30 Secrets from the Set of HGTV's Fixer Upper

By Thom AlvarezLast Updated Apr 2, 2020 5:26:33 PM ET
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For five years, Chip and Joanna Gaines dominated HGTV with the popular home remodeling series known as Fixer Upper. In that time, they transformed old — sometimes condemned — homes into dream homes for their clients, and viewers got to see every minute of it. Or did they?

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As with many other reality series on HGTV and other networks, what viewers see on television doesn't always exactly match what goes on behind the scenes. These 30 secrets from the set of HGTV’s Fixer Upper might change your opinion about the Gaines family and their hit show. Take a look!

Participants Had Already Picked Their Houses

Every episode of Fixer Upper begins with Chip and Joanna Gaines taking participants on tours of three potential homes to consider before ultimately deciding which house they want to purchase and renovate. This is a key element in the show's structure — but it was actually staged. A season three participant, David Ridley, revealed the truth: Clients had already chosen the houses they wanted to renovate before the cameras started rolling.

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Ridley shared, "You have to be under contract to be on the show. They show you other homes, but you already have one. After they select you, they send your house to Chip and Joanna [Gaines] and their design team." So, some of the reactions to the other two homes were dramatized for entertainment. Of course, Fixer Upper wasn’t the only HGTV show to play that game.

House Hunters Uses the Same Trick

House Hunters is a guilty pleasure show for many HGTV viewers. Once you start watching an episode, it’s impossible to stop. The premise is always the same: Participants look at three potential homes to buy and select one at the end of the episode. If you think some houses are the complete opposite of what the participants are looking for, there’s a reason for that. It’s staged.

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In 2010, Hooked on Houses shared comments from a participant who revealed that participants closed on their houses prior to filming. They visit two other houses — sometimes the houses belong to friends — and their reactions are staged. Does that put a damper on your viewing?

The Homes Are Still Flawless

Although some people are quick to criticize Chip for not performing as much manual labor as the show indicates, blogger Rachel Teodoro interviewed a couple who appeared on the show and asked their opinion. They were quick to defend Chip, saying the couple is extremely busy with their many projects in Waco, Texas, and the finished quality of their home didn’t suffer. The couple commented, "Chip Gaines may not have driven every nail, but you would be hard-pressed to find a single flaw in our home."

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On the other hand, the show showcases Joanna handling the staging of the house herself. That did actually happen. Along with her design team, Joanna carefully worked on each room of the renovated house. However, this positive element loses its luster when it comes to the furniture.

Participants Didn't Get to Keep the Furniture

Who wouldn’t want to keep the furniture selected by Joanna Gaines? Her farmhouse-style décor has inspired homeowners across the nation since Fixer Upper first premiered in 2013. It’s natural to think the tour of the completed renovation shows participants and viewers exactly what the new home looks like, furniture and all.

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Unfortunately, that wasn’t true. The show’s renovation budget covered nothing beyond the work itself. If participants wanted to keep the furniture, they had to purchase the pieces themselves — probably at astronomical prices. If they didn’t, the furniture was removed after filming wrapped. That had to feel like dangling chocolate in front of a child’s face and then yanking it away at the last minute.

Tell Us the Budget

Budgets aren’t usually discussed on Fixer Upper, mainly because the budget was already decided prior to filming. The budget for renovations started at $30,000, and participants had to agree on the final budget before agreeing to appear on the series. When the show first aired, viewers were led to believe HGTV covered the costs associated with the show’s renovations.

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The Waco Tribune-Herald debunked that myth, explaining that the network "doesn’t fund the renovations, though producers may throw in some extra landscaping or design flourishes." So, the budget for each show was agreed upon by the participants, producers and the Gaines duo — although probably not face to face.

Participants Hardly Ever Saw Chip and Joanna

Fixer Upper portrays participants working one-on-one with Chip and Joanna during the renovation process. On each show, they discuss project plans and make decisions as a team. However, that isn’t an accurate representation of what actually happened during filming. Participants hardly ever saw the power couple. Rachel Whyte stated that she and her husband, Luke, only met with Chip and Joanna a few times during the renovations. Otherwise, they communicated via text messages or phone calls.

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Participants also only worked with design assistants on a limited basis. Whyte said, "Overall, we were pretty hands-off and fully trusted them." Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to trust them, considering the way the finished projects look on television.

They Didn’t Renovate Every Room

This might come as a shock to some viewers, but Chip and Joanna Gaines didn’t renovate entire homes on Fixer Upper. The show might walk participants and viewers through the entire house, but the rooms you see in the work segments of the episode are the only rooms the couple actually renovated.

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Renovated rooms often consisted of the main living space, the kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom, a kids’ playroom and the exterior of the house. If the participants wanted to renovate the rest of the house, they had to arrange those plans themselves. This might seem disappointing, but some participants continued to work with Chip and Joanna after the show was over.

Renovating the Entire House on Special Occasions

Sometimes, Chip and Joanna renovated an entire home for a couple, but only if they had the budget. In an interview, Joanna explained that a couple’s budget determined whether she and Chip helped finish renovations for the entire home, rather than just the priority rooms highlighted on television. If the budget allowed for additional projects, then the couple continued to work on the home.

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Joanna explained, "We finish the spaces for them after the reveal, and this is separate from the budget shown for TV." If every room in your house could be beautifully renovated by Chip and Joanna, wouldn’t you want to continue the project?

A Lengthy, Expensive Lawsuit

The $1 million lawsuit alleged that Chip bought out his former business partners for $2,500 per share, only to reveal the HGTV television deal two days later. His partners purportedly felt they should have been informed of the TV deal prior to closing on the sale.

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In addition, the lawsuit also claimed that Chip started seeking TV deals in 2012, without informing anyone about his plans. Chip’s lawyer defended his client, saying neither Lewis nor the other partners contacted Chip before filing the lawsuit. "The fact is that for over three years Chip heard nothing from Mr. Lewis or Mr. Clark [another partner] about these issues," stated Chip’s lawyer. Whose side of the story do you believe?

They Were “Horrible”

When Joanna first shared the news with Chip that HGTV wanted them to appear on a television show, he thought it was a hoax. Obviously, it was a real offer from producers, and just a few months later, Chip and Joanna started filming in front of a production crew. Their first experience on camera was far from perfect.

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"Chip and I were horrible," Joanna later shared. They froze on camera and weren’t their typical humorous selves. Crew members were about to leave when the couple’s leaky houseboat [their project] arrived on set. Joanna was horrified by what she saw, and Chip was disappointed. However, their genuine reactions showed as authentic on camera — and the rest is history.

Causing More Damage

Cenate and Wendy Pruitt were happy to have their Atlanta, Georgia, home featured on HGTV’s Curb Appeal: The Block. They received a $20,000 makeover, but the upgrades weren’t exactly pleasant. In an interview with The AV Club, the couple claimed that some of the renovations to their home were detrimental. Designers added a retaining wall in the basement that trapped water inside, and the homeowners had to buy a pool pump to prevent excessive flooding.

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In addition, the show planted exotic plants and grass in front of the house to create more pleasant curb appeal. However, the plants failed to thrive in the Georgia weather. The couple eventually had to hire landscape experts to fix their front lawn, costing them up to $1,500 a year. Appearing on the show created more hardships for them than they ever expected.

Some Homes Aren't Even Fully Staged

On several HGTV shows, designers stage homes before putting them on the market or presenting them to clients. The homes always look gorgeous on screen, but they don’t always look the way you see them. Instead, much of the staging is completed through virtual editing after the filming process.

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Producers sometimes utilize computerized models to make remodeled homes look more presentable and complete than they are in reality. They may add additional sofas or tables and paint in grass. So, the next time you watch an HGTV show and feel envious of the home designs, remember that Photoshop may have played a significant part in the remodeling.

One Couple Was Angry

Although it always seemed like every participant was happy with the Gaines, one couple was furious with them. Ken and Kelly Downs, a couple who appeared during the show’s third season, were sleeping in their renovated home when a car drove into their house. Although they weren’t harmed by the accident, the couple was furious and insisted they were misled by the Gaines and their real estate firm about the safety of the neighborhood.

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Kelly said, "It’s like the Wild West here. There’s been a lot of commotion coming from the bars and the store across the street. It’s been a problem from the beginning. We’ve lived here a year-and-a-half, and we feel deceived by the city of Waco and Magnolia Realty." The couple added that they have been harassed by neighbors.

Chip Only Worked When the Cameras Were Rolling

Why would HGTV stage its shows? Because television shows must always entertain viewers, and producers call the shots and make the rules with a goal of increasing ratings. Nonetheless, viewers want to believe what they see on the show is what actually happens. Unfortunately, Chip Gaines didn’t work as much as it seems on the show. Chip only engaged in real physical labor when the cameras were rolling.

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Off camera, Chip reportedly performed little-to-no manual labor at the house. One couple, who lived next door during their home renovation, reported that they never once saw Chip working on the exterior of their home. However, according to other clients, he shouldn’t be criticized.

Chip Gaines Was Sued

Long before HGTV approached Chip and Joanna to film Fixer Upper, the couple co-owned Magnolia Real Estate Company in Waco. After securing their television deal, Chip bought out his partners and assumed sole ownership of the company. A few years later, his former Magnolia partners filed a lawsuit, accusing Chip of keeping them in the dark about the original TV deal.

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"There was a sense of betrayal and frustration," said former partner John Lewis. "Once I had sold him my interest in the company, and his show began to flourish, I never heard from him again." And that’s not all.

People Rent Out the Homes

Because of the show’s popularity, the renovated homes often became valuable homes in their markets, prompting several homeowners to rent out their homes to eager fans. After production wrapped and their episodes aired, these participants recognized the increased value of their renovated homes and decided to take advantage of the opportunity to make a profit.

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One couple, Jill and Joshua Barrett, turned their Fixer Upper home into an expensive $360-per-night vacation rental. They make money off the renovation, capitalizing on fans’ overwhelming desire to stay in a house Chip and Joanna Gaines remodeled. But are the Gaines happy with this business plan?

How They Got on TV

Long before HGTV entered their lives, Chip and Joanna bought, remodeled, lived in and flipped more than a half-dozen homes through Magnolia Real Estate Company. Joanna posted photos of the home projects on her personal blog, gaining internet attention. A producer at HGTV saw Joanna’s design work and knew she was special.

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Hopefully, that producer got a raise because it would be hard to pick a better interior designer to showcase on television. However, Chip and Joanna’s first day on the job wasn’t picture perfect. In fact, they were both confident they were going to be fired.

The Gaines Are Entrepreneurs Too

When Joanna first learned the Barretts were charging $360 per night to stay in one of her renovated homes, she was surprised — but not by the business plan. In fact, she thinks the Barretts could charge more money.

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As Jill Barrett explained, "They do not have a problem with it at all. They’re very entrepreneurial, and they also understand real estate. That is their business. They understand houses are bought and sold all the time." So, this tactic isn’t upsetting to Chuck and Joanna, which is a relief. However, there is one aspect of their job that always made the couple wary.

Waco Loves Them — but Who Wouldn't?

Before Fixer Upper, Waco, Texas, was known as the home of Baylor University — and, of course, those two unfortunate things: cult leader David Koresh and a 2015 biker shootout that killed nine people. City officials never want their communities to be known for bad things, so they couldn’t have been happier when Chip and Joanna popularized the city of Waco with positive publicity.

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According to the Dallas Morning News, more people now associate the city with Fixer Upper than with David Koresh, and that is certainly cause for celebration. Waco loves Chip and Joanna, and who could blame them?

Other Secrets on HGTV Shows

It seems every show produced on HGTV has its behind-the-scenes secrets. Often, the shows are dramatized and don’t operate the way you see in the episodes. For example, Deena Murphy and Tim Sullivan had their home remodeled in 2016 on the popular show Love It or List It. They later complained that after production wrapped, their home had "damaged and stained floorboards, open holes ... and low-grade carpeting over chipped concrete."

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The couple sued the production company, claiming the damage diminished the value of the $140,000 they invested in the renovations on the show, according to The Charlotte Observer. The case was dismissed in April 2017.

Being on the Show for the Right Reason

Chip and Joanna always wanted to make sure participants signed up for the show for the right reasons. They took extra precautions to ensure clients wanted the renovated homes for themselves, not just as new sources of income. According to Jill Barrett, "What they don’t want, I think deep down, is for people just to do a home on Fixer Upper with the intent of just VRBO-ing it to try and make a buck."

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"They really do put their heart and soul into the home for that family, or that couple, or that person," Barrett says. The last thing they want is to care deeply about a home and the participants, only to watch those participants immediately sell the house with an expensive price tag because of the show.

“House Hunters” Didn't Pay Enough

You already learned that House Hunters stages entire episodes, starting with participants already buying houses before filming. Of course, participants still have to film their episodes, and it requires more work than you might think. Kim Christenson devoted more than 30 hours to the show in 2015.

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She was required to tour two additional houses, stage her reactions and re-film various shots. So, naturally, Christenson was dismayed that she was only paid $500 for the episode, despite the show’s $45,000 to $50,000 budget. She should have been paid more for her hard work — although she is the one who agreed to the amount.

They Can Keep the Giant “Before” Posters

One of the most memorable parts of Fixer Upper is the big reveal at the end of each episode. Chip and Joanna stand next to gigantic posters featuring the house before the renovation. The couple asks the participants, "Are you ready to see your fixer upper?" After a dramatic pause, Chip and Joanna pull back the poster and reveal the gorgeous home.

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Participants had the option to keep the gigantic poster of their old home after production wrapped. Chip said in an interview that they had given posters to a few clients, but one client noted that she didn’t keep it due to its size. She said, "I’m not sure what you’d do with it because it’s taller than a room!"

The Stars Don't Do All the Work

Chip Gaines didn’t perform all the hard labor on Fixer Upper, but he’s not the only one who had some help. HGTV shows have stars — like Drew and Jonathan Scott from Property Brothers — whose personalities contribute to the show’s success. The shows make it seem like the projects require a week or so of construction and voila! The work is all done.

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In reality, the construction process requires more time and help, and producers hire construction crews to perform the majority of the work. The show’s stars come in, demo a few cupboards or paint a bedroom before handing off the rest of the work to the real professionals.

Reactions Are Still Genuine

Although the house-hunting process was completely staged, most of the show featured real situations. The reactions from participants during the reveal were genuine — for the most part. Sometimes, producers and directors asked everyone to recreate a moment to capture a better shot, but for the most part, what you see during each reveal was an authentic moment.

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Participant Whyte explained, "What happens really is real. The producers might have you repeat things a few times, and they might film things multiple times from different angles, but the reactions and conversations are real. The hard thing is remembering what you said before when asked to repeat it."

Some Storylines Are Fictional

If you ever thought someone was being too unreasonable with their demands on House Hunters, that’s because the participant was required to exaggerate their requests. After all, no one wanted the storylines to be boring. According to Bobi Jensen, her family’s reason for buying a new home on House Hunters was too boring: She just wanted a house that was a little larger than her current home.

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That wasn’t interesting enough for television, so producers encouraged her to strongly emphasize the smallness of her house and include more demands. Jensen later commented, "When I re-watch the episode, I cringe." So, the next time you watch House Hunters, you might want to be a little more understanding about the outrageous demands.

Open Houses Are Fake

On Designed to Sell, homeowners remodeled their homes to successfully sell them. Each episode ended with an open house that looked totally real — but it wasn’t. According to an anonymous participant, show producers used the participant’s closest friends and family members to fill up the house. The contacts were told what to say about the renovated home.

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One participant said her own mother attended the open house and expressed interest in the home. When you watch a show with an open house on HGTV, just remember that it may be scripted and staged with friends and family.

Drew Scott Isn't the Only Realtor

When people apply to appear on HGTV’s popular show Property Brothers, they probably think they will work exclusively with realtor Drew Scott. That isn’t true. In fact, to even be considered for the show, applicants must have already found their "dream home." On screen, Drew presents houses to participants, but, off screen, another realtor completes the deal and assists with the home purchase before filming begins.

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In addition, Jonathan Scott doesn’t perform all the manual labor on the show. He purportedly only wears his tool belt and plaid shirt when he’s required to do so. A hired construction crew completes the majority of the renovation process.

The Runaround on Flip or Flop

Another successful HGTV show, Flip or Flop, dramatizes the action to make the show more interesting. Former husband and wife team Tarek and Christina El Moussa always made it seem like they made their real estate purchases on-the-fly, running around Los Angeles with very little time to consider their options. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

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In reality, the hosts had plenty of time to make decisions for their house flipping series. Christina revealed, "We spend a lot of time driving around, looking for houses that might be good investments." A lot of the discussion and trials at the beginning of every episode are scripted by producers for dramatic effect.

It’s Not Good to Be Single

Perhaps one of the most annoying secrets is that HGTV supposedly doesn’t like to air episodes with single individuals. Many episodes of House Hunters, Property Brothers and Fixer Upper focus on a couple. Although a few participants have been single, they have always needed a friend or family member to accompany them on the episode to make the show more entertaining.

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Photo Courtesy: @MrDrewScott/Twitter

It’s more interesting for participants to ask others for advice before making a decision on which home to purchase. So, if you want to appear on HGTV, make sure you at least have some good friends if you don’t have a significant other. And choose them wisely — they share the spotlight with you!