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Chip and Joanna Gaines Use HGTV to Lie to Middle-Class Homebuyers

Turning a tear-down into a dream home has become a mainstream fantasy. It remains a terrible idea.

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Saying Chip and Joanna Gaines are out of touch with American parents is demonstrably false. These people have an insanely popular show, a thriving business, their own line of home goods at Target, and a persistent front cover perch on the country’s half-empty magazine racks. The Gaineses have tapped into something American consumers want. But, putting their tacky design aesthetic and grating personalities aside for a second, their HGTV show Fixer Upper remains confounding because it puts a family-friendly spin on DIY/house-flipping culture. And this makes no sense. 

When my wife and I were first house hunting in earnest last fall, we actually watched a fair amount of Fixer Upper to kind of cheer ourselves up. At the time, I had a lot of patience for the Gaines schtick. I figured that though Chip and Joanna were likely full of shit — being on television is often a symptom of this condition — they were at least helping people see potential in homes that otherwise might be overlooked. Now, months later, I’m a new homeowner with a bone to pick. And that’s because I now understand the ways in which Fixer Upper is pure propaganda. Chip and Joanna make participating in construction projects that might make sense for childless rich people with very flexible types of home loans look feasible for average parents. This is some serious bullshit. The average family, like mine, doesn’t qualify for the types of loans the Fixer Upper clients have. When there’s too much work involved, you’re at risk of being disqualified for an FHA, government-backed loan. Or, in my experience, even when you’re pre-approved for an FHA loan, putting offers on fixer-upper houses is a waste of time. And that’s because buyers with conventional loans will beat you in a bidding war. In other words, people with more capital and better credit can afford fixer-uppers in ways poorer folks can’t. 

When my wife and I looked at possible houses, we saw more than a few that qualified as fixer-uppers. Two things always came up when we saw these properties:

  1. Would the necessary work disqualify us from the very common FHA loan?
  2. Where the hell were we going to put our then-15-month-old daughter while all these renovations were happening?

For the most part, I have never seen any of the people on Fixer Upper have to answer these questions. And the reason why is simple. None of these people have FHA loans. If they did, I really doubt all this extreme makeover crap would even be possible. Yes, you can obviously get home renovations rolled into all kinds of housing loans — including FHA — but the extreme versions of those renovations on Fixer Upper don’t check with my experience. 

My wife and I got an FHA loan that was backed by Maine State Housing. This meant we had to jump through a lot of hoops to get a relatively low (and fixed!) interest rate. And most of those hoops steered us toward houses that were closer to move-in ready. Sure, we could have gone after a lot of fixer-upper homes, and sometimes we tried. But, the deal always fell through. 

Specifically, we lost out on a pretty nice house — one that would have needed an overhaul of its septic system — to another buyer with a different loan setup. And that was probably the right call for the seller (and the seller’s neighbors). But it was tough on us. And it made us look askance at Chip and Joanna’s cheerful faith in market forces. After all, losing a house to another buyer because of something like a septic system is nothing compared to the kinds of insane renovations that happen on Fixer Upper. We lost a house over a relatively simple renovation, and that’s because we’re working in the limits of what is realistically possible for people in our income bracket.

So, to reiterate, if you’re anything like me and my wife (read: not super rich) the chance that you would qualify for one of the “diamond in the rough” houses on Fixer Upper is low. And you wouldn’t want to anyway. These sorts of overhauls often cost more at the end of the day than just buying an upper and not fixing shit.

But, let’s just pretend that we’re not going to take Fixer Upper literally. Let’s pretend it’s an allegory, a science fiction show that is meant to teach us to embrace certain ideologies and philosophies. Even in an idealized world, could buying a fixer-upper for your young family be a good idea?

No. Here’s why: If you have a child that is between the ages of zero and 4 — a kid that is not yet going to school five days a week — then the reality is that you or your partner are with your child a lot, even if they’re in daycare. You don’t want a fixer-upper if you’ve got a small kid, because, let’s face it, you don’t have the time. And time is money. (Money is also money, but we’ve covered that.)

If your kid is in daycare, you’re probably using that time to go to a job and make ends meet. If your kid isn’t in daycare, it’s probably because you can’t really afford it, and that means at least one parent is home with the kid all the time. Either scenario is terrible for a fixer-upper. I have a 21-month-old, and just getting the floor vacuumed and taking a shower (in my new home!) every single day sometimes feels impossible. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I was also having a porch demolished while some dudes with trendy gym memberships re-covered my ceiling with reclaimed bark wood.

For most people, buying a house is stressful enough, without having to imagine what the house will “really” look like after it’s been “fixed up.” It’s not popular to say this, but talking about a house’s potential can be a slippery slope to buying a money pit. Luckily, buyers on episodes of Fixer Upper can afford money pits. The Gaines family certainly can. You likely can’t. And that’s totally fine. Like ramshackle homes, some poorly constructed fantasies simply aren’t worth buying.