“Flip or Flop” classes are a big fail for many students

NEW YORK - For Doug Stephens, the free event seemed like a good way to learn how to flip homes. An online ad for the December gathering sported pictures of Tarek and Christina El Moussa, the stars of HGTV’s “Flip or Flop” who buy rundown homes, renovate them and try to sell them for a profit. Stephens watched “Flip or Flop” regularly, along with 2.8 million other Americans, so he went.

The El Moussas, however, did not show up. In a prerecorded video, the couple told attendees that they were busy working and filming their show. Undeterred, Stephens paid $1,997 for three days of classes and $1,000 for real estate software. But the classes turned into a sales pitch to buy additional courses that cost thousands more, said Stephens, a pastor and teacher from Havana, Florida.

“They weren’t really teaching at all,” he said.

The El Moussas, like many reality TV stars before them, are capitalizing on their fame by offering pricey classes. At free events in hotel ballrooms, instructors tell attendees that if they pay to enroll in three-day courses, they’ll learn how the couple flips homes and also gain access to investors who will give them cash to buy properties, even if they have low credit scores or a weak job history.

They’ll earn back their money quickly, the instructors say, and will get refunds if they don’t flip a home within a certain amount of time. But about a dozen people interviewed by The Associated Press said those promises did not pan out.

Stephens said his instructor avoided answering questions, told attendees not to speak to each other and spent a lot of time hyping the program. The homework on the first day was for attendees to call their credit card companies and increase their credit limits, he said. On the last day, Stephens said, the instructor pushed them to buy training sessions, some of which cost around $26,000.

The classes featuring the El Moussas are run by Zurixx LLC, an education company based in Utah. Zurixx has partnered with other reality TV stars to create education programs under different names, some of which also have been the subject of complaints from students. The El Moussas’ program, Success Path Education, is Zurixx’s most popular and the couple receives a percentage of the Success Path classes sold, the company said.

The El Moussas are a big draw, with “Flip or Flop” ranked as HGTV’s second-most watched show. Roger Behle, the El Moussas’ attorney, said the couple did not have time to be interviewed for this story.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which aims to protect consumers against unfair or deceptive business practices, has received 50 complaints about classes connected to Zurixx since 2013, according to documents reviewed by the AP. And in May, the Better Business Bureau office of St. Louis warned people about Success Path events in the city, citing the more than 150 complaints it received about classes related to the company.

Zurixx said the complaints represent a tiny percentage of the more than 370,000 people who have attended its events and the 75,000 who have paid for its products. The company said nearly all its students have filled out positive evaluations and it doesn’t mislead people or push attendees to buy additional classes.

Zurixx also said that it asks students to increase their credit limits and open new cards to have access to funds for unexpected business costs

Zurixx provided contact information for 13 people, including Billy Batson of North Port, Florida, who said he has flipped 17 properties since he paid $25,000 for a mentor and one of Zurixx’s classes two years ago. Batson said he probably could have been successful without the training, but that the process would have taken longer. Batson said Zurixx paid for a trip to Las Vegas for him and a girlfriend so he could talk to students.

“It’s been a really great life-changing experience,” he said.

This summer, Zurixx held dozens of free Success Path events across the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico as HGTV aired the fifth season of “Flip or Flop.” More free seminars are scheduled in November, including in New York, Minneapolis and San Jose, California. HGTV spokeswoman Audrey Adlam said in a statement that the network and its parent company, Scripps Networks Interactive (SNI), are not associated with Success Path and other classes.

Other reality TV stars have had trouble with their real estate classes, most notably Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who starred on NBC’s “The Apprentice.” Trump was sued over his Trump University both by students and New York state’s attorney general, who contended the real estate classes were merely a vehicle to sell more training that cost as much as $35,000. Trump has said he will prevail in the lawsuits.

Customers who took some of Zurixx’s other classes had complaints that echoed criticisms of the El Moussas’ offerings.

Susan Martin went to a free Zurixx event featuring reality TV stars Andy and Candis Meredith of “Old Home Love,” a show that aired on HGTV and its sister channel the DIY Network. She ditched day two of her $1,997 three-day class, she said, because she was told to raise her credit limit and buy $23,000 in additional education. Brian Samuels, a manager for the Merediths, said the Merediths didn’t have time to be interviewed because of their shooting schedule.

Martin, a retired bookkeeper from Chico, California, received a refund after she wrote a negative review on the Better Business Bureau website.