Reality TV Makes Itself at Home

Invading shows put area properties in the spotlight

April 12, 2012

Heather Garcia, left, and her husband, Rick, far right, a Revolutionary War re-enactor, discuss their Alexandria home with Tom Silva while taping “Ask This Old House.”

In a light drizzle on a November morning, Heather and Rick Garcia stood outside their Old Town Alexandria house and greeted Tom Silva, a general contractor who stars on PBS’s “This Old House.” The Garcias led Silva to the front door and welcomed him into their home.

“What a beautiful room!” Silva exclaimed. Seconds later, all three walked out and repeated the entrance. Then, again. And again.

This was déjà vu for the sake of TV: a taping of “Ask This Old House,” the more user-friendly version of “This Old House” in which experts teach average homeowners how to tackle repairs (the episode airs on WETA at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 12, and is available online at Thisoldhouse.com).

Weeks earlier, the Garcias had heard a radio ad inviting people to apply to be on the show. The couple had just purchased and moved with their three children into the house (which was built as an income property in 1797 by President George Washington, a distant ancestor of Heather’s). They had sent PBS “a very long list” of fix-ups they needed. “Ask This Old House” chose one: help open and repair the Garcias’ old, painted-shut windows.

So, here were the producers, a cameraman and Silva, who, in hours, removed thick layers of paint from one of the dining room windows. Silva also repaired the broken sash cords that help the windows open and close.

It was just one of a few home-focused TV segments shot in and around the District over the past few months. Given the region’s strong housing market, it’s easy to understand why Washington is getting so much screen time, said Sue Elbertson, a Realtor with Prudential PenFed Realty who was recently filmed on the job for HGTV’s “My First Place.” “We have a really interesting and diverse market,” she said. “It probably makes for more interesting programming when there are positive things to say.”

Scheduling Shockers (… or Mild Surprises)

Regardless of whether they were searching for a new place or fixing up an old one, locals who’ve been taped for TV said it wasn’t exactly what they’d expected. For one thing, it requires patience and a wide-open schedule.

The “Ask This Old House” shoot at the Garcias’ lasted from about 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., for a segment of approximately 10 minutes. That’s normal, said Silva. “I always tell people, ‘If you think it’s going to take one hour, it will take four.’”

Producers had Silva and the Garcias interact during take after take, each time trying to convey authentic emotion, while they introduced the house and worked on the windows. “There are so many things you don’t think about: setting the lighting, shooting from many different angles,” said Heather Garcia, 41, a director in global operations services for Marriott International.

On the other end of the real estate reality-TV spectrum are house-hunting shows, which rely on a similarly time-consuming schedule. Devon Halley’s autumn house hunt with his fiancee, Carolyn Carnahan (and their Realtor, Elbertson), was filmed for HGTV’s “My First Place.” The filming took up many weekends between September (when the couple did a screen test) and December 2011 (when they closed on a home). They did some follow-up filming earlier this month as well.

Reality in Reality TV

There’s a certain degree of artificiality in a housing search that’s filmed for TV. Since it’s crammed into a half-hour or hourlong episode, plenty of footage winds up on the cutting room floor. And buyers’ initial searches aren’t filmed. (You didn’t think anyone actually chooses between only three homes, did you?)

“I probably looked at 200 places” before filming began, said Alex Brant, 25, whose search was featured on HGTV’s “House Hunters” in February. “It took me months.” By the time he and his Realtor, Century 21’s Shelly Porter, were about to make on-camera visits to his final candidates, Brant knew exactly what he wanted. He had viewed one of the three places online, but the other two were surprises.

“There was definitely pressure to pick a house [because of the show], but at the same time, I had been looking at houses for a while and … I was ready to go,” he said. Brant, a financial analyst for the government, closed on his two-bedroom rowhouse in Eckington in September for $265,000.

Halley, 31, and Carnahan, 26, were filmed while they visited three potential homes, and also as they awaited news about whether an offer on their choice was accepted. “We had no idea” what the outcome would be, Halley said. If the news was bad, “I didn’t really want these sorts of reactions to be immortalized.” Their episode will air in the fall. In the meantime, they’re enjoying the three-bedroom, one-bathroom Del Ray bungalow that they purchased for $590,000.

Even on fix-up series, there’s more to the story than meets the viewer’s eye. Maria Gillem, whose U Street home also received a visit from “Ask This Old House” in November, said the show arranged a consultation for her prior to taping. She needed help weatherproofing for her Victorian house’s drafty doors, so producers sent the Baltimore-based company Conservation Technology (Conservationtechnology.com) over in advance to order her the proper type and size of materials. But that’s all glossed over in the episode (which airs on WETA at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 28 and is available online at Thisoldhouse.com), when Silva appears to magically have the correct product at the ready.

Post-Production

The recipients of repair help can return to life as normal after filming ends. But for new homeowners, the post-production period requires serious readjustment. After Brant’s closing, he rushed to furnish his house before camera crews returned to film his new digs. “All I had to my name was a bed and a dresser,” he said. “I was calling all my relatives, saying, ‘Hey, I need furniture, I need rugs.’ It was kind of chaotic.”

As for the Garcias, most of their windows remained painted shut after the “Ask This Old House” truck rolled away in November (there hadn’t been enough time to tackle more than one that day). But, like the others’ TV time, the Garcias’ somewhat artificial interactions resulted in very real knowledge and confidence. “It’s great because now we know what we need to do in order to fix the windows ourselves,” Heather Garcia said. “That, in and of itself, was a huge, huge help.”

 

 

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