Crash Course


The housing bust has made people look at their homes in a new light. The locally produced, nationally aired Crashers TV series taps into that shift.

Meghan Phillips’ bathroom orbited around what she calls a “toxic spaceship” of a shower in the Carmichael home she bought with her husband, Chris, in 2009. The 1970s-style bathroom, with its bright-blue vinyl flooring, blue vanity and mirrored walk-in closets, almost sank the deal. “It looked like a Smurf bathroom,” says Phillips. “It was just ridiculous.”

More pressing home improvement needs, such as a carpeted kitchen and a jungle of a yard, put renovating the bathroom on the back burner.

Then Phillips, 31, went to the Citrus Heights Lowe’s to pick up some odds and ends and walked out with a solution to her dated bathroom: a $30,000 remake, courtesy of the TV show “Bath Crashers.”

The show, which airs on the DIY Net-work and HGTV, is the brainchild of The Idea Factory, a Sacramento-based tele-vision production company. The series and its predecessors,“Yard Crashers” and “House Crashers,” all follow a simple formula: A shopper at a home improvement store is ambushed by a construction professional, who offers to help the homeowner renovate his home or yard—for free.
The shows have hit a nerve. Ratings doubled over the past year, and more Crashers shows are in the works—all good news for The Idea Factory and its owners, Bill Swan and Peter Holmes, who started the company in 1998.

They began by producing TV se-ries for regional broadcast and making specials for HGTV. Then Holmes, a budding do-it-yourselfer, came up with the idea for “Yard Crashers.” The Idea Factory delegates the on-the-ground ambushing, construction and filming to freelance producers. Swan is in charge of editing, shooting style, pacing and attitude.

“Yard Crashers” debuted in April 2008. “We saw right away from audience reaction that they were loving it,” says Ross Babbit, a vice president with Scripps Networks, parent company to HGTV and DIY Network. “It got us thinking, ‘Can we expand?’”

With “Yard Crashers,” there was an audience drop-off in the winter, when viewers were less likely to tackle backyard projects. So Scripps worked with The Idea Factory to go inside people’s homes with “House Crashers,” which first aired in August 2009. That, too, was popular, and so they launched “Bath Crashers” this past July.

It was perfect timing. The burst of the housing bubble in the fall of 2008 made people approach where they live differently, says “Bath Crashers” host Matt Muenster. What had been seen by many as an investment became a place to live, raise a family, make a home.
Homeowners around the country have watched their homes fall into foreclosure over the past two years. About 1.3 percent of all mortgages were in foreclosure in the first part of 2007, before the housing market crashed, according to Mortgage Bankers Association, a Washington, D.C.-based organization representing the real estate finance industry. By early 2010, the number had risen to 4.6 percent.

California fared better in the first quarter of 2007, with 0.8 percent of all mortgages in foreclosure. But defaults on subprime loans hit the state hard. The number of California homes in foreclosure skyrocketed more than sevenfold by the third quarter of last year, with 5.8 percent of all mortgages in default.

As homeowners were suffering foreclosures, ratings spiked for the Crashers series and for another Idea Factory show, “Turf War,” in which two neighbors compete to see who can do the best backyard makeover.

More homeowners are tackling do-it-yourself projects instead of calling a contractor and outsourcing the work, says local freelance producer Stephanie Locher. Locher was running the show in Rancho Cordova in December when “Bath Crashers” came to the aid of Gina Avalos and Stephen Camozzi, a 20-something couple who bought their first home in 2010.

Locher has noticed a lot more people at The Home Depot and Lowe’s when the Crashers crew approaches unsuspecting homeowners for a yard or bath overhaul. The do-it-yourselfers now include the well-to-do from El Dorado Hills and Folsom who before the bust would have called a plumber or handyman.

Homeowners are starting to view where they live less like investments, says Muenster. Five years ago, at the height of the housing boom, people were buying homes like flash-in-the-pan stocks. They’d move into a place, have subcontractors fix it up and flip it for a profit a few years later.

Those who haven’t suffered through foreclosure are taking stock, he says.  

“This could be their 10-, 12-, 15-year house,” says Muenster of Avalos and Camozzi. “This could be their last house.”

Putting sweat equity into a house invests people on a deeper level, whether it’s the lucky few who get a free remodel or everyone else with a home improvement to-do list as long as their arm.

Being hands-on and involved—“that changes how you see a room,” Muenster says. “It connects you on more than just an aesthetic level; it’s on a visceral level. It connects you to your house. It’s turning a building into a home.”

Signing on for a Crashers remodel means surrendering control to the show’s lead designer, but it also means picking up new skills: breaking things, hauling them away, hammering, sawing, tiling and visualizing what can be instead of what is.

“I’m excited to learn,” Avalos said on the first day of a five-day bath remodel. “I don’t even trust myself to hang pictures. Stephen is super anal.”

Avalos got to pump a jackhammer into her concrete bathroom floor. Then, Muenster showed her how to shoot a nail into concrete in order to affix a two-by-four to the floor.

“This is a gun,” he said, showing her the tool she’d be using. “This is a bullet,” which holds the nail. Avalos shot the nail home. And then she did it again, confident and quick.

“I’m creating a monster!” Muenster yelled, laughing in front of the camera.

Locher wants that “monster” to stick around and grow, just like the homeowners she’s worked with on some 20 other Crashers shows. “I hope they’re empowered enough that they can turn around and pick up a jackhammer and go to town,” she says.

“My goal is to get them to do do-it-yourself projects after we’ve gone, to give them that inkling that they can do it themselves,” she continues. “If we leave and they say to themselves, ‘Honey, let’s try the next project ourselves,’ we’ve done our job.”

Mission accomplished with Phillips, who now says tiling and carpentry are no problem after working 16-hour days with a crew of about 50 contractors and TV people. “We were in the thick of it for the entire time,” she says.

Next up is her family’s kitchen, which, like the bathroom, was done in a 1970s style. Particularly distasteful to her is the drop ceiling, which allows only about 6 feet between it and the floor. Removing it is a big project, but after “Bath Crashers,” Phillips believes she’s ready.

“It gave us a lot of confidence that you can tackle a project,” she says.