The Biggest Mistake Homebuyers Are Making Right Now, According to ‘Love It or List It’ Co-Host Hilary Farr

A photo to accompany an interview with Hilary Farr Courtesy of Hilary Farr / Getty Images
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It’s a crazy real estate market for buyers right now. Low mortgage rates and even lower housing inventory has made bidding wars between buyers the new norm. 

But before you try to get a leg up on the competition by putting in an offer sight unseen, you should consider the advice of Hilary Farr, co-host of HGTV’s “Love It or List It.” “A lot of people get excited and the first mistake they make is they will waive an inspection,” she says. She recommends the opposite approach, taking extra care during a walk through to examine every nook and cranny of the house to uncover potentially hidden problems.

Farr’s early career in the entertainment and real estate industries prepared her for her current role as an interior designer and TV host. Since 2008, Farr and co-host David Visentin, have been helping homeowners reimagine their current homes or find a new one on “Love It or List It.” She spoke with NextAdvisor about interior design trends, how to increase your home’s appeal—and why open concept kitchens are so popular. 

Her new show “Tough Love with Hilary Farr,” is set to debut later this year.  The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

NextAdvisor: As a TV host, you’re both a performer and a home designer.  How did you end up developing these different skills?

HILARY FARR: My first career was originally as a dancer, then an actress. In L.A. I was working with an Oscar-winning filmmaker, Arthur Cohn, developing scripts. That led to me working with Ted Danson’s company, also developing scripts.

In 1996 I hit Toronto where there wasn’t as much of a film business there. So I started staging homes for real estate agents. And I then bought my first speculation home, and it was a huge success. That was when I realized that’s exactly what I want to be doing, and should’ve been doing for years.

That career took off faster than I could ever have imagined. I really learned the majority of what I know now, in those eight to 10 years before I started doing “Love It or List It.”

NextAdvisor: How did “Love It or List It” come along? 

It was all very happenstance. I was in the middle of a divorce. And I was in a building on Bloor Street, which is the big street in Toronto. I’d made friends with a woman across the way. I was actually bumming cigarettes from her, to be honest. And then we found out that we liked each other. 

She was a casting agent for commercials. She was the one who said, this strange thing has come across my desk and I think you should go and meet them. That was casting for “Love It or List It.”

NextAdvisor: How has the pandemic impacted the current interior design trends?

The demand [for interior design] is not going anywhere but up. What that tells me is that the interior of your home is now seen as a sanctuary. Homes are now a place where you’re not looking to decorate or make changes only looking at the financial upside when you sell. People desire a design that will make your sanctuary exactly what you need right now. 

That’s a fantastic step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned. Our houses have truly become a reflection of who we are as opposed to just financial value. That’s important, but it’s not what should drive every single decision you make.

The other part of what’s happening because of the pandemic is, a lot of families are now working on spaces where they can bring their elderly relatives under the same roof.  I’ve worked on a few spaces on my new show for exactly that. It’s incredibly rewarding. And it’s not always people with palatial homes who are doing this. But the drive to have your loved ones under the same roof with you has been an incredible change in design and how you look at your house.

NextAdvisor: For people who are looking to sell their home, what are the easiest or cheapest design tweaks someone can make to increase their home’s appeal or value?

The very first thing to do is the exact opposite of what I was saying I’m excited about – personalizing your home.

You have no idea who’s going to walk through the door. You need to think about creating an incredibly welcoming place for a broad swath of personal bias. So you [strip] it of everything that’s personal. 

Repainting is one of the first things you can do to refresh your home. The walls account for most of the visual square footage in your house. So the impacts of fresh paint and fresh trim are huge. 

The floor is the next thing. The floors will give you a sense of a home being fresh and well-cared for. So those are the two first areas that you should be looking at if you’re not going to go for a major renovation. 

You need to look at everything that’s clearly incredibly dated, but you’ve been putting up with, like a dated kitchen. You can’t ignore the impact that can have on a buyer. It can also have a huge impact on your budget. 

You can refresh cabinetry very easily. There are lots of companies that will do that. And I would always recommend new countertops if you’ve got something like a Formica on there. A new countertop is worth the investment, but it doesn’t have to be top quality. 

You should also identify a space that can be a potential home office. That is a trend in lifestyle that I don’t see going away any time soon. Not so much adding an office, but carving out a space for an office for those who don’t have a large home. 

If you can do all of that you’re on your way to being able to find a buyer for the right price. 

NextAdvisor: Looking at the other side of a real estate transaction, what should buyers look out for when shopping for a home?

A lot of people get excited and the first mistake they make is they will waive an inspection. Right now, homes are often receiving multiple offers. So in order to win the bid, you will overlook all sorts of things that you really shouldn’t. 

If you are in a situation where you could bring a contractor with you when you go through the house, that would be a good plan. You want someone who can flag issues. Buyers can get dazzled by everything that I just mentioned: Lovely fresh paint, a good-looking kitchen with new appliances and granite countertops. That’s why we do it, it works, and it’s lovely. 

Always look up when you’re walking through a house. You’ll see if there’s been a leak, and it’s been patched or repaired. Wherever there’s a skylight, that’s a place where things will leak, look around those. Looking behind furniture, look in corners, and look deep inside closets. 

Beyond that, turn on taps and make sure everything runs properly. Turn on taps and flush the toilet at the same time, if you lose all your pressure that means the plumbing is old. Same thing with the appliances, check that they’re working. 

There are so many things people do not look at when they walk through. You have a right to do that without being considered absolutely obnoxious.

NextAdvisor: Has there ever been an episode of “Love It or List It” where the homeowners didn’t want an open concept kitchen? It seems like everyone always wants it. Why are they so popular?

I’ve been trying to talk people out of open concepts for years. Open concept has been around for a long time and I knew that especially where children are involved, it doesn’t work. You need to have the ability to close things off. 

I actually did a segment for the Today show on my own house in Toronto, where I showed my solution. I have huge pocket doors everywhere so you can actually close off the space. 

The dilemma for open concepts is twofold. You’ve got to have a kitchen that looks immaculate all the time if it opens to your living space. It also has to be designed in a way to work with the general decor and look of the place. 

There are so many reasons not to do it — I could go on. But the reason it’s so popular is it will make a relatively small, or moderately sized home feel larger. It allows for fantastic flow. It’s great for entertaining. And the light is incredible because you’re getting natural light coming in from all sorts of different perspectives. 

I’m building a house in Raleigh, and I gave in to open concept. It’s completely open concept and I love it. Before I started designing this Covid didn’t exist, and it would have been a great entertaining space. But I’m also doing it because I don’t have small children running around, or even teenagers running around. 

Do I have people coming to me and saying I regret it? Yes. But on the whole, I think it’s a great way of creating one large meeting area for the whole family, and I think that if it works like that it’s a beautiful thing.

NextAdvisor: On “Love It or List It,” I’ve noticed there’s isn’t much screen time devoted to discussing minor design details with homeowners, such as cabinet handles or colors. Do the homeowners have much input on the details of the designs? 

Yes, of course there’s input. The key to being a good designer is listening to what people want. For “Love It or List It” and “Tough Love,” I always ask the homeowners to send me images of things that they love and what they love about those photographs. And I want to know anything to do with interiors that they positively hate. 

The element that’s really important to both shows is what I hear in between all of that when the owner drops in a line like “I’ve always wanted a farmhouse table.” That’s a nugget for me because that’s – for “Love It or List It” – where I want to win. If I can get a great farmhouse table in there, nevermind everything else, I’m on my way because that’s an emotional want.

“Tough Love” is something completely different. With “Tough Love” all the design is driven by the emotional impact of a nonfunctioning house. The emotional impact of not being able to find a way out of clutter, or find a way towards function in their own life. And that’s what drives the design, within that I’m still aware of the  loves and hates in terms of the design details. 

NextAdvisor: In what other ways does “Tough Love” differ from “Love It or List It?”

It differs in a very big way, in that there’s no David [Visentin]. I don’t have to devote half a show to real estate. It’s about coming up with solutions through design that will solve problems that seem unsolvable. 

On one upcoming show, we have a family of five in New Jersey, but they had to leave in a hurry when the father was offered a job in Germany. Then, five years later, just as suddenly he got another offer which brought the family back to the U.S. They bought a house almost sight unseen, they had to find somewhere quickly to move into. On top of that the pandemic hits, and the mother couldn’t handle it. When I arrived, there were still boxes that hadn’t been unpacked for well over a year. She was just unable to cope and could see no way out of it. 

Working on the house took a lot of talking and walking through why she was unable to cope and how to help her get to where she needed to be. And so it’s rewarding on all levels. It’s going to be a beautiful renovation. But, it’s strictly speaking to what this woman needs to do for herself, and to know that her children are going to be okay as well.

It’s about identifying and feeling what’s really going to make this work. The tough love part is me having to say to her, “listen, you have to pull yourself together now and become part of this.” I can’t do it all for you, you’re actually part of it. So it’s a very rewarding show to do, very different.