Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Extreme Makeover: Reality Edition

Until I read the news article referenced below, I had no idea that the reality teevee show, Extreme Makeover, Home Edition, had just been cancelled. Actually, I hadn't even been aware that it was still on the air five years into the housing crash. To say I wasn't a fan of the show is an understatement. People were drawn to it because the folks whose homes were rebuilt were usually facing some sort of personal or financial hardship. But what the show was really selling was the rather insidious message that having more material things is the key to happiness in life.

Case in point is this story from azcentral.com about the aftermath of one Arizona family's appearance on the show:
On Friday night, ABC aired the final episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," the reality TV show that captivated Valley viewers in 2005, when it transformed a struggling Gilbert family's rented ranch house into a two-story, 5,300-square-foot dream home -- complete with a full-size, electrically powered backyard carousel.

But financial woes spoiled the show's fairy-tale ending, forcing the Okvath family -- Bryan, Nichol and their seven children -- to sell their one-time $1 million mansion for $540,000 in the spring of 2010.
A sad tale of woe, no doubt. So what happened, exactly?
The Gilbert episode began in 2004, when one of the Okvath's daughters, Kassandra, then 8, was undergoing treatment for cancer at the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson.She was a fan of the show and wrote to the producers, asking them to rebuild the center's cancer ward.

The producers, touched by her selfless plea, hatched a bigger plan. In addition to renovating the cancer ward, they would tear down the 1,800-square-foot house (with its leaky roof and problem plumbing) that Kassandra's family was renting and rebuild a dream home.

The project generated enormous interest in the Valley. Nearly 4,000 people stood outside the home on a cold and rainy February day to watch the unveiling. The episode aired on March 13, 2005, with the stunned Okvath family reacting with smiles and tears of joy.

And the home's owner, who had okayed the renovation, had signed the property over to the Okvaths, giving the family full ownership.

It seemed like exactly the type of happy ending the show was famous for, but after the cameras left, reality intruded.

Utility bills skyrocketed, reaching $1,200 during the summer months; property taxes increased from $1,625 in 2005 to more than $4,100 in 2006.

Bryan, who was unemployed when the show was filmed, worked sporadically as a truck driver and fire fighter, but none of the jobs paid particularly well. Strapped, the couple used the house as collateral for a $405,000 loan in 2006, but payments on the adjustable-rate mortgage soon became unmanageable.

They tried to sell the house several times -- for $1.9 million in 2007, then for $1.4 million -- but they got no offers.

They narrowly avoided losing the home at a public auction in 2008, then put the house up for sale again. By 2009, the asking price had dropped to $800,000.

In early 2010, it was reported that the Okvaths had been separated for several months and seemed headed for divorce. Efforts to reach them for comment were unsuccessful.
It just goes to show, yet again, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Yes, it's terrible that little Kassandra Okvath contracted childhood cancer, but quite obviously just handing her family a dream house that they could not afford even if it came with no mortgage was not the answer to their problems. How exactly did anyone connected with this fiasco expect an unemployed truck driver with seven kids to be able to keep up with the expenses of living in a million dollar house?

There is a reason why people like the Okvaths live in shitty houses in the first place: because they either make poor life's decisions, or they are born disadvantaged and don't possess the talent or smarts to rise above their station. I'm not putting them down, just stating the unfortunate fact. What happened in this instance is very reminiscent of lottery winners who end up bankrupt five years later. Some people just cannot handle prosperity. Not to mention the fact that it is also long past time that people stop viewing material possessions as the key to happiness in their lives regardless.

This is a great lessen that ought to be heeded by Spoiled Rotten (Keynesian) economists like Paul Krugman. Just having the government tax the rich and borrow more money from future generations to hand out to people is not going to fix their long term financial predicaments, even if as a nation we could afford it anymore.

It's actually too bad that instead of being cancelled, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition cannot be forced to do a follow up episode on what happened to this unfortunate family as well as any others who appeared on the show who might be in the same predicament. Because I'll just bet the Okvaths aren't the only ones. The aftermath of such fantasy pipe dreams is the real "reality show" that Americans desperately need to see.

Bonus: This short clip from the show is disquieting, and not just because mom falls down


  1. I remember watching that show when it first came on several years ago. At that point it was actually a "makeover" show. They would go into people's shitty houses, repaint things, give them some new appliances, do a kids bedroom up to look like a spaceship or something, throw in some pretty landscaping, and bang - the family had a much nicer looking version of their original house. Maybe they'd knock down a wall or add a room if it was really called for, but by and large the people were still living in the same house. Then at some point they added a whole second floor to some family's 2 BR ranch. From there, it was a short jump to: "fuck it, let's just tear the whole thing down and slap together the biggest, most ostentatious eyesore that we can in 5 days. I didn't watch it much longer after that, for largely the same reasons that you didn't like it. They built one here in St.Louis some years ago, and the biggest thing I remember people saying was that it looked completely out of place with all of the other houses on the street. Oh well, it's just another sign of the times I suppose. One less shitty tv show to not watch.

  2. You can do anything you set your mind to when you have
    Determination, and an
    Endless supply of expendable labor.

    --Larry Kersten

  3. I think you are unfair to the Okvaths.

    First, most people would not be able to handle sudden prosperity on the scale of going from 1800 sq ft to 5300 sq ft.

    Second, even in ideal economic times, no one would be able to sell a house of 5300 sq ft in a neighborhood that holds houses where 1800 sq ft is the norm or close to it. A backyard carousel? In what neighborhood would that be the norm?

    Third, I'm sure that having such an extreme house did nothing to help the Okvaths' relationship with their neighbors. If anything, it probably made them a target for all sorts of misery.

    I think the key here is "extreme." If the show had built them a 2400 sq ft house that fit in with the character of their neighborhood, the Okvaths would have had a much better chance of being able to sustain their windfall. But of course, that wouldn't have made a good story for TV.

    In the end, the show did what the show wanted for the benefit of the show. It was no gift to the recipients.

    As a final note, you said "it is also long past time that people stop viewing material possessions as the key to happiness in their lives." I would only say that for the shows I watched (just a few, I admit), the people that the show chose to help generally did not have **enough** material wealth per family member, many of those families through no fault of their own, for example, due to medical tragedies reducing them to poverty. There are circumstances that trap people into poverty, no matter how smart or skilled or willing to improve they are. Everyone should read Steinbeck's _The Grapes of Wrath_ for a good picture of how that occurs.

  4. "There is a reason why people like the Okvaths live in shitty houses in the first place: because they either make poor life's decisions, or they are born disadvantaged and don't possess the talent or smarts to rise above their station."

    That was a snooty statement from you. There can be many slices of the "why" pie. So if I'm not living in a nice house and doing well I'm either disadvantaged or dumb?

    1. It wasn't snooty, it's true.

  5. @Megadoom - not at all. My wife and I live in a much more modest house than we could have afforded, which allowed us to pay off the mortgage. Obviously, I'm not referring to those who choose to live within or below their means voluntarily.

  6. I was told to avoid reading stuff on the web, newspapers, or talking to anyone out of hand after my family received a makeover in Novemeber of 2008. I followed the advice of the production staff (to a point!) and in the years since have done my best to live, along with my family within our means. After 4+years I thought all the hooplah was done and it might be safe to google my family, the show and see what was up. All I can say is...damn.
    I find it astounding that people can sit back and make judgement calls about people they know nothing about, and make the wildest assumptions about them and their circumstances.
    Unlike the Okvaths my family didn't get a 5,000+square foot home, ours with the garage is just around 2,500 give or take. We have had issues with taxation yet we still manage to honor our obligations, all the while helping our sons get through school and be there for our oldest who now serves his country and has started a family of his own.
    In that time we have prevailed over astounding allegations into our personal character ranging from the banal to the truly perverted, stuff of the likes that were it even remotely true the production staff wouldn't have come near us with a 10' pole. To see another family from the show be subjected to this sort of character assasination is simply heartbreaking. No, it isn't all wine and roses after the show. In our case we have been able to sustain ourselves with some prudent decisionmaking on our part. But for someone to just make a blanket statement about people like the Okvath family says to me that they're the sort who've never been forced to make a decision of mortgage vs. groceries vs. gas vs.utilities, and that isn't an indictment of their intelligence, decision-making or their breeding/upbringing. That is life. Until you've lived someone ele's life and been forced to make the choices their life forced upon them, you have no place making judgements about them.
    W. Mathew Drumm
    EMHE Season 6

    1. Thank you for speaking out against the bullshit.

  7. The Crafts in Hondo, TX - featured on an Extreme Makeover Home Edition - have divorced.

  8. Thanks for this post. I remember watching this show when I was younger thinking "aww man that's awesome I'm so jealous" but now that I know the real life implications of taxes and utility bills, it pains me to see the aftermath of some of these families.