After the cameras have gone, 'Extreme Makeover' winners face new challenges

January 22, 2011 

The Dickinsons' new plantation-style home on Mystic Circle, right, built as part of ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," towers over the one-story ranch homes that make up the neighborhood.

JONATHAN DYER, THE BEAUFORT GAZE

The tears flowing at the end of nearly every episode of ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," are shed in joy. A family struggling with myriad house problems -- cramped quarters, mold, flooding -- has been provided with a new home and a fresh start on life.

But when the camera lights click off and the bus rolls on to the next town, not every family winds up with a happy ending.

Houses built for the reality TV show can come with extreme tax and utility bills, and some of the families selected for the show have battled foreclosure.

But India Dickinson, whose Beaufort home was rebuilt by "Extreme Makeover" volunteers last week, says her family won't be among them. The Dickinsons' 1,869-square-foot ranch house was torn down and replaced with a two-story, 4,000-square-foot home with six bedrooms and four bathrooms.

Taxes and utilities probably will be higher, but Dickinson says she's not worried.

"God provided this house; God will provide a way for us to take care of it," she said at a press conference Wednesday. "My husband works, and I work, so if I have to work another job to help keep it up, that's what I'll do."

EXTREME EXPENSES

The mayor of Lake City, Ga., says excitement was palpable when "Extreme Makeover" chose a family in his area for a renovation in 2005.

"Everybody was so enthused, they pitched in, and people went out of their way to be nice and be good," said Mayor Willie Oswalt. "It was just great for this whole community."

Oswalt pitched in, spending 12-hour days at the construction site for most of the week.

But he had concerns about the family's ability to keep up financially.

"I didn't figure they'd ever make it," he said. "They were good people, but they just couldn't make ends meet with what they had coming in."

When a beautiful, 5,300-square-foot castle emerged from the lot, he said the community was shocked.

"It was well above our imaginations," Oswalt said.

After camera crews left, the family took out a $450,000 mortgage on the home, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The money was used to start an unsuccessful construction business.

Oswalt said the property has bounced in and out of foreclosure three times.

Producers respond that "Extreme Makeover" homeowners aren't immune to economic downturns and say that once they've handed over the keys, they can't -- and shouldn't -- influence family decisions.

"The show advises each family to consult a financial planner to help them understand and budget for any expenses that they may occur as a result of their new home," the company's statement reads. "Ultimately, financial matters are personal, and we work to respect the privacy of the families."

BLOATED BILLS

Some have also struggled with the cost of heating and cooling their cavernous homes. Victor Marrero sold his 3,000-square-foot makeover house in 2009 and told local media his monthly utility bill ranged from $700 to $1,200.

Diane Korman, senior producer with the show, said the company emphasizes energy efficiency to help lower costs for families.

The efficiency of the Dickinsons' new home was analyzed by a Hilton Head Island company during construction.

"They're in a phenomenal position," said Jamie Kaye, owner of Elm Energy Group. "They did all the right things."

Contractors used spray-foam insulation. High-quality windows were chosen to reduce heat transfer. Kaye said the heating and air-conditioning systems were "right-sized" to prevent excessive power use.

Energy efficiency is graded on a scale. A home that generates all of its own power through solar cells or wind turbines would score a zero. One that exactly meets the specifications of the International Energy Conservation Code would score 100.

An average house, Kaye said, measures in at about 135 on that scale. To be stamped with an Energy Star seal, a house has to score 85. The number of houses certified by the label just passed one million in 2009.

The Dickinsons' new home was rated a 74.

Kaye estimates the monthly electric bill for the home will average about $300. He didn't crunch the numbers for the Dickinsons' previous home, but said old, drafty houses typically chug energy.

"I was just in a house right down the road from there," Kaye said. "Her bill on a monthly basis was $350 for a 1,200-square-foot house."

CREATIVE ACCOUNTING

Endemol USA, the company behind the reality TV series, uses some financial maneuvering to avoid sticking families with a super-sized income-tax bill.

Internal Revenue Service code states if a residence is rented out for less than 15 days per year, that rental income does not need to be reported.

The production company essentially leases the house from the family for a short period, and the family agrees to accept the home improvements as rent. The result is a tax-free transfer of value, which under different circumstances would be treated as income.

Local property taxes, though, are another matter.

Beaufort County records show the Dickinsons' original home was valued at $166,223 and indicate a 2010 property tax receipt of $744.18.

Todd Hawk, owner of H2 Builders, which led the local construction effort, said the home his team created for "Extreme Makeover" would sell for about $850,000 if it were put on the market. Ed Hughes, county assessor, estimated property tax on the new home would ring up to about $2,100 per year.

MOVING FORWARD

Ultimately, Korman said, the show's goal is to build houses the families can keep for generations.

Families are made aware their property taxes will go up and are vetted before being selected, she said.

In addition, local organizers of "Extreme Makeover" projects solicit donations from the community and provide the family with a fund to help them start off on new financial footing. This money can be used to pay off any mortgage on the property, so the family can own the house free and clear.

According to Beaufort County public records, Bill Dickinson holds a $143,408, 30-year mortgage on the property, due in 2039. Though the house it describes no longer exists, Korman said the mortgage will remain.

Donations to the Beaufort County project likely won't cover the Dickinsons' entire mortgage, she said. But the total amount in the fund is not yet known.

"We can build a house in a week, but the accounting takes two or three," she said.

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