Architect’s Viewpoint: What’s Wrong with HGTV Shows

I don’t make it a habit to watch these home improvement shows, but my wife’s addicted so I occasionally get roped into watching a little. They’re all different but similar, and have a few things in common…completely unrealistic timelines, completely unrealistic budgets, and they glaze over the architectural phase.

Unrealistic Expectations on HGTV

The illusion these HGTV shows perpetuates is that you buy a house, wave a magic wand to come up with a design scheme, start construction immediately, and then get done in record time – for an amount of money that would barely cover a kitchen remodel in the area we live in (Connecticut and New York).

These shows give viewers a false sense of the time it takes to complete a project from start to finish. In reality, once you start to work with an architect you’re typically at least 4-6 months (or longer) away from starting construction, depending on what your project entails. If doing an addition or a remodeling project, it typically takes 3-4 months for the architectural phase…measure and draw the house, develop the design, and then complete the construction drawings. It may take the building department anywhere from 2-4 weeks just to issue a building permit.

If the project is being “competitively bid” among builders, that process alone takes 2 months. Once you pick a builder, you’ll then ask them for a contract which also takes some time. You might then have your lawyer review, which takes time as well.

For a new house, it could take even longer since there’s more time spent in both the design phase and construction drawing phase; it may be 6 months to a year before you start construction. If your project needs approvals from a Zoning Board, a Planning Commission, a Wetlands Commission, or an Architectural Review Board, you can be sure it will take even longer before you start construction.

Realistic Expectations of Building

The point to be made is that there’s an awful lot of work that must take place before construction ever begins, which most homeowners are completely unaware of. This is understandable because most homeowners are simply unfamiliar with the process.

These shows glaze over everything up until when construction starts…the architectural phase, the approval process, and the bidding process, which is very misleading. I’ll occasionally have clients call me (typically in spring) because they’ve been thinking about their project all winter. They’d like to start working with me in April, thinking they’re going to start construction in May. My response is “if you want to start construction in spring, we should have started on this last fall.” They’re taken by surprise when I tell them they’re 4-6 months away from starting construction.

The construction budgets I see on these shows are just not realistic; the amount of work being done relative to the amount of money being spent clearly does not reflect actual construction costs in this part of the country. Material costs don’t vary that much across the country, but labor costs surely do which drives up the cost per square foot. Even taking into account that labor rates may be lower in Mississippi or Alabama than New York and Connecticut, the numbers still don’t work.

It could be that a lot of materials being used on these shows are provided for free or at deep discounts in exchange for publicity, but that’s skewing the numbers heavily. I’ve occasionally had clients say that a project should cost $100/SF, because that’s what it cost on one of these shows. While you could build for $100/SF around here many years ago, that cost is now somewhere between $200-$300/SF and higher.

The Takeaway

I think it’s safe to say the “original” remodeling show was “This Old House,” which is probably the only one that does any justice to the realities of both the architectural process and the construction process. The current shows seem to be more about the TV personalities and the drama created (which is most likely scripted).

While these shows have brought home design and interior design to the masses which is a good thing, I think they would serve a better purpose if they were just more realistic when it comes to the actual time frame and construction costs…while also giving a little more due respect to the architectural phase, which is the most important part of the project. After all, can a great project be realized without a plan?

Next time you’re watching HGTV, enjoy the show and take in the design inspiration, but remember that what you see on TV isn’t always real. To discuss your home addition, remodel, or new home project in Fairfield County CT, Westchester County NY, and surrounding areas – Contact DeMotte Architects today.