It's hard to imagine a world without House Hunters, the comforting TV equivalent of eating boxed macaroni and cheese. But 20 years ago, it was just a wayward pilot attempting to join a lineup of decor shows like Room by Room, Decorating Cents, and Designing for the Sexes on a fledgling HGTV.
Premiering on September 30, 1999, House Hunters' first episode featured Los Angeles couple Mitch and Jayne Englander searching for a new place to fit the needs of their growing family in the aptly titled "Looking for a Larger Home."
Consider them patients zero. Clad in glorious 90s fashions and accompanied by their 3-year-old daughter Lindsey, political consultant Mitch and pregnant stay-at-home mom Jayne traipsed from property to property with a production team who, according to the couple, "had no idea what they wanted."
"Going through it at the time was a horrific experience, as we recall. It was terrible," Mitch tells VICE. "We were so sorry that we signed up for it, but so grateful after the fact."
For all the now-familiar aspects of the formulaic series, the first episode was wildly unpredictable. Current seasons follow a clear-cut structure in which the buyers see exactly three houses, demand elements that are completely at odds with each other (so what if Partner 1 wants a craftsman-style bungalow in the suburbs and Partner 2 prefers mid-century modern downtown?), and always get the house they decide on since the show is highly staged.
But in an age before granite countertops and stainless steel appliances became de rigueur, we see Mitch and Jayne in total agreement on their simple criteria: no stairs, maybe a separate dining room, and a big backyard. Audiences are told early on by host Suzanne Whang that the pair have already seen more than 50 homes and are now in the final stage of their search. They look at four houses on camera and, rather than keep us in suspense, quickly make their hatred of each property clear, leaving the final house—a 3-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom Spanish-style Glendale abode—as the one and only logical choice.
We then see Jayne write a meticulously handwritten letter pleading their case to the sellers, hear about seven rounds of counter-offers, and watch the Englanders do a final walk-through with a contractor, checking if power outlets work and doors close properly. At last, they move in and bring home their new baby daughter, Lauren. It's all much more in line with an actual home-buying process than the show is now—and much more tedious to watch.
According to the show's producers, early episodes were all filmed locally in LA to keep production costs low, but you wouldn't know it from what aired. The episode makes no mention of location, occupations, home prices, or even the budget of the homebuyers.
We tracked down the Englanders, now 49-year-old empty nesters, to find out what filming the inaugural House Hunters was really like and where they are now.
Let's start by going back to the beginning: How did this episode even come about for you? Did you have connections at HGTV?
Mitch: Not at all. Our realtor's office got a phone call from someone [at the production company] who said, essentially, 'We're looking for a couple who is seriously committed to buying and is in the market now. They may or may not have children, but if they're expanding their family that would be great.' And apparently, the realtors said, 'We have just the couple.'
The house that we were renting at the time was being paid for by insurance because we lost our first condo in a fire. That insurance was running out, and we had to buy a home as soon as possible because we were expecting our second child. The timing was really disastrous.
House Hunters was a non-existent show and an untested concept. Did it take convincing to get you on board?
Mitch: They came and tried to sell us on it, and I was like, wait a minute, my wife is eight months pregnant, and we're frantically looking for a property. The last thing we need is a film crew on top of us day and night. And then it turned out even worse because they had no idea what they wanted. Not only was it a pilot, but they had no concept whatsoever of how to film it or what they wanted from us in terms of dialogue.
They shoved so much filming into a short period of time that would end up on the cutting room floor. I came home from work every single day for a week to find a film crew in our living room. We probably cut 65 to 70 hours of film for a 22 minute segment, so it was excruciating. I mean, they were so kind, but it was really tough because we were under a lot of stress—and they were under stress because they didn't know what they wanted.
Jayne: It was definitely a long process, and there was no expectation of how long it was going to take. If I would have known, I probably wouldn't have done it. We didn't have babysitters. So, [while filming it was like] 'Your daughter can't talk. Can you put her in a closet?' No, we can't put her in a closet! We had the crew take her outside and walk her around.
Do you remember what your budget was?
Jayne: I'm sure we had a budget, but I just don't recall. I don't know what we paid for that house. Did we pay $345,000? I don't even know.
I was shocked you two didn't have any disagreements about what you wanted in a house. Bickering couples are a House Hunters hallmark.
Jayne: Well, we're high school sweethearts, so that probably has a lot to do with it. We've been together for 33 years. We celebrated our 26th anniversary last month. We really are very compatible. A lot of our friends say that we fit like a glove, so if that's how we came across that's how we still are.
Now, domestic homebuyers are paid $500 to do the show. Was that the case for you?
Mitch: They pay the buyers $500? No! We didn't get a dime. We didn't get a thank you card at the time. We didn't get anything. We got a VHS tape about six months later. I found out it's now on iTunes for $1.99, which I'm really excited about. But you know, we don't get any royalties off of it. But I'm okay with that. We did it for fun, and it was experiential. We thought we'd have something for the kids that one day they could show maybe their grandkids, like, 'Here's a program that never made it.'
How scripted would you say that your episode was?
Mitch: Zero. Absolutely nothing. That was the whole problem. Looking back, I wish it were a little scripted. We certainly watch the shows now and see that they know exactly what they need to get out of the people, and there's a long list of checkboxes. For us, they had no idea what they wanted. Not only was there no script, they didn't know what angles they wanted or what they wanted us to look at. It was all raw and very fresh.
Jayne: Our girls watched the episode probably 10 years ago and had a good laugh.
Had you already decided on your house when you were cast?
Mitch: We found the final house right before we were cast, but we weren't certain and it was a little beyond our price range. We had to recreate much of house hunting and look at properties we'd already seen, but it was also very real because we weren't sure yet if we wanted those properties or not. So, it gave us a second look.
Do you still live in the house you bought on the show?
Mitch: No, and the weird thing was when we moved out [in 2005] either 20/20 or 60 Minutes filmed us because the guy who bought the house was James Denton from Desperate Housewives. It was the biggest show on television at the time, so it was a big deal. We were killing ourselves going, 'Really? They filmed us moving in, and now we're getting filmed moving out.' [Note: Denton moved out of the house after just a few months when tabloids ran images of the exterior and 'gawking fans' figured out the address, leading him to fear for the privacy of his newborn.]
Ultimately, do you think you made the right decision on the show? Was that house a good investment?
Mitch: It was a great investment for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, our kids really enjoyed living there. We had great memories, and we built a life-size dollhouse in the backyard. And then financially, it was a phenomenal investment and tripled in price when we sold it.
How often would you say the fact that you were on House Hunters comes up in party conversation?
Jayne: Probably never.
What are your lives like now?
Mitch: The funny thing is last week we just opened escrow on our next home, which we hope to be our last home because our kids are gone and we're now empty nesters.
Jayne: Our new house is in Santa Monica, and we're downsizing. We're going from a house with a pool and all the good stuff to just Mitch and I in 1,300 square feet. I'm a realtor now, too.
Would you ever go on House Hunters again?
Jayne: I don't know. Mitch was an LA city councilman for many years, so he's used to the spotlight. I'm definitely not that type of person, and it's hard for me to be on camera. So, probably not, but I'm glad we did it when we did it. I had never watched HGTV before, and I didn't realize what a big deal it would be. Now, it's all I watch.
Mitch: They kept telling us, "If this first episode doesn't make it, this show will not continue on. You will be season 1, episode 1, and there won't be an episode 2. It's up to you guys to make it happen." They kept telling us this every day. So, 20 years later, to see the show is still on, I would have never thought in a million years that it would have survived.