A Home Improvement Show That Feels Realistic About Money

“Grand Designs” is amazing.

Look at this beautiful home.

In many of the home improvement shows on HGTV, money — specifically the lack thereof — is the underlying theme. Will the subway tile in the backsplash break the budget or will it be the pergola? Homeowners furrow their brows and run their hands over smooth expanses of marble, considering how it would look in their chef’s kitchen while a calculator clacks away in the background. Renovations cost money. So does buying a home. The stress of Fixer Upper isn’t about whether or not the home will be finished on time but how much it will cost to get there.

This is how these shows function and understanding that from the get go is part of their allure. We love it. We eat it up. We feel the pinch when the demo reveals knob and tube wiring that needs to be replaced for $5,000 more than they bargained for. If the project requires more money, that money materializes out of nowhere. A hushed conversation about joists turns into $15,000 tacked onto the budget. The contingency is stretched beyond its means. Somehow, after a commercial break, the money is there. Where did it come from? No one will say.

Grand Designs is a British home improvement show that I was previously unaware of, that talks about both the money and the time invested into a home design project in a way that feels refreshing and real. The show features people who want to build their own homes from scratch, usually for a budget that seems insanely low. Kevin McCloud, the host, is an affable man unafraid to strap on a pair of Wellies and dive into the muck. The people featured on the show are building their own homes, not buying properties to renovate and the results are often very much the same: a modernist box of a house with huge windows and poured concrete is plopped down in verdant English countryside. Sometimes the houses are finished. But sometimes, they’re not.

As the show progresses, there is failure and real concern. Not everybody gets what they want.

In an episode I watched over the weekend, a couple spent over two years building a house on the banks of the Thames with a floating basement that would be able to weather the rising tides of the river. From the start, their project was beset with trouble. Contractors agreed to do work, then removed themselves from the project. Rain stopped construction for months. A chain ferry, meant to transport lumber and supplies from one side of the river to the other, buckled under the weight of construction equipment and capsized.

£1.2 million later and the house is revealed unfinished and uninhabitable, staged with hastily-laid sod and landscaping and a few designer flourishes inside to suggest what it might look like once they get enough scratch to put it together.

On Grand Designs, there are spreadsheets. There are very British admissions of how the stress of managing the finances for their very beautiful new home impacted their marriage. Watch enough episodes of House Hunters and you start to place bets on how long the couple will last in their new home. On this show, you’re somehow amazed that the couple is still together at the end of the process, but maybe they are because they were so open about money throughout.

Part of the reason HGTV’s programming appeals is because of its steady, plodding rhythm. There is no room for disappointment: if you don’t get your perfectly remodeled home at the end of your 45 minutes, then what was the point of the show?

Unlike the completist fantasia that is an episode of Property Brothers, homes on Grand Designs aren’t always completed. The fits and starts are all a part of the process. Construction stops because the money runs out. A mortgage is procured. Construction begins again. Time elapses not in jocular fifteen minute segments but over the span of years. How refreshing to see a sliver of real life in “reality TV.”

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.