The producers of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (aired 2003-2012) knew they had a winner in the very premise of their show. A construction crew, led by the charismatic Ty Pennington, granted gorgeous new homes to people who struggled with financial hardship or were otherwise deserving of such a life-changing experience. It seemed like the perfect feel-good watch – who doesn't fantasize about landing the home of their dreams? Each episode captured the moment of the home reveal, when everyone in the family, their friends and neighbors, cried happy tears. So did the audience. But was it all too good to be true? Is Extreme Makeover: Home Edition fake?
In one sense, the answer is no – they really do build those houses. But behind the scenes of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the situation is not always as joyous and exciting as it appears onscreen. None of the families' financial problems vanished when they entered their freshly constructed palatial estates. The new houses came with pools and gourmet kitchens, but also with very high real estate taxes and astronomical utility bills. Over the years, a number of the "lucky" families have been forced to sell their homes, and some have even gone into foreclosure.
None of those outcomes are what any of the families ever expected. But when presented with such an offer, who would turn it down? Fans might think Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is one of the best reality TV shows ever, but the truth is much darker than you might expect. That's how Extreme Home Makeover is faked: by taking advantage of the dreams of desperate families.
In an episode that aired on Easter in 2005, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition transformed the modest Los Angeles home of Phil and Loki Leomiti into a showy palace. The couple had welcomed in the five orphaned Higgins teens, and the gift of a house seemed like the perfect recipe for the ultimate feel-good piece of television. In addition to the new digs, the family was gifted with a variety of electronic devices, six new cars, and a two-year supply of groceries.
Within weeks of the emotional airing of the episode, however, something went very wrong. The Higgins siblings moved from the house and hired a lawyer. They sued the Leomitis, ABC, and others for damages including fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Specifically, the Higginses claimed that the Leomiti family "orchestrated [a] campaign to degrade and insult" them, particularly with regard to their race. The Leomitis are Samoan; the Higgins family is African-American.
The Leomitis denied the charges, claiming that the Higgins siblings did not follow household rules. ABC was accused of not delivering what the Higginses believed was promised to them: a home and security. After years of legal wrangling, the case was dismissed in 2007.
Jim and Carmen Simpson, along with their three children, were living in a broken-down home in Savannah, GA, in November of 2010. One of their children had special needs and severe breathing difficulties, and the family's living conditions were causing the child to suffer unnecessarily. When they appealed to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, they were thrilled with the result: a beautiful, airy Victorian style home with a therapy room and pool.
Less than two years later, the Simpsons felt they had no choice but to put the house up for sale. Assessed at more than $600,000, even the annual real estate taxes were more than the Simpsons could handle. Adding to the pressure, they'd had another baby since moving in, and Carmen was a stay-at-home, homeschooling mother. The home was far more than the family could afford before they even moved in.
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition always went way over the top with the new and renovated homes given to the program's winning families. But some homes were more extravagant than others, such as the one featured in a 2005 episode focused on Arizona couple Nicole and Bryan Okvath and their eight children. Their new, 5,300 square-foot home sported a carousel, a home theater, and other luxury amenities that drew a lot of power.
The family shortly faced astronomical power bills. In order to keep up, the couple took out a $405,000 loan against the house and struggled for the next several years to maintain the showplace. In 2012, the couple split up, leaving Nicole to raise the eight children on her own. The house was sold far below the market value, and the family got rid of the luxury items in an effort to start a simpler life.
Debbie Oatman, a single mom in Colonie, NY, seemed set up for success after Extreme Makeover: Home Edition remodeled her house in 2007. She and her four boys were gifted a home filled to the roof with fancy amenities, a grand staircase – and the taxes and utility bills to match.
Such additional pressures would try the patience of anyone, but Oatman had some behavior issues that were already wellknown by her children. The new responsibilities and bills only exacerbated her emotional outbursts and anger. According to her now-estranged son Kevin, "I honestly thought things would change after we moved into the house and it would make everything better. She was happy and excited for maybe the first week, and then it was back to the same old garbage."
Oatman has claimed that the local celebrity status the show brought has been damaging, and that the family no longer had privacy. With taxes tripled and a mortgage to pay, she turned to charitable financial managers to help her form a trust. During this time, two of her sons became fed up and moved out. Apparently, a luxurious home does not guarantee happiness.