is a dermatologist. According to his LinkedIn profile, Paul works at IBM; he's also a former Olympic fencer.

Beyond their paychecks, they have another source of funds. In last week's episode the couple described how they were moving into the shingle-style home after selling a colonial around the corner, where they'd lived for eight years. They made a nice profit on the sale. Tax and deed records show that the couple bought their old house in 1998 for $600,000 and sold it in May for $1.3 million. Not bad, but they're hardly trading down: they bought the home they're renovating for $1.5 million. That sounds expensive, but not in Newton, where 58 of the 327 properties currently listed on top seven-digits.

So what's their televised renovation going to cost? On the building permit he pulled in May, contractor Silva estimated the job at $800,000. (The permit fee alone was $14,880, which is more than I've spent to remodel bathrooms in my home.) My best guess is the true costs easily top a million, since the permit estimate likely doesn't include supplies donated by the show's sponsors, or the mammoth landscaping.

Over the 28 years it's been on the air, "TOH" has heard criticism from fans for obfuscating costs and taking on too many wildly upscale projects. (Anyone remember that oceanfront Manchester home from the 2001 season, with its giant rebuilt dormers, acoustically perfect music room and to-die-for kitchen?) I asked the series's visionary creator, former executive producer Russell Morash, to explain the lack of price transparency—and why so many of the projects appear so expensive.

Morash offers a convincing defense. Beyond homeowners' reluctance to talk about their finances, he says the show avoids focusing on costs because inflation will quickly make the numbers obsolete, which is a problem since "This Old House" episodes can air in reruns for years. Labor rates also vary dramatically across the country; citing costs in Newton won't be that meaningful to a viewer in Wyoming, so they don't. "Prices really get you into trouble more often than you'd think," Morash says.

Morash is sensitive to the charge that "TOH," which launched in 1979 by remodeling an undistinguished home in Dorchester, Mass., has drifted too far upmarket. The show likes to focus on cutting-edge building materials, he says, and those are usually first adopted by affluent homeowners before they trickle down into middle-class houses. "This Old House" spokeswoman Leah Orfanos points out that three of the show's recent renovations—the East Boston two-family, the affordable housing project in Washington, D.C., and last season's "green" remodel in Austin, Texas—were fairly modest makeovers, and for its next project, the show will rebuild a home in New Orleans's Katrina-devastated Ninth Ward.

After last week's premiere I drove past the project house in Newton. Pickup trucks and building supplies lined the property. It's a very nice home, but seeing the neighborhood puts it into context. Some nearby houses are far more lavish; two doors down is a house that sold for $3.5 million. Nearly every surrounding block has a home undergoing a renovation that appears far more extensive than this couple's.

It's a sign of the times. Even as the real estate boom has eased, there are still towns where $1.5 million gets you a nice—but not over-the-top—house, and where everyday professionals (not just private-equity zillionaires) sign up for $800,000 renovations.

For me, knowing the costs of this season's "This Old House" project will make me enjoy the coming episodes more, not less. I'll still marvel as this century-old house is reborn—and I'll be left with the exquisite knowledge that I'm not the one paying the bill.