City Journal: This Old Markup

By Francis Storrs | Boston Magazine |

WGBH’s venerable This Old House has been fixing up Bay State homes for years—and lately it’s been adding a gloss to the area’s housing market, too.


When the cameras show up and the flannel-favoring boys from This Old House start in with their folksy brand of home repair wisdom, those smiley owners in the background usually have a pretty good idea of what they’ll get out of the deal—namely, a renovation with Norm Abram’s fastidious attention to detail and Tommy Silva’s top-notch craftsmanship. And, yes, they’ll get their mugs on PBS a few times, too.

What they may not realize, though, is what the This Old House factor can do for their home’s value. The wildly popular WGBH-produced program—currently working on a house in East Boston—has been fixing up places around the Hub for nearly 30 years. And if anything’s clear from the sales of some recent projects, it’s that the most bankable stars are the homes themselves.

Take the two-family in Charlestown the show renovated for Dan and Heather Beliveau in 2000. The couple had to pony up $300,000 for the work (hey, this is public television, not Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), but as soon as the paint was dry, one unit sold for a cool $535,000. When the Beliveaus decided to sell the second unit in 2004, they wisely laid out their This Old House magazine story and the 17 video-cassettes chronicling the project. After two days on the market, that unit got a $949,000 offer. All told, the sales netted the Beliveaus nearly three quarters of a million dollars.

“There’s definitely a premium,” says local broker Terry Maitland. He should know: He sold a $1.8 million property the show overhauled in Winchester, and lives in a house that it worked on in Acton. Mait-land says homeowners looking to peddle a freshly renovated This Old House project can expect to make 30 to 40 percent above what they invest in the improvements. This is due in part to the vaunted workmanship, but also to the supplies that manufacturers donate in return for publicity. Though homeowners pay taxes on the freebies, it still helps stretch those renovation dollars.

Laura Baliestiero, who sold another project house, says buyers respond to something more elemental than a lick of varnish and a well-built deck. “This Old House is a designer label,” she says. In 1998, a Microsoft software engineer apparently fell under that spell after seeing a Milton project on the cover of a magazine. After a fierce bidding war, he paid $1.55 million for it—about 50 percent more than it had cost to buy and renovate.

The unfortunate corollary to the markup is that subsequent sales, the ones taking place long after the show has moved on to other projects, rarely reach those early dizzying heights—the software engineer lost $450,000 when he sold his spread. And the Charlestown unit that went for $949,000? It was recently posted on Craigslist for $869,000. In East Boston, the owners of the current project have gushed on-air about staying put. That’s all well and good—but if they’ve got any interest in selling, they might want to get moving.