Three years ago, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, demolished Bill and Carol Py’s modest home in Northeast Philadelphia, and rebuilt them a “McMansion.” The Py’s are raising their three orphaned grandchildren and, after losing their 28-year-old daughter to cancer, worried that lead paint and asbestos in the home could expose their grandchildren to neurological problems or cancer. After only three years, Bill Py retired, put the house up for sale, and moved the family to Florida. The house, valued by Harleysville Insurance at $800,000, is up for sale for $565,000, in a neighborhood where most houses go for between $200,000 and $300,000. And that was before the real estate bust.
According to an article by Diane Prokop in the Northeast Times,” Guillermo Salas, the couple’s son-in-law and a Realtor, said the home allowed Bill Py, a postal service worker at the time and naval Vietnam veteran, to retire. “The home makeover allowed them the opportunity, not otherwise available to them, to retire the way they want,” Salas explained. “They decided to move from here and go to Florida for health issues – his knees, her wrist . . . .”
Not to say that this family hasn’t had its share of tragedy. But it seems disingenuous for people to take these houses and use them as retirement plans. I am not saying that the Pys didn’t have a right to do what they wanted with the house, but to only live in it for three years begs the question that perhaps this was the plan all along.
This is not the only Extreme Makeover house that has been sold. Many people find that their property taxes sky rocket, as well as their utility and maintenance bills, and they just can’t afford them. While it’s an admirable endeavor to help families enduring personal tragedies, winning an Extreme Makeover can turn out to be a scourge for some people, much like winning the lottery has destroyed people’s lives.
Victor Marrero and his five sons were living in a roach-infested row home in Camden, New Jersey. After being interviewed by Diane Sawyer for 20/20, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition built them a brand-new five-bedroom home in Pennsauken, New Jersey, on land donated by Urban Promise, an East Camden Youth Program. Marrero found, however, that his $939 monthly pension and supplemental income from his older sons, was not enough to cover the $1,000 a month utility bills, and $1,500 a month property taxes. Initial donations from the community of $59,000 were used to pay off old debts. The market value of the house is $449,000, much higher than the surrounding homes. Marrero has sold the home back to Urban Promise for $275,000, and Urban Promise plans to use the home to house volunteer interns.
Milton and Patricia Harper’s two-year-old son choked to death before paramedics reached their project in Brooklyn. The couple scrimped and saved, and moved to Atlanta, buying what they thought was their dream house, but which turned out to have a major sewage problem. They found themselves living in their minivan, their possessions ruined. In 2005, the Harper family’s decrepit home in Atlanta was demolished and replaced with a four-bedroom mini-mansion, which they used as collateral on a $450,000 loan to start a construction business. Not a good time to make such a move, they learned. After two foreclosure reprieves, Milton Harper filed for bankruptcy this year.
Florida recovering drug addict Sadie Holmes received an Extreme Makeover in 2006. She runs a charity organization providing food, clothing and furniture to the needy from the home, and was soon slapped with code violations totaling almost $30,000. Holmes, the mother of five children, says property taxes soared to $6,600. Foreclosure was avoided when a pro bono lawyer came to her rescue.
Police Officer Brian Hassall of Kentucky, was shot on duty and suffers severe migraines as a result. His wife Michelle, a teacher, has cancer and a rare blood disorder. One of their two adopted children has special needs. In 2006, Extreme Makeover built them a new house. However, increased property taxes, mortgage payments, upkeep and utilities, and medical expenses make it impossible for them to remain and they have put the home on the market.
When Idaho’s Eric Herbert’s sister died, orphaning her young twins, Eric took them to raise. In 2005, Extreme Makeover demolished his one-floor, partially underground house and replaced it with a multiple level three-bedroom home. Three years later, he said the house was “a little too much for the three of us” and put it up for sale because he can’t afford the upkeep, and his bills tripled. Hebert then took out a loan against the house and the bank foreclosed when Hebert became unable to make payments.
These are only a few of the nightmare stories.
What is wrong with the producers of this show? Would it not be more prudent to go into a home and fix the existing problems (like, maybe, coming in and finishing my pit of a basement?), rather than building a whole new home, way too big for the neighborhood and the often disabled residents? They could help a lot more people this way.
These homes potentially not only raise the property taxes of the owners, but of their neighbors as well. And who wants to live in an $800,000 house in a $250,000 neighborhood? If they must build an entire new house, why not build a house adequate for the size of the family, and a home that fits into the neighborhood, instead of these monstrosities that dwarf their neighbors. All of these houses are huge! No one I know would be able to afford the upkeep.
ABC claims that it advises each family to consult a financial planner, and mine would laugh in my face and tell me there’s no way I could afford to keep one of these houses. Even though these families often get large donations at the time their home is built, no one is going to continue to pay their property taxes forever.
I think it’s time Extreme Makeover examines their priorities, and focuses more on what the family needs and can afford, and less on creating a feel-good moment that draws ratings. Tomorrow, and reality, always arrives.