Shop Smart: 6 Home-Buying Lessons From 20 Years of HGTV’s ‘House Hunters’

Before there was “Fixer Upper” and “Property Brothers” and “Million Dollar Listing,” there was “House Hunters.”

Arguably considered the OG real estate reality show, “House Hunters” premiered 20 years ago this week on HGTV. You’ve most likely caught on to this successful reality TV formula: Couple (usually) is looking for a home, within a certain budget. Agent awakens them to the cruel reality of what they can get for that budget, and shows them three options. Couple disagrees on their wants/needs, but finally, miraculously, come to an agreement, put in an offer, and get the house. Happy, happy!

It’s not hard to understand why we all seem to get sucked in. With over 1,000 episodes under its belt (and more than a dozen spinoffs) “House Hunters” gives buyers a platform to find their dream place—and offers us viewers a unique opportunity to peruse beautiful houses without leaving our couch or worrying about our budget.

But somewhere between the entertainment value—the couples cringing over an ill-placed carpet or bumping heads about the living room’s crown molding—the series is filled with real-life advice that all kinds of viewers should follow when it’s their turn to house hunt.

Here are some of the biggest home-buying lessons we’ve learned over the past two decades of “House Hunters.”

1. Prioritize your wish list, using 3 criteria

In a perfect world, you’d have it all: The quick commute to work, a spacious backyard where you can build a pool, and enough guest rooms for Mom and Dad to visit—without cramping your style. But in reality? Finding a house that checks all the boxes is easier said than done.

“House Hunters” manages to boil it all down into a smooth 23 minutes. Most of that is TV magic, of course, but there’s also a formula that the show deploys to zero in on what the buyers truly desire: When you’re house hunting, always use three criteria that are nonnegotiable.

“Sometimes, it might be ‘location, finished bathroom, under budget,’ but other times, it could be ‘home with history, room for Grandma, and new appliances,'” says Chris Taylor, managing director of sales with Advantage Real Estate in Boston. “Prioritizing the list ahead of time will help you to realize where you’re willing to make a sacrifice. Not prioritizing your list is where I see the majority of buyers miss out on a great home.”

2. Keep an open mind

That being said, you shouldn’t rule out a property just because it doesn’t meet all your needs.

“Be willing to adjust your list of priorities,” says Heather Lillard, a Realtor® at Compass who appeared on Season 10 of “House Hunters.” “Allow some wiggle room in your thought process.”

Not only will this give you a better understanding of your nonnegotiables, but you might be pleasantly surprised and stumble upon a great find.

3. Be realistic about your budget

Many a meme has been made about the money on "House Hunters."
Many a meme has been made about the money on “House Hunters.”

Ah, we’re all familiar with the good ol’ “House Hunters” trope. You know, the couple who want a three-bedroom brownstone (with a spacious backyard and gourmet kitchen, no less) in the center of town—all for a cool $100K.

It’s become so comically common that the Internet abounds with memes about it—and this might be one of the biggest lessons “House Hunters” has taught us: Don’t be fooled by the not-so-real budgets on reality TV.

“I’ve seen similar shows where the buyers are touring their dream home, only to find out it’s twice their budget,” Taylor says. “Although it seems cruel, it’s important to know what you can get within your budget. And sometimes a wake-up call like this is necessary.”

Instead of touring—and falling in love with—a house that’s out of your budget, research the market beforehand.

But remember: Just because you have a tight budget doesn’t mean you should kiss your dream house goodbye. As Taylor reminds us, there are always those episodes of “House Hunters” where couples purchase a property that’s below their budget and renovate it to near-perfection.

4. Look at more than 3 houses

Unless you’ve hit the real estate jackpot, or you finagle your way on to an episode of the show, you probably won’t be able to wrap up your house hunt after just three viewings. The lesson “House Hunters” has really taught us, Lillard says, is to shop around.

“See as many homes as possible,” Lillard recommends. “Even if the home doesn’t seem to check off all your boxes, go see it! From there, you will start to really hone in on your ‘must-haves’ and ‘deal breakers.'”

If you’re on the fence about a listing, take the leap of faith and view it. Worst-case scenario, you’ll learn more about what you don’t want.

5. Be ready to compromise with your partner

He wants a modern, ranch-style bungalow, but she loves Victorian charm—sound familiar? The most common plotline on “House Hunters” is the couple who have entirely different needs. So how can you find a home that both of you will be happy with? Compromise, compromise, compromise.

“Communicating with your partner and, again, prioritizing your own needs, and then your combined needs is essential,” Taylor says.

Instead of duking it out in front of your real estate agent, leave the TV-worthy drama at home. Discuss your deal breakers before you hit the open house trail, and devise a game plan for compromising.

6. Look beyond the staging

How many times have you seen a “House Hunters” couple complain about the bright orange paint in the living room or the grimy tile backsplash in the kitchen? These couples are falling into the same traps most buyers do, Lillard says: being unable to see past a home feature that can easily be changed.

On Lillard’s episode of “House Hunters,” she showed her clients Adam and Heather a house they thought was “old” and “yucky.” When the couple fell in love with another house a week later, Lillard pointed out it had the same floor plan as the previous property, but had a fresh coat of paint and was furnished with chic decor.

“Buyers need to do their best to walk in with a vision to see beyond those things,” she says. “With a little vision, you might just snag that diamond in the rough.”