Extreme Makeover Home Edition is an ABC's ratings juggernaut. Each week, the show takes a family that is far down on their luck, and helps them by making over their home to a tricked out extreme. A home renovation that would normally take months happens in just seven days. Camera crews record the magic as it happens, and great editing makes us feel as though each family is being given a gift from heaven.
It's a heart-wrenching, feel-good-about-yourself-and-what-you-can-do-for-the-community kind of show that has made its star, Ty Pennington, rich and famous.
Anyone can apply. And, who wouldn't want to be the family that is chosen for this big break? Because you don't just wind up with a brand new, tricked-out house, you also get to be on TV.
And in our all-video, all-the-time world, being on a hit reality TV show is a fantastic opportunity.
Unless you can't afford the house you wind up with.
That's the rough lesson Brian Wofford is learning. Extreme Makeover Home Edition selected Wofford's home and made over his home for free five years ago. The show took the 1,212 square foot home and turned it into a 4,337-square foot "mini-mansion," complete with a jacuzzi big enough for 10 people.
A chiropractor, Wofford then mortgaged the Encino, California property to the tune of $770,000 with several cash-out refinancings.
The widowed father of six applied for a loan modification back in 2007, stopped making mortgage payments this year, and was facing a foreclosure sale on December 14th. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, media attention may have played a factor in getting OneWest Bank to offer Wofford a three-month trial loan modification that will hopefully be made permanent.
Wofford is one of a half-dozen families who benefitted from Extreme Makeover Home Edition's generosity but then later found themselves unable to afford higher property tax, utility and maintenance bills.
It is an unhappy ending that isn't that uncommon when it comes to TV winnings. A spokesperson from Extreme Makeover Home Edition says the show offers its families financial counseling to try to help them understand what they're facing.
It happens on other shows as well. Few of the families that win the HGTV Dream Home can afford to make the payments on their fabulous new home and pay the taxes owed. That's because the IRS treats your winnings as income. (For more details on what the IRS considers to be taxable income, see Publication 525.)
So if an HGTV Dream Home is worth $2 million, and you win it, the IRS will simply add the appraised value of the property to your annual income and expect you to pay taxes at the highest marginal rate.
Unless you're a millionaire, you'll have a hard time coming up with around $700,000 for state and local taxes. Some of the new homeowners get a mortgage on the property to pay for the tax bill, but you'll also have higher insurance, utility, property tax, and maintenance bills to contend with each year.
Game show contestants and reality show participants love to win stuff, but all television show struggle with the question of the inevitable tax bill. Whether you win on "The Price Is Right" or "Oprah," the only way to write a happy ending is to understand how much you're really winning, how much it will really cost you, and how big a piece Uncle Sam will ultimately take.
Ilyce R. Glink is the author of several books, including 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask. She blogs about money and real estate at ThinkGlink.com.