Behind the Scenes: My Experience on a Home Improvement TV Show

July 23, 2014

I've always enjoyed watching DIY home improvement shows for all the ideas they offer. Of course, I always thought the chances were extremely slim that I would have the opportunity to take part in one -- until, miraculously, it happened.

Ever wonder what it’s REALLY like to be on one of those shows?  How much is staged for the camera and how much is real?  Are the homeowners REALLY doing the work or is it all done for them?  Is the work and the materials of quality or is it cheaply done?

Here is a peek into my experience.

A Basement in Need of Some TLC

We lived in our house for a couple years; we had three small children and a basement that went unused.  It was a dark and dingy place where the kids wouldn’t go to play.  We knew it could be a functional living space, but didn’t have the time or the ability to makeover the room.  So the kids' toys were scattered throughout the house -- the living room, the dining room, the kitchen.  It was unsustainable.

We saw an ad on the news that an HGTV show was looking for homes to remodel in the area, so we applied to get our basement remodeled.  We completed an application and included pictures.  We were lucky to get past the first cut and had an interview.  During the interview, we were filmed and the story was ideal for what they were seeking. We got it!

Logistics, Prep Work, and Adjusting to the Cameras 

Then came the legal speak.  We had to be totally available for 5 days, and we had to completely open our house to upwards of 20 people -- all coming and going.  We were told that our budget was $3,000 and we would have to cover any expenses over and above that.  We talked about improvements that were possible and ones that weren’t.  When all of the particulars and the date were set, we were extremely excited. But what were we in for?

The first day, a skeleton crew showed up with Carter, the show host to get the opening story filmed and staged.  After introductions, they filmed the basement mess, the carpet stains, the toys around the house, and we were interviewed on camera.  Then we were given instructions.  Overnight we had to completely clear out the basement -- including the carpet.  The painting crew came in the next day and laid down the base paint.

The work was doable, but the cameras were a bit more of a challenge. The first time that light comes on, is pretty intimidating to say the least.  It takes a couple takes to relax and get it right.  Luckily the director and film crew were very patient and understand that its nerve-racking with that big light in your face.

On the other hand, the host and his crew talked and behaved natural and spontaneous on camera.  It was truly an art form.  After the first day, you forget the cameras are there.  The crew is so engaging that it’s all very natural.  For the most part, scenes are filmed in one take.  It helps that it’s a reality show, so mistakes are acceptable, but  everything is pretty controlled and materials are set prior to a rolling camera. However,  I can attest to the fact that the reactions during our reveal scene were NOT staged.  It was the first time we saw the final product and our reactions were genuine.

The Ins and Outs of the Remodel and the Final Product

The bulk of the remodel took place over the next couple days and the crew that showed up this time was much larger -- carpenters, film crew make up, director's assistants.  While there was plenty of help, we actually worked the whole day.  We made a table, drilled things, cut things, and filmed a lot.  When evening came around, there was a whole list of projects that we had to finish on our own.  With three small children to tend to, the extra work took us well into the early morning hours.

On the final day, there was tension in the air.  The director said we were WAY behind schedule and we couldn’t have cost overruns.  We were sent away for a couple hours and told to return at 5:00, so they could hopefully get all the extra work done. (And throw in a few surprises.)  To be honest, we were nervous.  The basement still had a lot to be done and the deadline was approaching fast.

We returned with huge anticipation.  When we saw the final remodel, our expectations were more than met.  It looked amazing.  They turned this creepy basement into a playroom that was warm and fun.  They created a desk cubby hole under the stairs for homework and to store art supplies, an amazing coffee table where board games can be kept,  and they built a bed into the wall for the kids to relax and use for sleepovers.

A Look Behind the Scenes

Did we really do the work?  Yes and no.  Yes, we really helped build a cubby hole for the kids' homework and art supplies. Yes, we really built a bed into the wall for the kid’s sleepovers.  The trick is, a carpenter is standing over your shoulder, watching and helping, the screw holes are pre-drilled and everything is perfectly measured and cut to specifications.  But there were a lot of cosmetic things, like painting, that we did on our own.

Was the quality up to par?  Yes.  Ours was a small job and largely cosmetic.  The coffee table is gorgeous, the lighting was fun and fit the mood of the room perfectly, the decorations were colorful, the wood that was used was of good quality and you can tell that time and care went into the process.

How much did we spend?  Every show is different.  Some work on your budget alone, some give you the money and some have a little of both.  Some like to ‘surprise’ the home owners with cost overruns.  We were given $3,000 at the time and chose to only go over budget by about $1,000.  The crew communicated costs and opportunities well and there were no surprises.

In the end, we had a great experience and  I couldn’t thank the crew enough for all they did.  We still use the basement quite extensively today.  The crew was very pleasant and the experience was a family treasure that we’ll hold for the rest of our lives.

Here are a few tips we took away from the show: 

Go for Used Items
There were a couple items that we were able to utilize that were used like a small cabinet purchased at a garage sale.

Utilize Bight Color
Bright colors add life to a room.  Our basement completely changed when we added yellow paint and some colorful stickers.

Try Inexpensive Lighting
You don’t have to spend a lot on lighting.  Our lighting was a kid’s bedroom piece that we repainted to match the room.

Find Art in Unexpected Places 
We use the kid’s art as our decorations and buy used frames from the craft store.  This type of artwork brings a personal touch to the walls.

Locate Small Accessories Anywhere
Little items that spruce up a room can be found almost anywhere to fit your needs.

This post was written by Andrew Tauer, a fixed income analyst for Colorado PERA. Would you like to write a guest post for The Dime Colorado? Send us an email at dimecontact@copera.org