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The flip side of home makeovers

'Flip That House' is all about dreams, but it also jibes with real estate's sleazier underbelly.

August 12, 2005|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

"Flip That House," which began a few weeks ago on the Discovery Home Channel, is sickeningly watchable. Sickening because there's a kind of social Darwinism blithely on display that both clashes with the la-di-da home improvement tone the show adopts and neatly jibes with the desperation, fear and opportunism that has become synonymous with the Southern California real estate market.

Like many a show with a home improvement component, such as Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," "Flip That House," which begins its episodes at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays, is all presto-change-o wish-fulfillment. It's another series that takes homeownership from its basic principle (to have a roof over one's head) and into the realm of competitive fantasy, where installing new hardwood floors can weirdly come to signify the chasm between living a compromised life and realizing one's full potential on this planet we call Earth. Add to this a new wrinkle: You can also realize a six-figure profit in the span of a few months.

Granted, on "Flip That House," (not to be confused with A&E's "Flip This House," whose episodes begin at 10 a.m. Saturday -- more on that later), nice people are shown buying neglected houses in "up-and-coming" L.A. areas, fixing them up and trying to turn them around for quick profit.

Highland Park, already featured in two episodes, is "a natural destination for savvy house-flippers hoping to get a deal, do a quick makeover and turn it around for some fast cash," as a happy voice-over narration said the other week. No sleazy developers here, no fluctuating economy, no middle-class families suddenly priced out of their neighborhoods; week to week, the flippers are do-it-yourself regular folk with an understated entrepreneurial streak, feeling empowered and taking pride in authorship via the flip.

Can it really be that simple when the game trickles down this far? Neil and Sarah, he a carpenter, she a teacher in the L.A. Unified School District, take a Highland Park house purchased for $360,000, put $75,000 more into it, and list it six weeks later for $480,000 (Neil does wonder in the end if he would have been better off just putting the place back on the market right after purchase). Jim and Pamela, a stay-at-home dad and a college professor, writer and filmmaker, lovingly renovate a 1905 Highland Park craftsman. Like Neil, Jim does the lion's share of the work (they are men who know how to move toilets and scrape the cottage cheese off of the kitchen ceiling). The tale of Jim and Pamela's flip: $335,000 purchase, $60,000 in improvements; six months later they're listing it at $620,000, after the real estate agent brought in to assess their work suggests putting it on the market at between $599,000 and $650,000, where they're sure to create a bidding war.

Left unexplored, of course, is whether this amounts to good old-fashioned ingenuity or the gouging of the vulnerable in a crazy market. "Flip That House," from R.J. Cutler ("30 Days," "The American Candidate"), blows past the issue faster than you can say "a flatter paint finish camouflages imperfections." And despite signs that the Southern California market is cooling to the flip, "Flip That House" ignores the so-called bubble issue too; every flip comes with an invisible madding crowd of bidders banging at the door as soon as the renovations are completed.

So never mind what actually became of Kelly's first flip. Just know that she's a musician by night -- probably singing about social injustice -- and a budding flipper by day. Her first flip is in the North Hollywood Arts District ("a vibrant area in Los Angeles fast becoming a destination for hip city dwellers"). Left on the cutting room floor, evidently, is the scene where she goes to buy hardwood floors for her fixer and curses all the SUVs parked in the compact spaces. If flips are a slog, Kelly's takes place in a service-industry dreamland: As soon as she walks in the door of the flooring place, someone comes to help her -- must have been that camera crew she had with her.

As "Flip," would have it, Kelly is practically doing a public service, buying up that three-bedroom, one-bathroom dump for $370,000. OK, the place was a mess (squatters had been living in it for two years without running water or electricity, a bucket for a toilet in the bathroom). Kelly's first move was all SoCal karma -- she cleansed the house of negative energy by burning a sage stick, then spread sea salt on the floors for good luck and prosperity. That good luck and prosperity -- after 57 days, a savvy contractor and $55,000 in improvements -- yielded a renovated house that she put back on the market for $549,000. As the Realtors told Kelly when the flip was complete, she might have gone with some higher-end accouterment. It's the contemporary variation on that line in "The Graduate": I have three words for you. Copper. Bathroom. Fixtures.

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