It really isn’t so odd that Armando Montelongo is a TV star.
I mean, look at him - actor’s face, strong voice, a gift of gab and the camera loves him. But Montelongo is not an actor. He’s not a singer. He’s not a radio announcer. He does have a talent - buying cheap houses and flipping them for a profit.
Real estate developers as TV stars; this is what it’s come to in American culture. The real estate market may be down, but you’d never know it by cruising the cable channels.
Here is a sampling of “reality” shows about buying and selling real estate: “Bought & Sold,” about real estate agents in Essex County, N.J., started last week on HGTV. “The Real Deal,” following the adventures of South Carolina real estate developer Richard Davis, premiered April 21 on TLC. “Flip This House,” now in its third season on A&E, documents the efforts of real estate developers (including Montelongo) in three cities. And “Property Ladder,” in which novice house flippers try to get rich quick, will begin a third season in June or July on TLC.
But there are others: “Flip That House,” “Buy Me,” “Fantasy Open House,” “House Hunters,” “House Hunters International,” “Sell This House,” “My House Is Worth What?” and, perhaps the most skin-crawling of all real estate shows, “Million Dollar Listing,” which followed agents trying to sell homes in Beverly Hills and Malibu.
The show aired only one season on Bravo, but its roster of real estate agents (notice we didn’t use the word “sleazy”) gave the series a hyper-jive quality. It was less a reality show than an alternative reality show.
Why are these shows proliferating? What about the housing bubble? What about the slump? The National Association of Realtors projects a drop in the median price of a home in 2007 for the first time since 1968. Wouldn’t that be a stumbling block to these shows?
“When is the best time to go buy anything?” Montelongo said from his office in San Antonio. “When it’s on sale. The media creates a popular myth. The popular myth is that this bubble market is bad for real estate. But markets adjust. So what happens is when the market goes down ... guys like me move in and start buying properties like crazy. So this is the time I make the most money.”
Bold talk. But then Montelongo has an outsized personality.
The more soft-spoken Roy Scott, a New Jersey real estate broker whose agents are the focus of the new “Bought & Sold,” expressed a like sentiment.
“We’re not in a housing slump at all,” Scott said. “It’s been a bit of a slowdown, but I just looked at 14 bids on a house that went $100,000 over the asking price.”
When Richard Davis gazes upon a TV schedule peppered with real estate shows, he gives himself an appreciative pat on the back. His Charleston, S.C.- based company, Trademark Properties, “starred” on the first season of “Flip This House.” Davis is listed as executive producer in the closing credits of the shows. And he won fans with the eccentric characters on his team.
“I started the genre, and everybody’s been trying to copy me ever since,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, real estate is the American dream. You had little home fix-up shows, but nobody ever showed you the business side of it.”
Davis and the A&E network had a falling out after the first season. Davis claimed they wanted him to script episodes, which he rejected. And there was a disagreement about who actually owned the show - Davis or A&E. Meanwhile, Davis gathered up his marbles and went to TLC.
Most of these shows are presented as more-or-less educational, full of how-tos and don’t-dos. But others offer voyeuristic entertainment for viewers who wouldn’t consider becoming real estate investors in a million years.
From a critic’s perspective, there’s drama to be found in the shows - especially “Property Ladder,” where week after week first-time flippers ignore the advice of flipping expert/host Kirsten Kemp and court disaster. We watch friendships fracture. We see dubious relationships unravel. We have a front-row seat as spouses and relatives turn on one another.
“For the most part we try to cast people who are novice flippers, but this year we decided to go with some people who have some experience,” Kemp said from Santa Barbara, Calif. “But it turned out to be the train wreck as usual.”
Kemp said it’s not easy to shoot these shows. Selling the house almost always takes longer than the flippers expected, and camera crews have to be there every step of the way. A lot of flexibility is needed - especially in dicey neighborhoods.
“I couldn’t come to the set one day because there was a shooting a block away from the house and the suspects were still at large,” Kemp said of an upcoming episode.
Kemp said she inevitably becomes emotionally invested in the hapless flippers and makes herself available to them after filming is complete.
“There was a show we did in Redondo Beach where the partners met on the Internet,” she recalled. “They bought two more properties while we were shooting. They lost their (rear ends). I had the wife calling me for a year. At the end of the day, it is real life.”
Yes, it’s real life. But in some episodes of certain shows, viewers may wonder if they’re watching a scripted event or if a situation has been set up by the producers.
Absolutely not, said almost everybody interviewed for this story.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Davis said. “My show is never scripted and never will be.”
Scott said his show is real. Montelongo said his show is real. Kemp said her show is real.
And if the personalities seem bigger than life and conflicts seem shot-up with soap-opera steroids, well, that’s just the way it is.
“The real estate world is a magnet for these kinds of personalities,” said Michael Morrison, executive producer of “Flip This House.” “So there’s no shortage of bold, in-your-face individuals who are at times likable and at other times not likable.”
Indeed, Entertainment Weekly recently pronounced Armando Montelongo “the guy we love to hate.”
“These are sort of renegade, outlaw personalities,” Morrison said. “I personally think Armando is living his life exactly like he would if we weren’t following him around.”
And how do these people view the competition? What do they think of the other shows?
“Can I plead the Fifth?” Kemp asked.
“Flip This House” alternates between firms in San Antonio, Atlanta and New Haven, Conn., but Montelongo thinks his show is the best. He watches other real estate shows “until I fall asleep.”
Scott, the New Jersey broker, said he had to be talked into letting his firm be part of a TV show because he had such a poor opinion of others he’d seen.
His least favorite was “Million Dollar Listing.”
“It was just an embarrassment to Realtors everywhere,” he said. “I said if it’s anything like that, I didn’t want to be involved. So they gave me a contract that gave me the final edit.”
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