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Reality hits home

Remodeling projects look easy on television, but they take a lot of time and money.

September 05, 2004|Marnell Jameson | Special to The Times

During a recent episode of the popular reality TV show "While You Were Out," an industrious crew of five transformed a master bedroom and bath. They tore out carpet, put in wood floors, added white wainscoting, sewed curtains and bedding, built and mounted shutters, beefed up moldings, painted the walls and trim, refinished the armoire and dresser, built a bed and even cooked up homemade spa products, all in two days and for under $1,500.

What's wrong with this picture?

Although home improvement shows such as the Learning Channel's "While You Were Out," "Trading Spaces" and "In a Fix" have been a boon to the remodeling industry, inspiring many homeowners to rethink and renovate, they misrepresent how much time and money such projects really take. Those in the know -- home remodelers and people in the trade -- are quick to offer a reality check.

"I'm impressed with the creativity and like that the shows expose people to good design," said L.A.-based interior designer Gary Gibson, "but reality doesn't come with all the perks that these TV shows do: Real people don't have crews of free labor."

The shows do a disservice when they lead people to believe a kitchen remodel can be done in a weekend, he said. "In reality, a completely remodeled kitchen takes 12 or more weeks, particularly if you're making structural changes, and you can't do it for $1,500."

Catherine Grennan, who produces commercials, just finished remodeling her home. Her experience was a lot more reality than reality TV.

Grennan, 40, paid $1.3 million last year for a 1938 Spanish Revival-style triplex just south of West Hollywood. The property has 4,500 square feet of living space plus four garages.

She planned to move into one unit and rent out the other two. But first she wanted to bring the plumbing and electrical systems up to date and paint inside and out. Grennan also wanted to upgrade the 1,850-square-foot second-story unit where she would live by redoing the kitchen and bath and adding a veranda overlooking the courtyard.

To save money, Grennan did most of her own purchasing and legwork. But she hired Gibson as interior design consultant. He kept her on track and told her what to look for and where. Grennan estimated the whole project would take three months. It took nine. She hoped to spend around $100,000. Her costs have exceeded $150,000.

"People don't realize how many hours of preparation and planning are involved," Grennan said. "Plus, in real life you don't have so many subcontractors focusing on your project at once. To them, you're a small job. Most subcontractors need a lot of small jobs to make a living, and your job is just one on their list. You get in line."

Evan Farmer, 32, host of "While You Were Out," admitted that his crew really does take more than two days to knock out a remodel and that those on the show enjoy advantages real people don't get. What viewers don't see are the three weeks of design time that precede every episode, he said. With the design scheme finished, the crew then meets the day before the shoot to collaborate, prepare and shop.

But the $1,500 budget is real. Sort of.

"We go to Home Depot and pay the same price anyone else would for materials," he said, even though Home Depot sponsors the show.

But other suppliers, particularly fabric and home accessory sources, donate products to the show in exchange for exposure and a mention on national television. "While You Were Out" reaches more than 10 million viewers.

Big-ticket items such as sofas, which would otherwise break the budget, are thrown in as a quiz prize.

Labor fees, often the most expensive part of any home remodeling job, aren't calculated into the budget either. Although shows differ, they usually have one or two designers, one or two master carpenters and often an assistant, plus one or more people devoted to accessorizing, sewing, painting and applying faux finishes.

Grennan estimated that well over half of her costs have gone toward labor. "I paid $200 for paint and $1,000 to the painter," she said.

Labor costs depend on the job, according to Fred Ugast, chief operating officer for HomeTech, a Bethesda, Md.-based company that provides cost data for contractors nationwide. Labor generally accounts for 30% of the cost of a kitchen remodel, 50% of a bedroom remodel and 60% for a bathroom.

Terrence Campbell, a custom cabinetmaker who works in Bellflower, said he's enjoying the bounce he believes the shows have given his business, AC Cabinets, which is up 30% this year over last. But there is a downside. "While a lot more people are calling, most have really low-ball ideas of what cabinets cost," he said.

Although prices vary, custom cabinets for an average L-shaped kitchen can run between $8,000 and $14,000, Campbell said. Oak cabinets cost about $145 a linear foot, and higher-end woods, such as maple, cherry or alder, are about $165 a linear foot for base cabinets without doors. Pre-made cabinets can cost up to 30% less or as much as custom cabinetry.

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