I'm often asked if I'm an avid watcher of TV home renovation/ design programs. The short answer is not really. The longer answer takes a lot longer to explain.

Here in Australia we've just finished another series of "The Block", which is the top rating home renovation show here. For overseas readers, the show's premise is that there are 4 nearly identical properties - a small apartment block, or small terrace houses in a row or on the same street. Couples (brothers/ sisters/ married/ unmarried/ friends etc) renovate one room a week which are judged by three judges in which the 'winner' of that weeks room reveal is given extra money to spend on their renovation. At the end of the series the properties are all auctioned, and the winner is the person who receives the best price on the day. The show has been running (with a long break in the middle) for around 11 years.

I haven't watched it much in recent years, despite two properties being located around the corner from my old house in Melbourne. I can remember those properties selling - some 3 years before the shows went to air.

The reason why I don't much like this show, and other shows like it, is that I think it has encouraged a really unpleasant side to Australian design and real estate. Firstly the show should not be viewed as a design show - it's a real estate flipping game show. The contestants are all very concerned about what "The Market" wants (this is constantly invoked by contestants, hosts and judges) so that they can maximise the money they get at the Auction. This is reinforced by the three judges who award points each week (giving the contestants more money to spend on their project). One week in the series last year one couple were told to go back to their Real Estate agent and talk to them about what "The Market" wants as they just weren't getting the design right. I'd also add that the judges are not eminent designers in the field of Architecture or Interior Architecture - there is a Decorator, the Editor of one of Australia's top Interiors magazines, and a TV personality/ Decorator who features on "Selling Houses Australia" (another show where they do up properties that are unsellable to finally achieve a sale). These are all disciplines that deal with the surface, rather than the substance behind it.

And the problem with focussing solely on what is "saleable", and what photographs or films well is that it follows all those trends that won't necessarily have longevity, often at the expense of good design. In these types of programs the Design is purely driven by re-sale, rather than good design, which tailors to an individuals circumstances and needs.

The other major problem I have with The Block (and other shows like it), is that it gives an unrealistic idea of how much it actually costs to renovate a property in Australia. The contestants last year were reminded that the Rules stated they "were to pay a minimum of $47/ hour for their tradespeople, and not to negotiate more than a 50% discount on goods". I have never met tradesmen/ women who will work for that sort of money in a city like Melbourne. Australia has very, very high labour costs for building. Crane drivers were earning $150,000 a year back when I was working on large construction sites in 2001. You'd be hard pressed to find even a newly minted labourer to work for that sort of rate, let alone a specialist tradesperson, such as an Electrician or Plumber. As for a 50% trade discount on goods - I've only managed that when I went to a (public) one- off warehouse sale. Trade discounts are nowhere near as generous on items like appliances, sanitary ware, taps or cabinetry hardware etc. So when these contestants are filmed saying things like "we only have $2000 to do our terrace" you should more than double it if you want what it would actually cost someone at home with normal resources to do it.

Before any of the teams set foot on the property, they have had all the Council development approvals go through, which has involved Architects, Engineers and other specialists consultants (Heritage or town planning) and all the fees that they command - none of this is ever mentioned or disclosed in their total "budget" that they spent on renovating the properties.

The unrealistic time lines displayed are laughable. A "room reveal" of an ensuite bathroom for each contestant had one couple in the last series getting a very large custom mirror installed on the morning of a public holiday with about 8 hours notice. The glazier worked overnight to cut it to size. If only this happens in the real world... Another week I heard the contestants sigh and say, "big week next week, we have to do the kitchen". Stone bench tops are not cut and installed in a week in the real world (the cupboards have to be completely in, a template cut and then it goes off to the stone yard to be cut to size before being brought onto site and installed). Nor can you get custom cabinetry measured up at the start of the week and installed 4 days later. Appliances usually take several days to arrive and be installed if you choose only what is in stock, and you need your appliances already selected and delivered to your cabinet maker for cupboards to be made around them at any rate.

So the main problem with all of this is that, sure, people realise this is entertainment TV, but there is still a large percentage that think they could do this at home too and in a not too dissimilar time frame. And they can't. In the area we used to live in in Melbourne (Albert Park), I would see the entry level single fronted cottages selling for a premium. They were the places that were completely run down. The purchasers were usually a young couple, who would live there for 2 years. In that time they'd do the place up a bit with a facelift (white paint throughout, polish the old floor boards), hire an Architect and get some development plans through the council to do a big gut and renovation (this part alone used to take around 6 months with the local council). They they'd cost it up with a builder once the approvals had gone through, find out it was going to cost them more than it would be worth once finished and sold, and usually they'd then sell it unrenovated…. to the next couple who would do the same thing. I saw several properties pass through 3 buyers in the time we lived there, ultimately never being renovated with the big extension as it cost too much and they'd paid too much to start with to ever be able to recoup their costs.

It is very difficult to make (genuine) money in residential property in Australia unless you have a way of leveraging your skills and experience - you're a Designer/ Tradesperson who can use their own time and skill in the project and/ or you have really good trade contacts so can get product a lot cheaper than a normal customer. A lot of people think they make money in property, but often it is just normal market rise if you take out costs (insurance, interest, stamp duty etc).

So I'm not hugely fond of TV property flipping entertainment shows that masquerade as Design/ renovation shows. They give a completely unrealistic idea of how much things actually cost and how long it takes to deliver completed rooms, they drive design toward what "The Market" wants (things that Agents can write in a short paragraph that sound impressive "Miele Kitchen/ Polished Boards/ Full Home Automation" etc), and they encourage the cult of what looks impressive in a photograph having been styled to death, rather than the practicalities of how we live. They are also shameless in their tie in deals with large retailers who place product in the show, and with the station that runs the program themselves (Australia's Channel 9) who have their own online shop where you can purchase items used for prop styling in the show.

Sigh. It frustrates me no end… but there is the beacon of hope - the highly credible Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs UK who has been doing his trick-free show for around 15 years now. His thoughtful commentary on design/ budget/ construction following real life renovation or new build homes is in a league of its own and much more representational of what renovating a property looks like. Give me that over the silly games added for content filler, the drawn out sagas of the personal lives of the contestants and the "fast fashion" decorating that is packaged up for mass entertainment in the guise of being Good Design.

All images via Channel Nines "Block Shop"
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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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